The Corpus Callosum

Virtual Epidemiology

In 2005, there was a plague.  It started
inadvertently, as
most do, but spread rapidly, resulting in many deaths.
 Officials scrambled to find a solution.  Eventually
it was contained.  

The plague was caused by a miscoded spell (Corrupted
), in the massively-multiplayer
online role-playing game (),
.  The people who died were not
real people.  Nonetheless, it may be that the behavior of
these virtual people can teach us some things about what real people
would do it in the event of a real pandemic.  

Now, it has become a topic of formal study, as reported in Lancet
Infectious Disease
(registration required; subscription for
full access).  There is a summary on the BBC site for those
who don’t want to bother with subscriptions or registration.

game is a ‘disease model’

Tuesday, 21 August 2007


An outbreak of a deadly disease in a
virtual world can offer insights into real life epidemics, scientists

The “corrupted blood” disease spread rapidly within the popular online
World of Warcraft game, killing off thousands of players in an
uncontrolled plague.

The infection raged, wreaking social chaos, despite quarantine measures.

The experience provides essential clues to how people behave in such
crises, Lancet Infectious Diseases reports…

Some people tried to be heroic, some altruistic, others deliberately
spread the virtual infection.  Some were

One 14-year-old Orc told me openly of the
incident: “Humans were dying left and right. We just laughed and

The problem the researchers are trying to solve is this: The best
research designs are prospective, randomized, double-blind studies, but
it is unethical do do epidemiological research that involves deliberate

The thought is that, perhaps, virtual worlds could permit a kind of
mathematical modeling, with an element of human behavior that is
difficult to build into a mathematical construct.  

Such a research design is fraught with problems, of course.
 It is likely that people’s behavior is different when the
risk is not real.  Presumably, few people would “just laugh
and laugh” in a real pandemic.  Perhaps, though, it would be
possible to adjust for this.