Using World of Warcraft to study epidemics

Using analogies in research

Economist 2007.09

A plague in a computer game may have lessons for the real world

READERS of The Economist may not necessarily be familiar with the “World of Warcraft”. For those who are not, it is a cod-medieval online game in which goblins and trolls, warriors and wizards, and so on act out the fantasies of some 9m players who spend the rest of their lives in the alternative world of paper and pay-packets.

A couple of years ago the game’s owners, a Californian firm called Blizzard Entertainment, accidentally spiced things up by releasing a plague far more virulent than they had intended. It started in a sparsely inhabited area but soon found its way to the cities, where it wreaked havoc.

So far, so cod-medieval. However the plague, and the reactions of the game’s players to it, recently came to the attention of Eric Lofgren and Nina Fefferman, two epidemiologists at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Writing in this week’s Lancet Infectious Diseases, they propose that games such as “World of Warcraft” might be used to work out how people will react when faced with situations no researcher can ethically introduce into the real world.

One surprise was that players put themselves into risky situations more often than epidemiologists allow for in their models. An unexpectedly large fraction of players acted altruistically to protect their weaker friends. On the other hand, a significant number seemed intent on infecting as many other characters as possible—behaviour reminiscent of a small minority of people with AIDS. There was also a lot of dangerous curiosity, as players who were offline when the plague began started logging on only in order to find out what was happening, and thus risked the deaths of their characters.

It was this curiosity, in particular, that surprised Dr Fefferman. It is not trivial to give up safety in order to satisfy curiosity, even in a game, though she acknowledges that the cost is not equivalent to that of suffering an illness in the real world.

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