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How Virtual Worlds Can Shed Light on Real World Epidemics

How Virtual Worlds Can Shed Light on Real World Epidemics

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Published by Martijn Tiemersma

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Published by: Martijn Tiemersma on Jan 16, 2008
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Vol 7 September 2007
Personal ViewThe untapped potential of virtual game worlds to shed lighton real world epidemics
Eric T Lofgren, Nina H Fefferman
Simulation models are of increasing importance within the field of applied epidemiology. However, very little can bedone to validate such models or to tailor their use to incorporate important human behaviours. In a recent incident inthe virtual world of online gaming, the accidental inclusion of a disease-like phenomenon provided an excellentexample of the potential of such systems to alleviate these modelling constraints. We discuss this incident and howappropriate exploitation of these gaming systems could greatly advance the capabilities of applied simulationmodelling in infectious disease research.
On Sept 13, 2005, an estimated 4 million players
of thepopular online role-playing game
World of Warcraft 
 (Blizzard Entertainment, Irvine, CA, USA) encounteredan unexpected challenge in the game, introduced in asoftware update released that day: a full-blown epidemic.Players exploring a newly accessible spatial area withinthe game encountered an extremely virulent, highlycontagious disease. Soon, the disease had spread to thedensely populated capital cities of the fantasy world,causing high rates of mortality and, much moreimportantly, the social chaos that comes from a large-scale outbreak of deadly disease (figure 1 and webfigure).These unforeseen effects raised the possibility forvaluable scientific content to be gained from thisunintentional game error, and it is this possibility that wewill examine.
Anatomy of the outbreak
New game content for
World of Warcraft 
is issued via aseries of patches, released every 1 or 2 months. Patch 1.7,released on Sept 13, 2005, contained access to an areaknown as “Zul’Gurub”,
which was intended for use byplayers whose characters had achieved a sufficient levelwithin the game to be considered “relatively powerful”.The centrepiece of this area was a combative encounterwith a powerful creature called “Hakkar” (figure 2).Occasionally, one of the players facing this massivewinged serpent would be purposefully infected by adisease called “Corrupted Blood”. This infection, asintended, then rapidly began infecting other nearbyplayers. To the powerful players who were battlingHakkar, the infection was just a hindrance, designed tomake this particular combat more challenging. However,several aspects of the disease caused this minorinconvenience to blossom into an uncontrolled game-wide epidemic.
The ability of many characters totransport themselves instantly from one location toanother was the first factor in the game that unexpectedlyset the stage for the plague. This type of travel isfrequently used to return to the capital cities of the game’sgeography from more remote regions for reasons of game play. Many victims of Corrupted Blood thus reachedheavily populated areas before either being killed by orcured of the disease, mimicking the travel of contagiouscarriers over long distances that has been the hallmark of many disease outbreaks in history—eg, the Mongolhorde and the bubonic plague, or the cholera outbreaksof Europe during the mid-19th century.
The highlycontagious disease then spread to other players outsidethe intended, localised combat area near Hakkar.The second factor that sustained the epidemic was thatthe disease could escape its origin in Zul’Gurub viainterspecies transmission from player characters(ie, human beings) to animals and then back. Manyplayers in the game have “pets”, non-player animalcharacters that assist them in the completion of certainfunctions within the game. The penalty assigned by thegame for allowing a pet to die is prohibitively large,therefore players commonly dismiss their pets ratherthan subjecting them to dangerous effects such asdisease. Dismissal temporarily removes the pet from the
Lancet Infect Dis
2007; 7:625–29InForMID, Department of Public Health and FamilyMedicine, Tufts UniversitySchool of Medicine, Boston,MA, USA
(E T Lofgren BA,Prof N H Fefferman PhD)
; andDIMACS, Rutgers University,Piscataway, NJ, USA
 (N H Fefferman)Correspondence to:Prof Nina H Fefferman,Department of Public Health andFamily Medicine, Tufts UniversitySchool of Medicine, 136 HarrisonAvenue, Boston, MA 02111, USA.Tel +1 781 710 5025;fax +1 617 636 2728;
For more information on
World of Warcraft
see http://worldofwarcraft.com
Figure 1:
Urban centre in
World of Warcraft
during the epidemic
A gathering of individuals in a town. Infected individuals walk among the uninfected, the recently dead, and theskeletons of those who died earlier. Source: archon210/YTMND. Image provided coutesy of Blizzard EntertainmentInc, 2007. All rights reserved.
