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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Monday, April 23, 2007

Another Step Towards the Maelstrom

Those of you who read Maelstrom might remember what that book was named for: the frenetic chainsaw fast-forward jungle that the Internet had evolved into, infested by the virtual predators and parasites that evolved after we gave genes to spambots and let them breed at 50 generations/sec. (Those of you who didn't read Maelstrom can still give it a shot, if you're up for the challenge.) Here's another benchmark on the way to that future: net bots competing for host machines to zombify, repairing the security holes that they themselves exploited so that competitors can't get in the same way. Imagine a beast that actually installs necessary Windows patches onto your machine-- but only after it's already built anest behind your firewall. It's vaguely reminiscent of those male insects with genitals that look like pedestals of dental instruments: once they inseminate the female, they secrete a kind of crazy glue and spatula it over her genital pore to keep competitors from messing with their sperm. Or the even cooler (albeit possibly apocryphal) case of reproductive homosexual rape in hanging flies; the really successful males don't even bother to inseminate females directly, they bugger other males. Their sperm then migrate to the gonads of their victim, and when said victim finally makes it with a female, he inseminates her with the sperm of the male who raped him. (More than one clergyman has told me that you can learn a lot about the mind of God by studying His creations. I wonder what they'd make of these guys.)

Of course, this is still special creation, not evolution. The bots are intelligently designed; nobody's given them genes yet (or perhaps the coders themselves are a kind of "extended genotyope", albeit a Lamarkian one. Life always hits you upside the head with this recursive chicken/egg stuff whenever you look too closely.) (Hey-- maybe there's a story in that...)

Still, it's another step in the right direction. It's part of the arms race. Only a matter of time before someone figures out that a random number generator and a tilt bit here and there can unleash these things to evolve on their own, without always having to get respawned from the shop.

Personally, I think they're taking way too long. I can hardly wait to see what happens.

(Thanks to Raymond Neilson and Alistair Blachford for the link.)

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