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A screen grab from the video game World of Warcraft is shown in this handout photo. The game offers lessons for how real people might respond in the event of a global outbreak of disease, American researchers are suggesting in a new report. ((Blizzard Entertainment/Canadian Press Archive))

Online gaming environments such as World of Warcraft and Second Life would make ideal testing grounds for disease epidemic and virus control, a pair of U.S. scientists say.

While computer models and simulations of disease outbreaks are useful, one thing they cannot predict accurately are individual reactions— which is where the game worlds come in, according to Eric Lofgren of Rutgers University and Nina Fefferman of Tufts University.

Writing in the September issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the researchers say diseases can be introduced into the controlled environments of online game worlds —which are populated by thousands or even millions of individual players — where their effects can be studied and then applied to real-world epidemic control and prevention.

The duo cite a case two years ago where a programming error caused an outbreak of a highly contagious disease within Warcraft, the highly popular online role-playing game, which left thousands of characters dead.

The outbreak began in September 2005, when Warcraft's maker, Blizzard Entertainment, released an update that allowed higher-ranked players to access new parts of the game. After combating a creature known as Hakkar, some characters were infected with a disease known as "Corrupted Blood."

Higher-level characters experienced few ill effects, but they quickly spread the disease to their lower-level counterparts, who were more susceptible to it.

The disease ended up as too contagious for Blizzard to control. After the company failed to seal off a contaminated area of the game world, it resorted to a move not possible in the real world— it reset the computers Warcraft runs on, thereby stopping the spread of the disease.

Bridging the gap

The scientists say that virtual simulation through an environment such as Warcraft can bridge the gap between real-world epidemiological studies and large-scale computer simulations by including the variability and unexpected outcomes that arise as a result of the behaviour of individuals.

"We believe that, if the epidemic is designed and presented so as to seamlessly integrate with the rest of the persistent game world, in such a way as to be part of the user's expected experience in the game, a reasonable analog to real-world human reactions to disease might be observed and captured within a computer model," the scientists write.

"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."

Fefferman has approached game makers with the idea of studying disease in their online worlds, and says the reaction so far has been one of surprise.

"The first reaction is, 'What?' And the second is, 'I had no idea,'" she says.

Blizzard, however, has been "incredibly receptive" and is working with scientists to create a study. Reaction from gamers has been relatively positive as well, she says.

Fefferman is hopeful such studies could help determine what kinds of public announcements would be most useful in the case of an epidemic, and how such information could be presented to people without causing a panic.