for webfigure
Vol 7 September 2007
Personal View
game, keeping them in stasis until they can be healed orotherwise safeguarded after the dangers of combat havegone. These pets, therefore, acted as carriers of thedisease and also served as a source of disease by causingnew outbreaks when brought out of stasis—even if theirowner had recovered and was no longer infectious. Basedon player accounts, pets, as opposed to the infectivecharacters themselves, seem to have been the dominantvectors for the disease. Players would return to denselypacked capital cities and retrieve pets that, beinginfectious, immediately triggered an outbreak. Thedensity of susceptible characters within a specific radiuswas, therefore, the only apparent limit to transmission.Since players gathered in common areas, the outbreakswere characterised by staggeringly high reproductiverates (R
), which we estimate at 10² per hour for thecapital cities and transportation hubs, based on the fewparameters known for the disease.
Unfortunately, theactual value is not publicly known.Although the reproductive value for this particulardisease was too high to accurately reflect the dynamics of any real-world pathogen, future experiments could easilytailor the parameters controlling disease transmissionand mortality to more accurately reflect a wide variety of pathogens. Smaller probabilities of transmission (ratherthan the simple density dependence), could cause theresults of individual behaviour and social contact patternsto become even more important to disease spread.Alternatively, it may be that the ultimate use of thesevirtual experiments would be to examine whether or notbehaviours—eg, altruistic medical attention—are subjectto thresholds in the risk perceived by the individualsinvolved. These virtual worlds could, therefore, testhuman reactions to a wide range of disease scenarios—most of which could never occur in reality—to understandhow people will behave if they do not know theprobabilities of transmission for an infectious disease.Although highly contagious, the disease in
World of Warcraft 
may very well have run its course naturally in avery short period of time. To the game’s powerful players,the disease was no more threatening than the commoncold in a healthy adult. Less powerful characters (whowere never intended to enter Zul’Gurub or encounter thedisease), died very quickly from its effects. With most of the susceptible portion of the population (the equivalentof children, elderly people, or the immunocompromised)already dead, and the living either leaving the urbancentres to avoid infection, or temporarily leaving thegame entirely (to wait for the software defect to be fixed),the density necessary for a sustained chain of infectionshould have dropped below the threshold needed tosustain the epidemic.Unfortunately for players of the game, a last, seeminglyunrelated factor, present since the origin of the game,allowed the outbreak to continue, turning the capitalcities into death traps. Computer-controlled characters,such as shopkeepers and soldiers (called non-playercharacters), are necessary parts of the structure andfunction of the game. These characters are deliberatelymade very powerful, to prevent them from beingvictimised by players exhibiting homicidal tendenciesand to prevent such incidents from disrupting the normalcourse of game play. During the epidemic, the non-playercharacters served as “asymptomatic” carriers capable of spreading the disease, creating a nearly unbreakablechain of infection between highly infectious non-player
Figure 2:
Hakkar, the primary source of infection in
World of Warcraft
Source: archon210/YTMND. Image provided coutesy of Blizzard Entertainment Inc, 2007. All rights reserved.
Source (Hakkar)Involved charactersPetsNon-player charactersUninvolved charactersWithin Zul’GurubIntended spread through proximityIntended spread through direct actionUnintended spread through proximityUnintended spread through direct action
Figure 3:
Chain of infection of novel virtual pathogen,
World of Warcarft
,September, 2005
Flowchart shows network of intentional and unintentional interactions betweencharacters within Zul’Gurub and those outside it that culminated in theepidemic. The proportion of transmission accounted for by each pathway iscrucial for a full understanding of the dynamics of the epidemic, and must berecorded in future, intentionally triggered, outbreaks.
Vol 7 September 2007
Personal View
characters, player characters, and their pets. Also aidingin the continuation of the epidemic, a cycle involving theresurrection of weaker characters by those with healingabilities, saw the susceptible population continuallyreplenished (only to be reinfected and die again).All together, these seemingly innocuous aspects of thegame world, each directly mirroring an aspect of real-world epidemiology, allowed what should have been avery minor point of interest in a small area of the game,catering to a very specific subset of the players, to becomethe first online instance of uncontrolled plague to affectmillions of Americans, Asians, and Europeans at home.Figure 3 summarises the dynamics of infection thatproduced the epidemic.In an effort to control the outbreak, BlizzardEntertainment employees imposed quarantine measures,isolating infected players from as-yet uninfected areas.
