There is no doubt that I am seriously addicted to the online massively multi player game World of Warcraft -a virtual online world where millions of players quest for power, wealth, and magical items .
The chance to do battle not just against a horde of ravenous computer driven characters, but also with and against real human controlled characters is something that appeals to me. And not just on a simply geek level either, but on a level which allows my mind to continue its creative process in a fantastical world.
So it comes as no surprise that when I saw that Blizzard – the makers of the highly popular game – were in talks with researchers discussing the possibility of in game epidemic studies, I was fascinated.
It turns out that two years ago an epidemic swept across the Azerothian lands, affecting many innocents. High level players who had encountered the god of blood, Hakkar, were infected with a spell called Corrupted Blood. The effects were not supposed to be long lasting and widespread, but as it turned out, several players headed straight for major populated cities where those they came in to close contact with became infected as well.
The plague spread dramatically, reaching beyond the meager efforts
of the GM’s who tried to quarantine the games populace to stop the
outbreak breaking forth, but to no avail.
In a statement, Blizzard said;
It appears that the hotfix remedy concocted to combat the recent Azerothian outbreak has not yielded desired results. At this time, our medical staff is continuing to develop an effective cure. We look forward to ensuring the health and vitality of the citizens of Azeroth in the near future.
Arstechnica hypothesized at the time that this unexpected accident could indeed not only provide players with an exciting in game experience, but also provide scientists outside (in the fabled “real world”) with invaluable data as to how a population would react to such a plague.
It was only six months until the first academic analysis of the event was brought forth suggesting that the “…complex and rich networks…” formed by the players allowed the outbreak to hold “…surprising similarities to real-world epidemics.” The report went on to say that “It is possible that these virtual environments could serve as a platform for studying the dissemination of infectious diseases, and as a testing ground for novel interventions to control emerging communicable diseases.”
This analysis sprouted unexpectedly from the accidental release of the Corrupted Blood plague, but as science and technology grow further and closer together, it was inevitable that scientists such as Nina Fefferman of Rutgers University in New Jersey would instigate such an idea on purpose.
Fefferman, along with her co-author epidemiologist Eric Lofgren from Tufts University in Boston who was in game at the time of the first outbreak, immediately saw the benefit that using a virtual reality world with real life people such as is provided by World of Warcraft would have on their field of study, which until now, has relied heavily on simply crunching numbers with no way to factor in human behavior.
In a public crisis such as what a real break out would cause, "There is no way to model how people will behave,” Fefferman said. "How many will run away from a quarantine? Will they become more or less cooperative if they are scared? We simply don't know." So the opportunity to run these examples through a virtual world populated by real flesh and blood humans is something that could not be passed up.
However how will players react if they are purposefully tagged with a new virus? The vote is out on that matter. When the previous epidemic hit, fans relished the opportunity to deal with a new crisis within their virtual world. Will the same prove true two years on?
Posted by Josh Hill
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