Academics at Rutgers University in New Jersey this month published a study on a September 2005 virtual disaster in which World of Warcraft players had their online characters killed en masse by a disease that got out of control in the game. At the time, an estimated four million people were playing, although it is unclear how many were directly affected.
The virus was created by the game's publisher, Blizzard Entertainment, as a weapon wielded by a new, tougher boss character: a giant winged, multi-coloured serpent dubbed Hakkar.
One of the unique skills Hakkar brought to his everlasting struggle with elfs, orcs, humans and other warriors was a spell dubbed "corrupted blood", which would act like real-world ailments such as influenza or the common cold.
It was intended to infect the small numbers of powerful players capable of attacking Hakkar, causing them immediate damage and spreading to others nearby in the way people sneezing in a crowded room spread germs.
But as players left the combat zone and returned to more populous metropolitan areas to be healed, the disease spread quickly to weaker players, destroying the virtual population, causing societal chaos and escaping the ability of Blizzard to control it. It was also spread by pets kept by game players, as well as shopkeepers and other computer-controlled characters.
According to Rutgers University academics Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren, this is just how the bubonic plague was spread from the 14th through 16th centuries in Europe, and how cholera spread later.
During the virtual outbreak, some healer-type World of Warcraft players rushed towards the plague areas to try to heal fellow players, much as medical professionals would in a real epidemic.
Blizzard eventually killed the virus, but the academics' paper - published in British medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases - claims the corrupted blood outbreak shows the potential of virtual reality technology to study real-world infectious diseases.
While programmed computer simulations for such problems already exist, the Rutgers pair highlighted the human presence and decision-making element in World of Warcraft as a critical factor to its scientific usefulness.
"The use of human agents rather than virtual agents could further illustrate human behaviours in actual outbreak scenarios, rather than relying on stochastic algorithms to approximate assumed behaviour under these conditions," they write.
Although they note that the decisions taken during an epidemic by game players might differ were they to encounter an outbreak in real life, they highlight that World of Warcraft players commonly invest a significant amount of time and real money (in monthly fees) into their online characters, and would be likely to try to protect them.
One problem, though. Computer games are, at heart, meant to be fun. The Rutgers academics stress the planned epidemics need to be credible and it may "prove difficult to motivate players to participate in an epidemiological simulation".
Australian Financial Review
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