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?

Tags: online+games, social+research, social+science, virtual+world

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Just for the record, there were some ironical comments on this on Digg, They say online games are time consuming... Really?

Note that between articles being published in a press release and the reality of the studies, there can be some differences. It is not clear either that you can take in-game behavior as an indicator of out-game behavior. If you take World-of-Warcraft, mentioned above, you are supposed to spend your time killing opponents in order to increase your power (with various social aspects to take into consideration -- more chances to be victorious in a group than on your own).

The other way around, some games like peacemaker have been found to have a positive impact on perceptions.

Interesting papers are regularly published on gamasutra (the temple of anything games). For instance, an article on Unmasking the Avatar: The Demographics of MMO Player Motivations, I... or Postmodernism and the Three Types of Immersion

On CR2.0, no worries to have, academics won't observe you before a few years time. I introduced one or two to CR2.0, but most academics only think of facebook and myface when it comes to analysing social networking ;-). Then there is a basic rule of research ethics that says that you are not authorized to collect data on a person without their explicit consent.
Fascinating stuff.

Anecdotally, of course, I think CR 2.0 manifests some of the really positive, collaborative desires of educators. I'm intrigued by the degree to which good dialog, without the kind of name-calling and bashing that takes place in so many other forums, is the norm here. I do think that our audience is special in that way, but I also think that there have been some really good contributors (like you, Connie) that have consistently modeled positive dialog.

Personally, I'm also very interested in the emotional response we have to being recognized. I think that social networks provide an enhanced opportunity for this, even as the technologies of the Internet in general have provided for this in a broader sense. I have noticed in myself an interesting phenomenon or progression--first the desire to have someone notice what I was writing, then to get feedback, and then to be part of constructive dialogs. I know how I felt the first time I got a comment on my blog, and have watched many others here in CR 2.0 go through the thrill of connecting with others. And it seems that what Elizabeth Davis lovingly called "fame" seems to mellow into amazing sense of being part of something significant.
"And it seems that what Elizabeth Davis lovingly called "fame" seems to mellow into amazing sense of being part of something significant."

As an ex-academic having a few weeks of experience on Ning, I could attempt an analysis if you are any interested ;-). This is tongue in cheek.

A first thing to note is that a ning social network is not required to produce this effect ;-). The first time I got that feeling was long before social networks existed on the internet. This was sometimes in 1995 in a face to face setting. When you get the chance to collaborate in a team of like-minded persons, the personal recognition matters less and less with time. You start to be proud of the success of the group/network... and do your best to contribute to this success (rather than attempt to have your own contributions stand out).

You could say that this is because all members of this network are exceptional persons. Not necessarily. Not all members of the community need to have these characteristics. I have witnessed kids who had a reputation of being reckless to come to show the same behavior. What seems to be important is that the persons regarded as having some type or rank (network creator, senior members, old timers, etc.) adopt an approach where they simply lead by example. They don't tell other persons what they are expected to do. They do it themselves. Other persons like it... and they try to emulate. It is an environment where persons don't get a reputation based on their status (teacher vs head of school) but on the basis of the quality of their contributions. Compared to a face to face situation, a social network has certainly the advantage that nobody knows that you are god (signs of status, age, etc. are not readily apparent).

Another important aspect. Persons who engage in name-calling are usually the ones for which their self-image depend in part on how others perceive them within a social network. The persons on this forums have goals. That goal is not to use the social network to help create an image of themselves. They foremost want to achieve something in their job. They use this list to support them in their effort. The social network is used as a tool.

Then we have to take into account that Ning networks are quite young. We have here a majority of early adopters here. It's now going onto something completely different than games. But there is still the idea of numbers and participant's behavior. This time, the analysis comes from the commercial world, with the problem of the diffusion of innovation.
  • Innovators – venturesome, educated, multiple info sources;
  • Early adopters – social leaders, popular, educated;
  • Early majority – deliberate, many informal social contacts;
  • Late majority – skeptical, traditional, lower socio-economic status;
  • Laggards – neighbours and friends are main info sources, fear of debt.

There is some information on this at wikipedia Diffusion (business) / Early Adopters. This categorisation was introduced in a book called crossing the chasm, by George Moore. There is a summary in the form of a pdf document. The notion of crossing the chasm refers to a big gap you need to cross in order for an innovation to have a public success. That chasm is between early adopters and early majority.

More on the early adopter characteristics in this article on Early Adopters of Technological Innovations. Not enough space to copy it here.

