A Good Computer Virus

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

What if a computer game could save the world? Really — save the real world.

A recent article in Lancet Infectious Diseases examined the implications of a virus released into the World of Warcraft game. The virus became a pandemic.

The virulent and contagious element, Corrupted Blood, was introduced in 2005 by Blizzard Entertainment as an extra challenge to players. However, soon after it was introduced they had to take it off the site as the deadly virus spread too far and too deep.

One player, Eric Lofgren, got in touch with his professor Nina Fefferman, a medical epidemiologist, affiliated with Princeton, Rutgers, and Tufts universities. They tracked the implications of the outbreak and spread of the virus across the game, which has almost nine million players, to understand the ramifications of players’ behaviors, travels, and even interactions with pets.

Their research has now been added to a growing body of work to better the modeling of human behavior in a pandemic’s deadly development.

There was a group of players that put themselves at risk to protect others; then, there was the group that seemed to enjoy infecting others. There was also the “stupid behavior” described by Fetterman as “I’ll just get close and get a quick look and it won’t affect me.” While the result might be fairly characterized as “stupid”, the impulse behavior is surprisingly normal and might have the most impact in a pandemic — curiosity.

Fefferman is now working with Blizzard to model disease outbreaks in other popular games, following on research by Ran Balicer to use this kind of role-playing to understand outbreaks such as SARS.

Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab study social interactions in virtual reality worlds. Apparently, it is amazing how much this parallels our behavior in the real world.

Think about how important this work — and playing — is in trying to predict what the next pandemic will be, and how it will affect us.

Then, think about how our medical and scientific models will be based on someone who plays a lot of computer games.

Yet again, the children of today will save the world of tomorrow.

- Bill Reichblum

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2 Responses to “A Good Computer Virus”

  1. L
    June 9th, 2008 11:55

    …The hell?


  2. Baker Skater
    October 14th, 2009 11:26

    I don’t see why Blizzard would risk losing players for a simple observation to see how their players would react to it. Most game players on the PC would act completely different to a virus then an average person who gets on their PC to check their Email, or to study for an exam. Aiming their observations at the players in their game, is highly unlikely, considering they’d be risking their massive income. I believe they stopped the virus, and wanted the players to believe that it’s impossible to hack the system, and actually give a virus to the biggest online game on the PC. So saying they put the virus in as an observation to see how the players would “react” was most likely just a cover up.

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