Monday, August 27, 2007

WoW! Pandemic!

Today's post comes on the heels of a) me answering backlogged questions from XFire's gaming community, and b) grumbles from the peanut gallery about the recent lack of shiny techy science-speak on the 'crawl. It just so happens that today's subject combines elements of both, and holy shit is it cool: a paper in Lancet describing the epidemiology of an unintended plague that raged through the World of Warcraft back in 2005 (and thanks to Raymond Nielson for the heads-up). The figures presented in this paper — which, I emphasize, appears in one of the world's most prestigious medical journals — includes a screen shot of corpses in WoW's urban areas.

The plague itself was a glitch: a disease whose original range was supposed to be limited only to areas where high-level players could venture, and which was — again, to high-level players — merely a nuisance. The problem was, the plague cut down low-level players like kibble in a cat-food dish, and as Crichton once observed, Life Will Find A Way.

The bug hitchhiked out of it's original home turf in the blood of high-level characters teleporting back to their hearthstones (analogous, the authors point out, to airline travel in a real-world outbreak). Player's pets got infected, and spread the disease. NPCs, built strong for reasons of game play, acted as infectious reservoirs, not dying themselves but passing the germ on to anyone they came into contact with.

Whole villages were wiped out.

Lofgren and Fefferman point out that this completely unintentional "Corrupt Blood" outbreak was in many ways more realistic than dedicated supercomputer simulations designed to model real epidemics, simply because a real person stood behind each PC in the population. While real-world models have to use statistical functions to caricature human behavior, WoW's outbreak incorporated actual human behaviour (for example, a number of healers spontaneously acted as "first responders", rushing into infected areas to try and help the sick — and in the process spread the bug to other areas when they moved on). It's true that the ability of WoW characters to resurrect introduces a certain level of unrealism into the picture; but it's also true that players generally get so invested in their characters that they don't throw even those renewable lives away unnecessarily. More to the point, the new paradigm doesn't have to be perfect to be a vast improvement over the current state of the art.

L&F suggest that what happened once as a mistake could happen again by design — that MMORPGs could be a valuable tool for real epidemiological studies, by incorporating plausible plagues with known parameters as part of the in-game experience. Players are already used to sickness disease, and death; that's what makes the game so much fun. Do this right, and you could do population-level doomsday studies repeatedly, under controlled conditions, incorporating levels of behavioural realism far beyond what any purely statistical model could manage. Even Mengele didn't have this kind of sample size.

I can see a lot of research being done this way, and not just epidemiological. There are martial and economic possibilities, too. I can see Homeland Security getting involved. I can see national policies increasingly based on insights gleaned from fantasy simulations — and I can see such policies being played from the inside, by mages and blood elves who might have their own agendas to pursue...

Damn. The story almost writes itself.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, think the researchers will compensate the players some way for disruptions in the game?

August 27, 2007 7:44 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Anonymous said...
So, think the researchers will compensate the players some way for disruptions in the game?

I dunno, personally I think it would be pretty cool to be in on a study of epidemiology even if it included disruptions in the game, seeing as how disruptions in normality are the name of the game in those circumstances. A very interesting way to study large scale outbreaks or even study the evolution of a simple virus inserted into the code.

August 27, 2007 7:49 PM  
Blogger Scott C. said...

This post has been removed by the author.

August 27, 2007 8:08 PM  
Blogger cow_2001 said...

To anonymous:
The researchers would have to pay for the game companies to get the data. The players will have to pay for the game companies to play the game. It's not a disruption if it's an event ingame.

August 27, 2007 8:31 PM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

I don't know if they _could_ replicate a plague in a virtual world, on purpose.

Do this in Second Life and people are going to be upset; having management conspire to make your avatar fall over and die is not a good way to give people a comfy feeling about buying property and doing business there.

On the other hand, if the mgt could claim ignorance of it ... slip a backdoor into the code (oops!) and tell a hacker from NIH about it.


August 27, 2007 9:26 PM  
Blogger emrex said...

