Virtual online computer games can teach epidemiologists lessons about how infectious diseases and pandemics like bird flu might spread in the real world, as a recent glitch in the online game World of Warcraft has revealed, according to an article by two US researchers in a medical journal.

The discovery is published in the September issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases and is the work of Eric T Lofgren from the Tufts University Initiative for the Forecasting and Modeling of Infectious Diseases (InforMID), based at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts and Prof Nina H Fefferman from the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science, at Rutgers University, Piscataway in New Jersey.

Epidemiologists use computer simulations as a research tool to model disease outbreaks and pandemics but they don't incorporate the unpredictable nature of human economic and social behaviour (such as that found in virtual role playing games) and are difficult to validate.

The highly popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft suffered a glitch recently when a programming error caused a highly infectious disease called "corrupted blood" to spread among the virtual characters which included travellers, teenagers and pets.

The disease soon spread to densely populated cities in the virtual world, with many deaths in the population. What also interested the scientists was the "social chaos" that ensued. Some of the players welcomed this unexpected feature of the game, but the game company did not and tried a number of ways to remove the problem.

The game company tried to deal with the "outbreak" using a number of quarantine procedures. But because the "disease" was highly contagious, and they could not seal off the affected part of the "world" and the players did not have enough "resistance", the only way to resolve the problem was to pull the plug and reset the game, wiping out any data relating to the infection.

Lofgren was a participant in the game and brought in Fefferman to observe it. They could not help but see the possibilities for epidemiological research, since they work with computer simulations of disease. The game suggested a missing factor, the unpredictable nature of "stupid" human behaviours like going in and out of quarantine zones, or assuming they won't be infected if they come into contact with an infected person.

The researchers suggest epidemiologists could learn a lot by integrating a controlled disease outbreak into a game world as a way to observe human reactions to disease.

This would have to be done "in such a way as to be part of the user's expected experience in the game", so that a reasonable simulation of real human behaviour might be "captured" within a model said the authors.

The online game environment brings with it the advantage of large player numbers, World of Warcraft for example has over 6 million players worldwide.

"By using these games as an untapped experimental framework, we may be able to gain deeper insight into the incredible complexity of infectious disease epidemiology in social groups," wrote Lofgren and Fefferman.

The researchers are now working with a game company to pursue the idea further in a number of game environments.

The hope is this will help experts modelling ways to contain a potential future pandemic of the deadly H5N1 bird flu which is currently only contagious to humans by contact with infected birds but some experts say it is only a matter of time before it mutates into a strain that can be passed from human to human. Many experts using computer models say if this happens it would lead to millions of death worldwide.

"The untapped potential of virtual game worlds to shed light on real world epidemics."
Eric T Lofgren and Nina H Fefferman.
The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Volume 7, Issue 9, September 2007, Pages 625-629.
DOI:10.1016/S1473-3099(07)70212-8

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Written by: Catharine Paddock nForMID, , USA b. DIMACS, , NJ, USA