October 13, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Virtual epidemics may hold scientific promise
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at any given time in the days immediately after the outbreak. Further, he said, as many as 10 percent of those players' characters died.
To be sure, many epidemiologists may never have heard of WoW. But at least one, Nina Fefferman, a Tufts University assistant research professor of public health and family medicine, took notice of the scourge. She recently told National Public Radio that players' reactions to the WoW plague were realistic. Fefferman--who did not return phone calls or an e-mail asking for comment--also said she would like to partner with a game company in a formal study of an outbreak of an infectious disease in a virtual world.
Getting the right information out
"I think that's a great idea," said Alan Tice, an infectious disease specialist and a professor at the University of Hawaii's John A. Burns School of Medicine. "It would be a valuable thing and an important thing, particularly when it comes to infectious disease. How do we get information out to people? It's a big problem, getting things out to people in a timely manner and with appropriate information."
While Tice was not directly familiar with the WoW plague, he instantly saw the potential of such an online virtual world to be a test bed where scientists could watch the way dangerous diseases spread and how people react as they try to get out of its path.
"How many people are there? How many people open it? This is important from a public-health standpoint," Tice said.
Tice said the most important element of keeping a quickly spreading disease under control is managing the attendant spread of information about it. Because environments like WoW and "Whyville" give players easy access to communication tools, researchers can track how such tools are used and how effective they are at giving players the data they need to stay out of harm's way.
Players like Jacobson and Bowman agree that a game like WoW could be a fascinating infectious disease test bed, but caution that there are limits to how effective such an experiment could be.
"I think on a very basic level, it may be an indication of how something can spread in a synthetic environment," said Bowman. But "it would be hard to mimic real-life scenarios since the means of delivery are limited in some way, shape or form. In the end it is all code and there are only so many ways that you can affect someone."
Jacobson acknowledged that during the WoW plague, players were attempting to inform each other about how to steer clear of the disease and were also working hard to heal victims as they were hit--both likely scenarios of a real-life outbreak.
But he said that that without the consequences of a true plague, many players wouldn't take it seriously.
To Tice, however, that's exactly why such virtual worlds are a terrific place to study how people react to a fast-spreading disease.
With modern communications tools, "you can't do blood testing, but you can (discuss) clinical descriptions," Tice said. You can have "people providing information to others about recognition, about diagnoses, 'Do you have the disease,' etc. It's also critical in getting the right information out there."
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