The Situationist

Virtual Infection, Disease Dynamics, and Human Behavior

Posted by Will Li on August 30, 2007

“Some acted selflessly … though that meant they risked infection themselves.

Others fled infected cities in an attempt to save themselves.

And some who were sick made it their mission to deliberately infect others.” BBC News.


Ebola? Influenza? The movie “28 Days Later?” . . . or “Corrupted Blood” Disease in World of Warcraft?

In September of 2005, Blizzard Entertainment added a dungeon to their extremely popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft (WoW). This dungeon featured an enemy at the end who, when killed, could infect players with a curse which could instantly kill weaker characters and eventually kill stronger ones. But, as reported in another BBC News report, rather than being confined to those playing in the dungeon, the disease inadvertently spread, passing from player to player, carried by computer programmed characters (non-player characters or NPCs), even manifesting on several game servers.

Ultimately, it killed thousands of player characters (temporarily) and led to “reports from the disaster zones with some describing seeing “hundreds” of bodies lying in the virtual streets of the online towns and cities.”

The very human reactions of individuals confronted with “Corrupted Blood” disease has since prompted researchers at the Tufts University School of Medicine to look into the virtual disease (and possible others) as disease models which could lend insight into human behavior. The August 21, 2007 BBC News article is excerpted below.

* * *

Researcher Professor Nina Fefferman, from Tufts University School of Medicine, said: “Human behaviour has a big impact on disease spread. And virtual worlds offer an excellent platform for studying human behaviour.

“The players seemed to really feel they were at risk and took the threat of infection seriously, even though it was only a game.”

She acknowledged that a virtual setting might encourage riskier behaviour, but said this could be estimated and allowed for when drawing conclusions.

She said a major constraint for epidemiologists studying disease dynamics at the moment was that they were limited to observational and retrospective studies.

For example, it would be unethical to release an infectious disease in real life in order to study what the consequences might be.

Computer models allow for experimentation on virtual populations without such limitations, but still rely on mathematical rules to approximate human behaviour.

A virtual world may be a way to bridge this gap, said Professor Fefferman.

Her team at Tufts are looking to use models such as the World of Warcraft to further study human behaviour, particularly in relation to disease outbreaks.

Dr. Gary Smith, professor of Population Biology and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, has been working on modelling infectious diseases.”

* * *

The human behavior aspect of MMORPGs has not gone unnoticed.

In 2006, a “Serious Games Initiative” was announced at video game expo E3 with the goal of “exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector.”

A recent note in the CDC’s “Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice and Policy” by Lynne S. Wilcox, MD, MPH, proposed that another popular game, “Sim City,” “could use this modeling to improve their understanding of how aspects of the community, such as its built environment, affect the wellness of its population.” The insights such studies could give to medical anthropologists, looking into development of communities and systems of medical care, patient-practitioner interactions, and illness narratives could be significant. Part of the note is excerpted below
The Sims

* * *

In a serious game for community settings, avatars could change from one game to the next to enable players to understand the experience of a mayor, a public health nurse, an academician, or other community members. Bringing multiple partners into the game setting over time could facilitate the adoption of revisions based on the on-the-ground experiences of individual communities and enable better understanding of social factors. Implementation of other recommendations by the expert panel could be informed by the results of these simulations.

Such games may be helpful to policy-makers because prospective models are useful in determining where resources are best applied (27). Of course, these games do not offer crystal balls. But examining results under different assumptions will encourage discussion among key decision-makers and may allow more rapid recognition of emerging factors that could affect health outcomes. The advantage of investigating these factors in a game setting is that citizens need not be modeling experts to appreciate which results are meaningful. Developing such games will require a partnership of modelers and community observers, as well as sponsors of the research and the creation of design elements. As we have seen in the electronic world, technologic development is an iterative process. A hypothetical Public Health Game 1.0 will be replaced by version 2.0 as community-based practice and research provide more answers.

* * *

There is already significant scientific data available and still being collected regarding World of Warcraft.

Graduate studies have been devoted to studying models of expertise and learning. Nick Yee, PhD student at Stanford, has what is likely the most expansive and scientific collection of MMORPG surveys and data available online, at The Daedalus Project. Yee has studied “how age, gender, personality and play frequency interacted with a variety of issues – such as gender-bending, relationship formation, and in-game dynamics . . . as well as exploring how individuals project or idealize their personalities onto their virtual personas and what they might learn from their online experiences.” A brief video of World of Warcraft gameplay can be found at the end of this post.

The potential for social psychology studies certain seems to be vast, and situational studies into bias, heuristics and concepts such as expertise could give rich insights. In future Situationist posts, I hope to explore these topics.

Previous Situationist posts on the topic of social psychology and virtual environments include A Baseball Fantasy, The Intersection of Tort Law and Social Psychology in Violent Video Games, The Situation of First Person Shooters and Lil Poison. Other blog posts on the subject include a post at Feministing on Second Life and a programmed rape module in the game, which prompted a long discussion in the comments of the same post.

2 Responses to “Virtual Infection, Disease Dynamics, and Human Behavior”

  1. Incineratus said

    I would like to know what dungeon boss gives the disease.. im thinking one from stratholme, or even maybe scholomance.. hmm.. idk.. but that whole disease thing got me intereseted… may just have an alt character run in.. kill boss. then send him to big city and let it spread for fun.. would be interesting :D

    also.. Wrath of the Lich King.. OMFG. lookin forward to that >:D

  2. infection control and hospital epidemiology pictures…

    […]Virtual Infection, Disease Dynamics, and Human Behavior « The Situationist[…]…

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