Effect Measure

Let the Pandemic Games begin!

This is a public health blog run by an old geezer (or geezers, depending upon how many of us there are), but if you are a crazed gamer with an age in the low double digits (or not), this post is for you. The part for you is below the fold, at the end. But first some background.

Despite my age, I’m always looking for new and interesting ways to do public health and a year or two ago I started to look at the virtual reality “game” Second Life. I posted about it, noting that CDC had a tiny outpost there, NOAA had a spiffy island set-up, and several notables had avatars there, too: Richard Posner, the conservative law professor and Federal Appeals Court Judge and Richard Dawkins, among others. I wondered about starting a pandemic there and watching behavior for clues to how people would behave in the Real World. It turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines, and a recent article in The Lancet Infectious Diseases (abstract) by Eric Lofgren (who has been around here in the comment threads a couple of times) and Nina Fefferman (both at Tufts Medical School) about a “real” epidemic in another virtual reality game, The World of Warcraft, sparked a lot of media comment:

An accidental virtual plague that decimated the virtual population of an popular online game has piqued the interest of real-world disease trackers and public health planners.

The “corrupted blood” epidemic that triggered an unplanned and unwanted die-off of players of “World of Warcraft” may have been a simulation, but it offers valuable clues to how people might respond in the event of a real-life global outbreak of disease, they suggest.

Researchers are already eagerly exploring the possibility of using these popular simulation games to probe scientific questions for which actual experiments could not ethically be mounted.

“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,” American researchers Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren said in an article published Tuesday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. (Helen Branswell, Canadian Press)

It’s a great story. Read the Lofgren/Fefferman article or Branswell’s typically concise and accurate piece for more details. So what about you crazed gamers?

Now there’s a chance for you to get involved — for fun and profit, as the old saying goes. The other day I got an email from a communications officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation identifying herself as the coordinator of Pioneering Ideas, the blog of RWJF’s Pioneer Portfolio. She wrote to us because we had posted earlier on another project of the portfolio, the pandemic flu prediction market. We were less than enthusiastic, as we recall, but still, the role of a communications officer is to communicate, and here’s what Ms. Promislo of RWJF communicated to us:

Currently, we’ve kicked off an open-source idea competition with Ashoka’s Changemakers that also may hold interest for your readers . . . .

The current competition, “Why Games Matter,” seeks innovative new ways that video/computer games and related technologies can transform health and health care. The opportunities for games and health to intersect are expanding rapidly–for example, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have developed simulation games that train public health officials to respond effectively to disasters and infectious disease outbreaks, and Time just ran a story on whether massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft may help health officials virtually track the spread of disease.

At the Why Games Matter competition Web site (http://www.changemakers.net/en-us/competition/healthgames), people can enter ideas for game-based applications to health and health care and/or comment on any of the entries that have been posted to date.

It’s a contest, see. What do you win? Maybe I shouldn’t tell you (I’m trying to encourage participation, after all), but finalists will “win the opportunity to go to Baltimore in May 2008.” OK, there’s more than a trip to Baltimore . You not only have to go to Baltimore, but as a reward for going there you will present your work at the Changemakers Change Summit held in conjunction with the RWJF-sponsored Games for Health Conference. But wait! There’s more. There’s also a cash prize to compensate for the trip to Baltimore. [Full disclosure: I once lived in Baltimore]

Deadline for entries is September 26 (and if you order before midnight tonight you’ll get free steak knives; operators are standing by).


  1. #1 DARWIN
    August 29, 2007

    How about pre-pandemic H5N1 vaccine as the prize?

    Now as to a game. You are a PH and are tracking the contacts of Leisure Suit Larry. In a bid to stop a new deadly form of syphilis in the roaring 20’s your job is to track down his last five contacts before they pass it on to others.

    Logic. Above all, LOGIC!

  2. #2 MikeB
    August 29, 2007

    Of course its only a matter of time before this goes another way, with someone coming up with a First Person Shooter game where you have to blow away Patient Zero before he can infect everyone.
    And you can sell your game as being medically educational…

  3. #3 SmellyTerror
    August 29, 2007

    As a grizzled World of Warcraft player, I should remind the non-playing audience that the plague was intentionally spread. In fact, it had to be to get out of its starting area, and never moved to a new area without players intentionally spreading it.

    And that’s the problem with online RPGs as a model for real life: assholes face no consequences (death in the game means less than a minute of “time-out” – that’s all). There is always a significant proportion of the population who will do their level best to make life as difficult for other players as they possibly can. My own very small experience suggests it’s largely the teenage male demographic that is most attracted to the role of “griefer”, but that might just be bias. Power over other people is hugely attractive to certain folk – how many authority figures of some kind or other are mean to those in their power just for the sake of it? How many schoolkids get an addiction to power and become bullies?

    So you have a game where you are completely anonymous and immune to any consequences, but are able to force other people into situations they’d rather not be in. Power. Not much, but enough to attract a few. Ample evidence that humans still need the threat of a good hard smack upside the head to keep them civilised.

    A huge amount of effort, and a large part of the way a game-world is built, has to concentrate on mitigating the anti-social behaviour of the minority. Early games of this type were, for a lot of people, simply unplayable, and all (that I’m aware of) of the later attempts at freedom have either gone belly-up or been watered down. It’s going to take some very fancy footwork for anyone to get valid models out of something like this. If you could get people to behave realistically and yet still actually have them want to play, you’d revolutionise the industry and become rich in the process…

    …good luck!

  4. #4 Lea
    August 29, 2007

    This is a public health blog run by an old geezer (or geezers, depending upon how many of us there are) , . . .

    Maybe you’ll tell us how many revere(s) there really are when you’re ready to exit the mortal coil.
    For now I say one revere 90% of the time, and two or three for other times. One of the part timer revere’s is definitely a female, OR you really have a good grasp of your female side revere.