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Real Lessons From A Virtual World

Real Lessons From A Virtual WorldMultiplayer online games like World of Warcraft can provide opportunities to learn how people would behave during an epidemic, according to Tufts' Nina Fefferman.

Boston [08.27.07] In September 2005, a deadly disease outbreak killed thousands, with mass chaos erupting as quarantine efforts proved futile. Luckily, the outbreak of "corrupted blood" only occurred in the virtual realm of the online game World of Warcraft. But according to a study led by Tufts' Nina Fefferman, how players react to an online epidemic can indicate how people might behave during a true global outbreak.

"By using these games as an untapped experimental framework, we may be able to gain deeper insight into the incredible complexity of infectious disease epidemiology in social groups," according to the study, published in the September edition of The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Fefferman, an assistant research professor of public health and family medicine and co-director of Tufts' Initiative for the Forecasting and Modeling of Infectious Disease, co-authored the paper with 2007 Tufts graduate Eric Lofgren, who received his bachelor's degree in biology.

Fefferman was tipped off to the online epidemic by Lofgren, who was playing the game World of Warcraft at the time. Six and a half million people currently play the multiplayer online game, which debuted in 2004. Players navigate their characters through a fantasy realm where they fight monsters, form alliances, accumulate wealth and interact with other players. The 2005 "outbreak" was a feature introduced by the game's developers that got out of hand.

"This was the first time that a virtual virus has infected a virtual human being in a manner resembling an actual epidemiological event," Fefferman told Agence France-Presse (AFP)

While the epidemic had already been "contained" by the time the two researchers turned their attention to the matter, they were still able to glean significant insight from the incident. Among the factors studied by the researchers, according to The Times of London, were how the disease spread-mainly through proximity to the infected, travel and animal carriers-and how much time and energy players put into the game.

"There are actually parallels between what would happen in the real world and what happened in this game," Fefferman told ABCNews.com. "This gives us the opportunity in the future to tailor infections in the virtual world to see what would happen in the real world."

Fefferman is negotiating with Blizzard, the California-based manufacturer of World of Warcraft, to see how more data could be gleaned from future such events in the game with a "compromise between what gamers would most enjoy and what would be most scientifically useful," she told AFP.

"It's a compelling idea," Lofgren told ABCNews.com. "A computer simulation relies on a series of assumptions. Most researchers recognize, however, that people aren't governed by a rigid set of rules."

While Fefferman acknowledges that people may engage in more reckless behavior in an online setting than in real life, she says that this can be accounted for when evaluating an online scenario. By using virtual world models, Fefferman explained to the BBC, researchers circumvent the limits inherent in mathematical models or the ethical problems of exposing the public to an infectious agent.

"We don't mean to suggest that people's reactions in this game would exactly mirror their reactions in real life," she told AFP. "But I think it is the closest thing we have to something that people really do become emotionally invested in protecting."

Player reaction ranged from aiding the sick to fleeing the region to even deliberately infecting others. One response they observed is something Fefferman calls the "stupid factor."

"When this accidental outbreak happened, players embraced it. Some thought it was really cool," she told Reuters. "Someone thinks, 'I'll just get close and get a quick look and it won't affect me."'

When the "corrupted blood" outbreak proved resistant to quarantines and other measures employed by the game's programmers, they were able to take one measure that cannot be executed in reality-they rebooted the system, erasing all traces of the germ in a single keystroke. While solutions do not come as easily in real life, how people play such games can provide valuable lessons on how to manage such crises when they actually occur.

"Human behavior has a big impact on disease spread," Fefferman told the BBC. "Virtual worlds offer an excellent platform for studying human behavior."

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