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Online gamers rehearse real-world epidemics

by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Aug 21, 2007
A fantasy plague that accidentally ran amok in the Internet's most popular game world, populated by nine million flesh-and-blood players, may help scientists predict the impact of genuine epidemics, according to a study released Tuesday.

Virtual playgrounds such as World of Warcraft, launched in 2004, could soon become testing grounds for the all-too-real battle against bird flu, malaria or some as yet unknown killer virus, one of the authors, Nina Fefferman of Rutgers University in New Jersey, told AFP.

Discussions are underway, she confirmed, with the game's California-based manufacturer, Blizzard, a unit of French media giant Vivendi, 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," she said.

The unlikely path to a collaboration between hard science and hard-core gaming began in late 2005, when Blizzard programmers introduced a highly contagious disease -- dubbed "Corrupted Blood" -- into a newly created zone of the game's Byzantine environment.

World of Warcraft is a "multiplayer online role-playing game" in which players -- numbering in the tens, or hundreds of thousands -- use computer-controlled avatars to fight battles, form alliances, and dialogue simultaneously on the Internet.

At first the "patch", as new elements such as the disease are called, worked as expected: experienced players shrugged it off like a bad cold, and weaker ones were left with disabled avatars.

But then things spun out of control. As in reality, some of those carrying the virus slipped back into the virtual world's densely populated cities, rapidly infecting their defenseless inhabitants.

The disease also spread -- much like real influenza or the plague -- via domesticated animals abandoned by players for fear of infecting their avatars, leaving the sickened pets to roam freely.

Programmers tried to set up quarantines, but they were ignored. Finally, they resorted to an option not available in the real world: they shut down the 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, whose co-author, epidemiologist Eric Lofgren from Tufts University in Boston, was playing the game when the plague struck.

The authors had already discussed the possibility of using online gaming to study the spread of disease, and thus immediately recognized 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 skeptics 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.

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