 These strategies failed because of the highly contagiousnature of the disease, an inability to seal off a section of the game world effectively, and more than likely playerresistance to the notion. The game’s developers did,however, have an option that remains unavailable topublic-health officials: resetting the computers. Whenthe servers ravaged by the epidemic were reset and theeffect removed, the outbreak came to a halt.
The real–virtual connection
The modern world has two distinct types of pathogens,real and virtual. Real pathogens are, logically, those thatinfect real organisms, many of which subsequently causedisease and become subject to the attentions of themedical and public-health professions. The second typeof pathogen, the virtual virus, infects computers throughsoftware. The outbreak we have described marks the firsttime that a virtual virus has infected a virtual humanbeing in a manner even remotely resembling an actualepidemiological event. As technology and biology becomemore heavily integrated in daily life, this small steptowards the interaction of virtual viruses and humanbeings could become highly significant.Players in
World of Warcraft 
can become highly involvedin the game, investing not only their monthly fee but alsohours of time within the game. Some challenges in thegame require players to set aside several hours on 3 or4 days of the week. Friendships are formed within thegame, large numbers of players work together for monthsto achieve common goals, and many players strive tocreate a believable alter ego in the virtual world, completewith the weight of responsibility and the expectations of others. Whereas “resurrection” most certainly allowsriskier behaviours, it is not unlikely that the modificationin behaviour produced could be estimated. Research intothe behavioural and emotional involvement of gameplayers, and their relationship with their virtual selveshas shown that reactions to events in the game world canhave serious, emotional repercussions. Sherry Turkle(Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA,USA) has said: “It’s not that it’s not part of your real lifejust because it’s happening on the screen. It becomesintegrated into really what you do every day. And sowhere you have loss of that part of your life that wasinvolved in the habits and the rituals and the daily life,it’s very traumatic. It is play, but it’s very serious play.”
 This level of commitment and dedication to the virtualcommunity within the game helps to ensure that thereactions of players will approximate with the reactionsof people in real-life situations of danger.
Implications for the use of virtual games asexperimental models
Whereas the epidemic of Corrupted Blood within
World of Warcraft 
was the result of unintended interactionsbetween different elements of the game, it neverthelessshows the potential of such scenarios for the study of infectious disease. One of the major constraints instudies of disease dynamics in animals is thatepidemiologists are restricted largely to observationaland retrospective studies. In nearly every case, it isphysically impossible, financially prohibitive, or morallyreprehensible to create a controlled, empirical studywhere the parameters of the disease are already knownbefore the course of epidemic spread is followed. At thesame time, computer models, which allow for large-scaleexperimentation on virtual populations without suchlimitations, lack the variability and unexpected outcomesthat arise from within the system, not by the nature of the disease, but by the nature of the hosts it infects. Thesecomputer simulation experiments attempt to capture thecomplexity of a functional society to overcome thischallenge. Two such systems, Transportation AnalysisSimulation System (TRANSIMS; Los Alamos NationalLaboratory, Los Alamos, NM, USA)
and EpidemiologicalSimulation System (EpiSims; Virginia BioinformaticsInstitute, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA)
areparticularly ambitious, using large amounts of computingpower to generate realistic virtual societies in whichagents (autonomous entities governed by the rules of thesimulation) perform programmed actions based onincredibly detailed research of real-world behaviourunder non-outbreak conditions. However, they areprogrammed, by necessity, using these non-outbreakdata.Whereas games can be thought of among these typesof agent-based epidemiological models, the use of humanagents rather than virtual agents could further illustratehuman behaviours in actual outbreak scenarios, ratherthan relying on stochastic algorithms to approximateassumed behaviours under these conditions. Human-agent simulations, where the subjects are virtual but havetheir actions controlled by human beings interactingwith each other, may potentially bridge the gap betweenreal-world epidemiological studies and large-scalecomputer simulations. Since the influence of individualbehavioural choice has been shown to greatly affect the

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