Aside from a brief devotion to “Age of Empires II” in college, I’ve never been much of a computer gamer. I don’t have anything against it, but I suppose I have trouble understanding how anyone can get addicted to a game to the point of playing until dying of exhaustion (literally). On the other hand, and in part for that very same reason, I do find computer games intriguing. Even more so now that I found out that gaming and science come hand in hand sometimes.
Earlier this week I watched a Bloggingheads video chat between science writers Jennifer Ouellette and George Johnson, who I met back in 2009 at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. Halfway through the video, on the subject of one of the chapters in her new book, Jennifer mentioned the popular role-playing game “World of Warcraft”. My curiosity grew: why would WoW be mentioned in a science video?
In 2005, WoW game players suffered from an epidemic. The virulent plague, which periodically inflicted a few points of damage to a player, was released in to a specific area of the game with the intention of remaining restricted to that area. However, players managed to carry the disease out and inadvertently spread it across the virtual world. The initial plague area was limited to high-level players who were weakened by the disease but could survive it. But, when it spread to other parts of the game, it killed low-level players almost instantly upon infection. As a result, all hell broke loose with hundreds of avatars dying or being debilitated by the plague. The episode, eventually controlled with a few resets of the virtual world and bug fixes, was dubbed “The Corrupted Blood” incident.
Meanwhile, in real life, scientists have been interested in understanding how infectious diseases spread around the world. To achieve this, epidemiologists build mathematical models that mimic the way diseases such as AIDS or swine flu are transmitted. These models allow scientists not only to determine the likely outcome of a pandemic, but also to understand if measures such as vaccination or quarantine are effective in limiting plague spreading. However, the models are only as good as the assumptions they are based on.
One of the key parameters in understanding the spread of disease is human behavior. If most infected individuals stay in isolation, an epidemic won’t occur at the same rate as it would if everyone went out to inadvertently (or purposefully) give the disease to others. While being crucial to accurately model transmission, human response is difficult to predict: scientists can’t simply release a virus into a city to see how humans would behave in face of an epidemic.
What was interesting about the WoW plague was precisely the way players behaved. As Jennifer mentioned in the video chat: “People reacted in the game the way you would expect the general population to react: some people would try to help, some people fled and spread the disease to other parts of the game, some people from outside the game got excited about the excitement and came running in and found themselves infected, like war reporters who rush to war zones.”
Eric Lofgren and Nina Fefferman were the first to realize the potential of virtual worlds to shed light on human behavior and real-world disease spreading. In 2007, they published a paper discussing the WoW incident and how gaming systems can help epidemiologists. In their article they explain that the “level of commitment and dedication to the virtual community within the game helps to ensure that the reactions of players will approximate with the reactions of people in real-life situations of danger.”
Of course a bunch of 20-something gamers playing under the auspice of anonymity may not react in quite the same way the majority of the real-world population would. Also, people are more daring in the virtual world since death doesn’t have the permanent effect it does in real life. Still, Lofgren and Fefferman believe the behavioral data coming from the game can be used to give a sense of how humans would react to a real-world pandemic.
Curiously enough, a day after watching the Bloggingheads video, the Guardian informed me of yet another science-y use of computer games: spreading environmental messages. The soon-to-be-released “Fate of the World” puts players at the wheel of a future environmental organization responsible for cutting carbon emissions and dealing with climate change. It works with scientific data from real-world climate models, which were provided by Dr Myles Allen, the head of the Climate Dynamics group at Oxford University and the responsible for the Climateprediction.net project. Green campaigners hope that, by fighting the problem in the virtual world, gamers will be inspired to take real-life action to prevent climate change. While this view may be somewhat optimistic, the game is likely to, at least, make the subject of climate change accessible to new audiences.