What do you think? Do the most active contributors on this network fit a description of early adopter?
To make the connection with the original post, as early adopters, you are likely to have an important responsibility in spreading an epidemic. You are the ones who will try out, provide reviews and opinions and in so doing, encourage others to follow your example. You can be called an early adopter or a contagious virus. I let you choose the name you prefer ;-)
Wow, Marielle, what a wealth of information you've provided here--very interesting reading, both your essays and the links you've provided. Thank you so much! One correction: you should say "we are the ones" ; ) because you're part of the network, too, spreading a positive epidemic!
In this video of the flocking behavior of starlings, there indeed are some visual analogies to what goes on in a social network.

On another note, and linked to this discussion of "nature deficit disorder," in the video we can hear the difference between an adult's "take" on the situation, and a child's. You'll hear the child most at the end, with a heartfelt exclamation, "Boy can they fly! Zooooooooom!" The adult, filled with analysis of the situation, is judgmental and one step removed. The child knows how to take it in...
There you are calling for a much much longer essay ;-).

I would say, I am impressed. You have put the finger on important dimensions. My background is cognitive psychology rather than ethology (study of animal behavior), so I hope you will excuse me to slightly shift to concepts from cognitive psychology. On flock behaviors, you could get a few links of interest when running a search on wikinomics.

You invite me to go onto pedantic academic mode. A book could be written on this. I will do my best to keep it to a few paragraphs only ;-).

Traditionally, the dominant view on things has been very rule-based. A decision is taken. Something happens. As you know, the reality, both in the context of social events and a kid learning a new subject are a lot slower and more graded. When it comes to theories of learning 20 years ago, new approaches have been proposed that see new knowledge being the result of the interaction of very small-sized units that all have a very limited information and very limited capacity to influence others. This kind of ideas is typically represented in neural networks models. There is, of course, an implicit parallel with what we know about the neuronal organisation of the brain but I will leave that out.

Central to such models is the notion of emergent knowledge. Nowhere in the system can you point to a box that contains a majority of the relevant information. This information is spread over a large number of very small units that are massively connected to other units. Some type of information comes to take more importance and to influence the system in more important ways because somehow that information is to some degree coherent with the information already held in many of these small units. The "learning" or knowledge development mechanism is a very simple one by which when two cells gets fired up by the same input, the connection between them gets stronger, when two cells produce a divergent response with the same input, the connection between them gets weaker. To try and give an example relvant to this public, as soon as 1986, a neural network was built that had the capacity to learn to pronounce written words on its own. I just discover that there is an entry on wikipedia.

Brought back to this context, very bad news for our ego... we are no more strong leaders with an extraordinary power to influence. We are only insignificant small-sized units that come to slowly cause the emergence of another behavior only because there are enough units like us that react the same way we do ;-). Then there are other units around that are open to change. Any unit that is between 45-55% "stuck in their current practices" is likely to become more and more influenced by the information we spread. (this is a simplification of course)

Of course, things are never that simple. At some point, you do need to introduce some notion of specialization, some sort of organization and structure. In neural networks, they are called modules. To simplify, that's a group of small units that specialize in solving a specific problem.

Back to this context. Well, it would be possible to make an analogy and say that all these small units would not have much of an impact when lost in a bigger system. But once they got onto a network like ning, they gain a lot more influence.

Let's switch off the pedantic academic mode. I would rather bring it back to some related topic that would be of more interest to this forum. That's the notion of emergent pedagogy: Emergent Pedagogy: Learning to Enjoy the Uncontrollable and Make it.... I would be intersted to know what you think of this ;-)
Thanks for the tip. I am looking forward to reading your review (I am forbidden to buy any book before we arrive in NZ, due to luggage limits... harsh).

Reacting to the title, "hidden connections". Of interest with neural networks is that knowledge is in fact not in the units. Units have a simplified learning process. The knowledge is all within the connections between the units ;-).

I am of course not proposing that we are small units in a neural networks. Of course, this is all more complex. We are no small units with a very simplistic learning behavior but quite complex entities. But it is of interest to take the time to ponder on the role of the connections in the system.
"I'm intrigued by the degree to which good dialog, without the kind of name-calling and bashing that takes place in so many other forums, is the norm here"

I was thinking about this, Steve--we're all educators and active learners of one type or another, and CR2.0 gives us a chance to make things go the way we really like things to go, the way we hope for things to go in class. There are some pretty high-level ideals in operation here: respect for others, listening to a variety of viewpoints, validation of each others' efforts, and rapid sharing of resources. I find CR2.0 to be a relief, an oasis--a place to come together with caring, creative, energetic people, all sharing a similar sense of purpose. Teamwork to change the world!

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