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The Epidemiology of a Fantasy Virus

October 5, 2007

364372270_554c2c7cfb As noted before, I finally got a hold of this article. Others have commented on it, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody’s yet reviewed the full article (probably because no one would drop $30 to read it) – so let the civil disobedience begin!

First of all, I’m a huge fan of online gaming. The only problem is that I get WAY into it, and it kind of takes over my life, so I don’t play – though I do longingly look at the minimum requirements for World of Warcraft every once in a while, thinking, “I could totally play right now if I wanted to.” Now, combine my interest in public health planning and this obsession into an article in an academic journal, and you’ll understand the freaking-out-ness of my last post.

The article focuses on the viability of an online massively multi-player role playing game as a modeling tool. Is it possible, and plausible, to simulate the effects of a deadly and highly infectious disease in a game? The authors contend that:

[t]he … outbreak … represents both a missed opportunity and an exciting new direction for future epidemiological research.

But that’s the juicy end. Let’s get put the ole academic hat on first.

Lofgren and Fefferman (of Tufts and Rutgers, respectively) examined the epidemiology of a rather unique happenstance: the unexpected “outbreak” of a “disease” in an online game. While this type of computer virus would normally be of little consequence to epidemiologists, “where” it took place is what makes this so interesting. The computer game, World of Warcraft, is a massively multi-player online role playing game, or MMORPG. MMORPG’s are usually subscription-based virtual reality worlds that subscribers can access through software downloaded to their computers. This software gives the player an interface with which to view and interact with the virtual reality world. The players are represented by avatars that can be dressed, outfitted, armed and armored according to the player’s virtual monies and activities. A considerable amount of time and effort is invested in outfitting avatars, which ends up being key to this exercise.

The world is regularly updated by the software company using software updates, or patches. One update in September of 2005 introduced a unique problem to the world and made some four million players unwitting participants in an exercise in infectious disease modeling. A new area intended for high level avatars was opened with the updated patch. An enemy in that area named Hakkar had the unique ability to infect those nearby with a “virus” called Corrupted Blood. The game designers made this “virus” infectious so that it would spread through all of the avatars fighting Hakkar. The infection was intended to only weaken these high level avatars, but was powerful enough to kill the vast majority of lower-leveled avatars in the world, should it have gotten loose in the wild.

A power granted to World of Warcraft avatars is that of a type of teleportation. Avatars can instantly teleport from the field back to capital cities. Doing this while infected with a highly contagious “virus,” though, is similar to the travel done by folks infected with SARS in 2003. An ten-hour flight from mainland Asia to Toronto is, in the relative time of SARS, analogous to a instantaneous transport to a far-flung and unprepared “capital city.” Should SARS have been more virulent or detected more slowly, something similar to the World of Warcraft situation might have blossomed. It is also something feared should a pandemic strain of influenza become loosed. The Hakkar Incident is what we might see in a worst-case scenario – without the ability to resurrect the dead.

The game designers at first attempted to institute isolation measures, but found it to be impossible in a world of possibly millions of avatars accustomed to freedom of movement. The designers eventually had to restart the servers, rolling back the software to a previous, “uninfected,” state.

The authors addressed the notion that it’s just a game, and thus would not properly model the fear of a real, potentially deadly, outbreak. Sherry Tuckle, of MIT, responds to that criticism thusly:

It’s not that it’s not part of your real life just because it’s happening on the screen. It becomes integrated into really what you do every day. And so where you have loss of that part of your life that was involved in the habits and the rituals and the daily life, it’s very traumatic. It is play, but it’s very serious play.

I couldn’t agree more. Folks in these games spend hours a day in this world, caring for and outfitting their avatars. Players measure their time spent in game in weeks and the very real possibility of losing what they’ve worked so hard for, albeit temporarily, is something that the players would have done everything to avoid.

The authors note that this is far from a perfect simulation, but gives a hint of a type of modeling that is potentially being overlooked due to the thought that it’s “just a game.” I’d love to see where more open minded epidemiologists go with this. Online gaming, similar to social networking, is only going to grow in popularity and influence. Having a large reservoir of potentially infectable people without the hassle of patient confidentiality or ethical concerns is the perfect situation. Getting in early is a recipe for continuing support from the gaming community.

Photo credit: Lexinatrix

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2007 11:57 am


    All I can say is ‘Wow.’

    The potential for behavioral modeling here is huge – and I hadn’t even thought of that potential.

    Of course, *my* first experiment might involve a natural disaster that forces evacuation…

  2. October 5, 2007 12:48 pm


    It’s a brave new world we live in, isn’t it?

    One thing I wanted to make mention of, but forgot in my haste to post was that something analogous could be done in the game, Second Life. While I don’t know of any way to “die” in that game, some folks are doing really cool things there. At a recent conference, I saw a presentation regarding an emergency preparedness training island, where they run simulations for responder training – without the need to blow up real buildings. You can learn more here:


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