Scientists enjoy videogames for all the wrong reasons.

Corrupted Blood ravages the WoW: Don't worry though. If you use protection, it's very unlikely that your blood will be corrupted. I recommend mithril armor.  (Image from Wikipedia Commons)
Corrupted Blood ravages the WoW: Don't worry though. If you use protection, it's very unlikely that your blood will be corrupted. I recommend mithril armor. (Image from Wikipedia Commons)
If only real life were more like computer games. We could go around casting spells (zap!) and slaying monsters, and then search through their bodies for gold and potions and stuff. Kicking over trashcans and searching them for valuables isn’t nearly as fun, even if you are dressed as a night elf (although that helps a little). I can’t seem to level up, no matter how many hours I put into life, and as often as refer to myself as Pussywillow Bloodtalon, my mother still insists on calling me JGordon.

Yeah, real life could stand to be a little more like videogames. It seems ironic, then, that epidemiologists have recently been turning to computer games to see how they could be like real life.

These epidemiologists (scientists who study the factors effecting health and illness of populations) have proposed using “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” like World of Warcraft, to simulate the spread of serious diseases through large populations, and to see what might be done to effectively control them. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, World of Warcraft, and other online role-playing games, allow thousands of players to interact with each other in the same game world. There are monsters and swords and things too.)

The idea surfaced back in 2005, when the developers of World of Warcraft created a new area for the game. In this area, players’ characters could catch a disease called “Corrupted Blood.” Corrupted Blood would rapidly drain a character’s health, and the idea was that weaker characters would be “killed” by the disease, while stronger, more experienced characters could keep themselves alive until the condition passed. However, the disease was programmed so that it could be passed from character to character if they got too close, or from a player-controlled character to a non-player controlled character, or to a pet, who could then pass it on again to other players (just like influenza or the plague, which can be spread by animals). Before long, the Corrupted Blood disease left its original area, and moved into large cities in the game, carried there by players and their pets. The cities were rendered uninhabitable (as far as one can inhabit a virtual city), and players began avoiding any area with large groups of other players, for fear of their character becoming infected. The game developers attempted to set up quarantine areas to halt the spread of the plague, but ultimately had to shut down the game servers and reboot them with the disease changed so that it was unable to spread between players.

Epidemiologists, who have largely had to rely on mathematical models to predict the spread and “behavior” of serious diseases, are fascinated to see how people actually react to a plague like this (even if it was just a virtual plague for virtual people). The Corrupted Blood scenario, and others like it, could help show how people might actually react to a quarantine, and to what extent they would be willing to cooperate when scared.

Skeptics have argued that people would probably treat a real epidemic much more seriously than one confined to a game. Others argue that, with the amount of time and effort players put into their gaming alter-egos, they become emotionally invested in protecting their characters, and would therefore still be useful for modeling behavior during a real outbreak.

As I suggested earlier, I think the scientists have it completely backwards. Their effort would be better spent developing more effective life potions and healing spells. And, as horrifying as the prospect of catching Corrupted Blood may be, the epidemiologists are ignoring the very real threat of dragons and rogue level 70 players. Far be it from me to pass judgment, though. I’m about done here anyway – I’ll be starting a quest to the bathroom in a moment. It promises to be a tooth whitening adventure.

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