The apocolyptic plague is fake, but the research is real

I ran across an article while browsing Wikipedia the other day which caught my interest. It was talking about the Corrupted Blood Plague which swept through the massively multi player online game World of Warcraft. This is hardly new news, having taken place all the way back in September of 2005, but like many such things, it has bubbled to the surface at a time that I was already thinking about several related topics, and has captured my attention. The interesting thing to me had less to do with the details of what happened in this particular case than it had to do with the broader concept of what incidents like this mean to the world beyond the game.

The plauge itself was entirely virtual, and never reached past the confines of the game. Within the game, many characters were affected, but even they faced no lasting ill effects. What is interesting to me is that the way in which the events of the plague played out in the virtual world has attracted a great deal of attention from serious researchers who are interested in how observation of these phenomena can be applied to improving our understanding of the real thing.

The Corrupted Blood was a disease that a player’s character could catch in the game. It was only possible to catch the disease when participating in a specific portion of the game, when a particularly powerful enemy could ‘curse’ a player, giving them the disease. Once the player was infected, they rapidly began losing health. At the same time, they could spread the disease to other nearby players, potentially infecting the entire group of players banded together to fight the enemy.

The game was designed to prevent infected players from carrying the disease beyond the immediate vicinity of the enemy who caused it, but some particularly clever and bloody-minded players found a way around these limitations. They were able to carry the disease out into the rest of the game world. A very powerful character was required to reach the place where they could catch the disease, and a powerful character could survive its ill effects for several minutes, or even a great deal longer with the aid of healing spells and other assistance. A low-level character of the sort found in other parts of the game, however, could be killed in only a few seconds, much too quickly for someone to cure them of the disease.

As infected players, either intentionally or not, traveled from place to place in the game, they spread the disease to others. In the space of a few days, entire cities in the game were depopulated. At its peak, some servers had as many as half of the total number of players infected at one time. Some players were cured, either by themselves or others, only to be infected again. Others died and returned to the game to be infected once more. Some died over and over again, either by accident or design.

In the midst of this chaos, many players fled large cities, attempting to avoid large groups of other players. Some players rushed to help others, using their abilities to cure those who had been infected, or to heal them so that they might live long enough to be cured by another. Those players who put themselves in contact with the infected this way often contracted the disease themselves.

Other players intentionally sought out the disease, and then used their abilities to keep themselves alive long enough to spread it to as many other players as they could. These ne’er-do-wells were especially dangerous when they targeted places where players were forced to congregate near the entrances of certain areas of the game, or near places that allowed them to travel to numerous other places. The clusters of players at these locations allowed the disease to quickly spread to many other players, and by infecting several players at the start of their journeys to far-flung destinations, the disease could be quickly spread all over the game world.

The plague was a significant enough event in a game with a sufficiently huge player base (roughly 9 million players, worldwide at last count, though slightly fewer at the time of the Corrupted Blood outbreak) that it quickly gathered attention in the media. Various major media outlets reported on the events in the game. In the aftermath, researchers began to see the potential value of what had happened.

Over the course of the two years since the incident in the game, various research groups, including the Centers for Disease Control, have expressed interest in using virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and others to study how diseases spread in large populations. Epidemiologists have long used computer models to study how diseases spread, but a computer model is only as good as the understanding that went into its design. Incidents like the Corrupted Blood outbreak offer a chance to gain a better understanding of how real people react when faced with an epidemic.

Obviously, game worlds cannot be one hundred percent accurate in their modeling of human behavior. Gamers know that they are in a virtual world, and react differently than they likely would if their lives were on the line in the real world. In spite of these limitations, the events in the game offer very real insights into human reactions to communicable disease. Even better, virtual worlds allow researchers to pore over logs that allow them to see exactly what happened and when. This offers obvious advantages when compared with attempting to back trace a disease outbreak in the real world, where many of the victims might well be dead, and investigators may never be able to uncover all of the information about where the disease came from and how it spread.

Some game companies have recognized the great value that researchers in fields ranging from epidemiology to economics could gain from studying how large populations of players interact with their virtual worlds. A few have recognized business opportunities in harnessing this value. In the process, they have given shape to a budding industry. I find the concept fascinating, and it is a topic I intend to revisit here on the Buffet another time.

-posted by Mark

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6 Responses to The apocolyptic plague is fake, but the research is real

  1. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Mark,

    Who unleashed the Plague and why? Was it set forth by the game’s creators, or were the same people behind it who were behind its spreading beyond its originally intended confines?

    For your future discussion, the NYT had an article about Chinese “gold farmers,” the latest exploitation of cheap Chinese labor in which young men sit around all day in factories playing games, collecting gold and working their way up to higher levels, which are then sold to the highest bidder (who prefers spending his hard-earned money than “wasting” his time earning the levels himself). We are now outsourcing our recreation!!! What can be next?

    Another article I read on the topic referred to the work of an economist, Edward Castronova, who has left California and is now leading the Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University. You can apparently now get a graduate degree in virtual economics, sociology, what have you.

  2. Matthew says:

    The Plague was unintentionally spread by the designers. It was only ever supposed to exist within the confines of one particular boss fight about as far as then possible from civilization as you could get. The plague wouldn’t survive in high level players very long, but what happened was that the players NPC pets (animal/demon minion type things) would retain the plague and begin spreading it once they hit the city. A drastic game design oversight. Subsequently the designers ‘fixed’ the plague, which still exists, but only within the dungeon with the boss that started the whole mess.

    Also look for another article, it may be the NYT as well, but I can’t remember right off, which starting calculating that ‘farmers’, Chinese or American, could exceed the minimum wage by playing games all day and selling their ‘wares’ on the open market. It’s not that we’re outsourcing our recreation, some people are trying to bypass the long repetitve discipline process of becoming rich and poweful, and just get straight to the wish fullfillment.

  3. Will says:

    poet,

    I’ve worked with Ted Castronova quite a bit and, while you can’t yet get a graduate degree in virtual economics or sociology, you can definitely get a graduate degree in Telecommunications that focuses on those areas.

    The SWI is a research group within the Telecommunications department that focuses on research in synthetic worlds. Currently, their big project (funded by MacArthur) is to see if simple real-world economic theories also hold in synthetic worlds. Pretty interesting stuff.

  4. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Will,

    While I did see his new department is ostensibly telecommunications, he remains an economist, and the webpage notes that the research runs a wide gamut of topics, such as those I mentioned (but not necessarily those one might associate with the word telecommunications). As long as the degree isn’t synthetic, I think everyone’s okay 🙂

    The first article I read which cited his work focused more on him — absolutely a brilliant niche research area he sort of stumbled on to out of personal interest. Stuff like this makes me love academics.

  5. TheGnat says:

    Will: Some part of me finds it hilarious that research will be done on something any MMO player already knows. In all the games I play, supply and demand are in almost pure form, inflation is a problem every developer attempts to fight (or embrace wholeheartedly O_o;;;), and there’s always somebody trying to manipulate the market.

  6. Will says:

    TheGnat: very true. Basically, these first experiments are about things that are well understood in the real world and haven’t been tested in synthetic worlds. If synthetic worlds show the same economic systems as the real world, then we can start doing experiments in synthetic worlds about topics that haven’t been (and maybe can’t be) tested in the real world.

    So yeah, it’s kind of funny now, but if it all plays out, it’ll lead to some incredible research. 🙂

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