By Will Whistler-Brown, St. Charles High School (St. Charles, MO)
Have your parents ever told you to stop wasting your time playing a video game? Next time just tell them that you’re studying to become an epidemiologist.
Epidemiology is the study of epidemic and pandemic diseases, their causes and how they spread among people. In the last few years more attention from the scientific community has focused on possible ways to use video games, specifically Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft, to simulate the reactions of people infected with a highly contagious disease, as suggested in a 2007 report in the Lancet Infectious Diseases medical journal.
“Human behavior has a big impact on disease spread. And virtual worlds offer an excellent platform for studying human behavior” said Professor Nina Fefferman, in a 2007 interview with the BBC. Fefferman is a researcher at Tufts University School of Medicine who specializes in studying viral diseases. Other researchers question how well a game environment would represent real life reactions. Fefferman acknowledged that a game environment might lead people to make riskier decisions, but also said that those behaviors could be estimated and allowed for when drawing conclusions.
The idea of using computer models to simulate epidemics is not a new one. The difference is that all the other computer models are number based, not people based, and almost none of those computer models figure in the host’s behavior. For example, traditional models might not include a factor such as curiosity. When an event occurs that is newsworthy, reporters flock to the area and may on their return journey carry the infection back home.
Interest in a human controlled simulation was sparked back in 2005 when a programming glitch in the MMORPG World of Warcraft caused a highly contagious disease, meant only to exist in a high-level zone, to infect major cities in-game and cause mass panic. Some people tried to act as first responders, doing what they could to keep others alive, while others purposely infected themselves and traveled to other areas to infect as many people as possible. Eventually, the game moderators imposed a voluntary quarantine that was ineffective at best. So far this scenario has not been recreated and the glitch has been fixed.
To date, no other disease studies have been done using MMORPGs, but some high-ranking developers at Blizzard, the company that makes World of Warcraft, have indicated via forum posts on the official World of Warcraft website that their company may be willing to participate in further studies.
In the future, epidemiologists may be able to introduce diseases into a game world and then record the effect on the player population, but for now it was just a glitch.