The plague... I remember that crap. My friend started to heal others and himself and died. (He later introduced me to Mr Watts.) I went bearshaped, with lots of armor and healthpoints, and made it. Then I ran away and sat by myself until the plague had passed.

The lesson is, screw altruism, take care of yourself.

August 28, 2007 4:11 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

So, think the researchers will compensate the players some way for disruptions in the game?

I think if they started compensating players the study would become dirty. If players know such events are going to occur the reaction is not the same. If you compensate even a single time any further purposeful afflictions become suspect.

Seems like a case of "same shit different pile". Economists and psychiatrists have used these games to study prediction and chaos in the past.

August 28, 2007 5:28 PM  
Blogger HannuB said...

Yup, I remember the incident as well. Although I wasn't in the game at the time, i thought it was way cool. It added a much needed element of randomness and change to a otherwise very static gameworld.

I would welcome something like that with open arms. If anything, it would only add to the immersion. MMORPG game worlds are usually pretty static affairs where interaction with the world means shit. Ok, there are those "elemental invasions" in WoW every now and then, but they are pretty insignificant, localized affairs that hardly anyone ever notices.
But how about some intentional, but totally random full-scale invasions and plagues every now and then that strike without warning and raze a few cities and villages to the ground? It would only add to the immersion, and besides, it would be interesting to see whether people organise to fight them together or just cower behind a tree with their fancy epixx...


August 29, 2007 8:54 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Brian Dunbar said...

I don't know if they _could_ replicate a plague in a virtual world, on purpose. Do this in Second Life and people are going to be upset...

I don't think there's any question of pulling something like this in SL, but in WoW it would be a feature not a bug; players there expect to have all sorts of lethal shit thrown at them. That's the whole point of the exercise. If anything, I suspect that a virtual disease with realistic parameters might not be virulent enough for WoWers, who are used to going up against hyperbolically nasty opponents by real-world standards.

August 29, 2007 9:40 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

I suspect that a virtual disease with realistic parameters might not be virulent enough for WoWers, who are used to going up against hyperbolically nasty opponents by real-world standards.

I think that the female Night Elf dance should have a chance to spread syphilis. Something to the effect of:
'Betty dances with Bob'
** Bob contracts syphilis
Bob whispers>You said you were clean !
Betty has placed you on ignore.

August 29, 2007 10:49 AM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

The lesson is, screw altruism, take care of yourself.

Everyone make the rational choice, society falls apart, everyone dies.

I see a parallel here to 'why soldiers fight'.

Take it back to the basics: A line of troops, armed with pikes. Charging at them are a bunch of guys on horseback.

A rational person seeing this would throw down the pike (it's heavy) and run for it, counting on his (former) friends to distract the horsemen with the blood and the stabbing and the dying long enough to cover his tracks. Everyone makes this choice, everyone dies.

If everyone stays put the group has a good chance of making it. Some of them may die but you are - statistically at least - better off staying put and toughing it out.

I see a parallel with 'real world' plague and this.

So, yes, hide away for the duration and you might be okay. Everyone makes this choice, society collapses and you're not - in the end - any safer.

I see the attraction in hiding away until it's all over but I don't like the end result.

August 29, 2007 3:06 PM  
Anonymous david ellis said...

Actually, I suspect that if everyone sequestered themselves immediately on hearing of a plaque the survival rates would be the highest of all possible scenarios. Far more so than if everyone altruistically began comforting the victims.

So your analogy doesn't map very well onto this situation (as seems so often the case in reasoning by analogy).

August 31, 2007 11:20 AM  
Blogger Fraxas said...

Don't underestimate the attachment people have to their avatars. Corrupted Blood was a mistake, a bungle. If players found out that they were being experimented on, that they were test subjects...the uproar would be deafening.

September 8, 2007 11:50 PM  
Anonymous David Molnar said...

The BBC reports that the plague "escaped" due to intentional transmission. That is, players returning to the rest of the world could couldn't spread it, but their pets could. So some enterprising person infected a pet, sent it back to town, and touched off the plague.

Lenie Clarke, call your office...

November 5, 2007 1:26 PM  

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