Just read an article in Science News called "Virtual Worlds, Real Science." It's about scientists studying what happens in games and social networks. In the beginning the author, Brian Vastag, focuses on what happened with a plague that swept through World of Warcraft in 2005: "A hulking, serpentine blood god, Hakkar the Soulflayer, had sparked the epidemic. Attacked in his dungeon, the monster unleashed his final defense—a curse called corrupted blood. The curse infected the attackers and quickly spread to their companions like an ultra-virulent airborne virus. As adventurers fled the dungeon, they carried the illness back to their towns. Soon the plague even crossed into animals. Within days, the World of Warcraft—a hugely popular online adventure game—was devastated."
It took Blizzard Entertainment a while to get things straightened out. There was a lot to learn about people's (players') behaviors in the situation: "The programmers placed Hakkar in a remote dungeon and expected his blood curse to remain localized there. But they hadn't accounted for human behavior."
"Instead of staying in the cave, infected players teleported to the towns. Soon, their virtual pets became infected—and contagious. Both man and beast spread the disease to densely populated areas, where weaker characters who contracted it died instantly. Computer-controlled characters such as shopkeepers also became infected, but didn't die. Along with the pets, these characters acted as silent carriers, virtual Typhoid Marys. "
This proved to be of interest to people modeling how infectious diseases spread. The data from the game was analyzed. Lofgren and Fefferman, researchers at Tufts, ended up publishing an article about the game's plague disaster in Lancet's Infectious Diseases last August.
Quoting extensively from the article by Vastag:
"Lofgren, now an epidemiology graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says that 'it is extremely hard mathematically to model risk aversion, or panic, or altruistic behavior, or noncompliance with quarantines.' World of Warcraft players exhibited all of these behaviors during the outbreak.
In March, Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er-Sheva, Israel, published a paper in Epidemiology outlining two particularly striking parallels between Hakkar's curse and real epidemics. First, virtual teleporting is like air travel, spreading bugs across the world in a flash. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), for instance, originated in China, but quickly dispersed as infected patients traveled in airplanes. Second, animals often act as reservoirs of human disease. With avian influenza, some fowl, especially ducks, 'catch the disease in a mild way and then they transmit it onward, much like the animals in the game did,' Balicer says.
More interesting to Fefferman is the 'complete diversity' of player behavior reported. Some players logged out—a panic response with obvious parallels in the real world. Others deliberately spread the corrupted blood. These 'griefers,' so called because they rejoice in virtual destruction, propagated what Balicer calls 'the first act of virtual bioterrorism.' Still others put themselves at risk to heal the infected, not unlike first responders to, say, the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
One of the more interesting group dynamics, says Fefferman, was the influx of characters to disease epicenters. Many came not to heal or sow chaos, but just to be near the action. In a game where the cost of virtual death is small, such thrill-seeking makes sense. But Fefferman and others say it's conceivable that similar behavior would emerge during a real epidemic."
Personally, I find this fascinating. Do you second life people have any comments on this? How about gamers? What would scientists study us--here at CR2.0--to learn?