May 12, 2009

Health research in virtual worlds. Morphine and Corrupted Blood Part 2

(This post appears as part of our Tech Tuesday series.)

In last week's post I mentioned how Second Life is being used to teach Bioethics to undergraduates. Second Life is an ideal virtual world for many types of research. Researchers can create their own island, control access to that island, and closely monitor the experiment. You can even recreate the famous Milgram study.

There is also the possibility of looking at natural experiments within virtual worlds. This is the case with the Corrupted Blood incident.

World of Warcraft is an incredibly popular (over 11 million paying subscribers) virtual world where players assume the role of a fantasy character and battle monsters and dragons. Often times they work in groups of up to 40 players when battling the most difficult enemies.

In 2005 an update was added to the game that introduced a new dungeon where players would group together to fight a new enemy that had an unique ability; he could place a virus on players that would slowly drain their health. This virus could also spread to other players in the immediate area.

The game designers had created this virus so if a player left the dungeon the virus would not go with them. However, an exploit was found.

Players discovered that if they used a pet to attack the enemy and that pet was infected with the virus, they could place the pet in their inventory and it would remain infected.

Later when the player was in an outpost or town they could remove the pet from their inventory and the virus would spread.

The effect was pretty devastating:

Within hours Corrupted Blood had infected entire cities such as Ironforge and Orgrimmar because of their high player concentrations. Low-level players were killed in seconds by the high-damage disease. For days carpets of skeletons riddled the highest populated towns and were rendered uninhabitable by the persistent plague.

This is interesting to health researchers because it is an excellent example of a natural experiment and how people may act during a pandemic. Researchers requested data from Blizzard, the game developer, so it could be analyzed and at least two articles have appeared in peer-reviewed journals about the incident. One in Epidemiology and another in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

From Reuters:

What made Corrupted Blood so interesting was the way players responded -- providing an insight into the psychological response to plague that most computer models can never hope to capture.

Some players selflessly rushed to help, using their healing powers and acting as first responders despite the risk.

"Their behavior may have actually extended the course of the epidemic and altered its dynamics... keeping infected individuals alive long enough for them to continue spreading the disease, and by becoming infected themselves and being highly contagious when they rushed to another area," the Lancet article said.

Others got infected on purpose and strolled around populated areas -- leading some security analysts to say the incident may provide insight into how terrorists would exploit a pandemic.

And from a related Reuters article:

Fefferman, a medical epidemiologist, immediately recognized human behaviors she had not ever factored in when creating computer models of disease outbreaks. For instance, what she calls the "stupid factor".

"Someone thinks, 'I'll just get close and get a quick look and it won't affect me,'" she said.

Eventually the exploit was fixed and the virus in now confined to Zul'Gurub.

There are also other natural experiments waiting to be looked at in virtual worlds such as WoW. For example, in a game where you have a great deal of control in how your character looks, racism is still a pretty big issue.

Posted by Staff at 09:30 AM
Category: Corrupted Blood; Second Life; Tech Tuesday; Virtual Worlds; WoW

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