Using Virtual Online Worlds to Research Epidemics
This is a fascinating idea that was sent to me by Cat Laine over at AIDG. I know I am always raving about their blog, but really if you haven’t managed to check it out – go over there right now. Onto the story which may or may not have benefits for modeling real world epidemics: “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…”
This story is not only a case of researchers being very innovative but also yet another example of how the business world is getting invovled and make a contribution to solving global health problems. The company that makes World of Warcraft is Vivendi a, giant global media company, that has entered into dicussions to possibly provide scientific data for research.
Online gamers rehearse real-world epidemics
“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….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.
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…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.