Now, disease epidemics that break out in virtual worlds, and not in the real world mind you, may help scientists predict the impact of genuine real-world epidemics. In fact, it was a ‘fantasy’ plague that accidentally spread rapidly within the popular online World of Warcraft game, killing off thousands of players in the plague.
A study has been released on this subject, and according to one of the authors Nina Fefferman of Rutgers University in New Jersey, virtual playgrounds like WoW could soon become testing grounds for the all-too-real battle against bird flu, malaria or some as yet unknown ‘killer’ virus.
Fefferman also confirmed that discussions are being currently conducted with the game’s California-based manufacture Blizzard on how future updates might yield useful scientific data.
“As technology and biology become more heavily integrated in daily life, this small step towards the interaction of virtual viruses and humans could become highly significant,” Fefferman added.
In case you are not one of those who have a second presence in virtual worlds then read on. World of Warcraft is a multiplayer online role-playing game in which players use computer-controlled avatars to fight battles, form alliances and dialogue simultaneously on the Internet.
Interestingly, when new elements such as the disease are introduced in the WoW game, they tend to work as expected. These newly introduced elements are called ‘Patches’.
World of Warcraft players even shrugged it off like a bad cold, while weaker ones were left with disabled avatars.
But soon, things in the WoW went out of control. Just like people in our real world would have done, those who were carrying the virus in the WoW slipped back into the virtual world’s densely populated cities rapidly infecting their defenseless inhabitants.
What’s more; the disease actually spread in the World of Warcraft, in eth same way diseases like the plague or the flu spread in the real world. But, on the WoW the disease spread via domesticated animals that were abandoned by players for fear of infecting their avatars.
WoW programmers even attempted to set up quarantines, but they too were ignored. Finally, they were forced to resort to an option that was not available in the real world- they shut down to servers and rebooted the system.
“This was the first time that a virtual virus has infected a virtual human being in a manner resembling an actual epidemiological event,” said Fefferman. The authors of the study had already discussed the possibility of using online gaming to study the spread of disease, and thus immediately recognised the opportunity.
To date, epidemiologists have relied heavily on mathematical simulations to forecast the spread of contagious diseases across large populations. But crunching numbers has limitations, says Fefferman. “There is no way to model how people will behave” in a pubic crisis, she 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.” Which is where the virtual netherworlds come into the picture. They can help scientists to “feed appropriate parameters into existing epidemiological models,” she said.
Some sceptics have suggested that gamers are more willing to take risks online than in the flesh, and Fefferman acknowledges there is a difference.
But most players have invested a lot of time and energy into strengthening their avatars and forming alliances. For many, psychologists say, their virtual creations have become alter egos.
“We don’t mean to suggest that people’s reactions in this game would exactly mirror their reactions in real life,” she said. “But I think it is the closest thing we have to something that people really do become emotionally invested in protecting.”
The researchers are working on a proposal for a new patch that would be a “compromise between what gamers would most enjoy and what would be most scientifically useful,” she said.