Since their conception, video games have not been very highly regarded in the field of academia. However, this could change with the emergence of new pandemics.

Dylan Viani-Walsh

Back in September of 2005, upon the release of a new update for the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, something happened which had little to no impact on the fate of the world, but a major impact on the millions of players that were playing the game at the time. The incident would come to be known as The Corrupted Blood Incident, and began when a plague that had been designed to remain in one area of the virtual world, was spread to the general population through a glitch which enabled in-game pets and non-playable characters (NPCs) to act as carriers of the disease. Because the virtual infection involved the slow, gradual draining of health, higher-level players were not greatly affected, as many had the ability to repeatedly heal themselves. In this way, higher-level players also became carriers, and although these players found the plague to be somewhat debilitating, as it required constant healing; among lower-level players, the infection was often fatal.

When news of the plague reached the game’s general population, something extraordinary happened. Rather than simply logging off and waiting for a so-called ‘hotfix’, players instead started to migrate from the cities to the countryside in their thousands. Not only this, but some players who were adept healers began setting up makeshift healing-camps to help affected players (some charging for their services); other infected players set about actively infecting others. As the corpses in the cities grew higher and quarantines were introduced by the game’s developers, comparisons began to be drawn between the responses of the game’s community to the virtual outbreak, and the responses of people to real-world epidemics.

There are many advantages to the use of video games as epidemiological models. Firstly, there is no doubt that the available sample population in an average online multiplayer video game far exceeds the population that could reasonably be used in a real-world study with human participants – for example, World of Warcraft, in its peak, had over 6 million active players. Secondly, despite the virtual nature of video games, players enjoy the ‘total immersion’ aspect of the experience to the point that it seems likely that their in-game responses to a virtual event might mirror their responses to a similar real-world event.

The responses of video game players to virtual outbreaks offer us an opportunity to conduct studies on how to prevent the spread of epidemic diseases in the real world. The recent Ebola- and Zika virus outbreaks, while not an immediate threat to us here in Ireland, do not bode well for the future, as even the slightest mention of an infected person making his/her way across an ocean seems to lead us to write “The End is Nigh” on every newspaper. While it may be hard to directly emulate the random and chaotic nature of The Corrupted Blood Incident, it would not be too difficult to design a video game with a modus operandi that would enable us to study the way players would act together in response to scripted events, such as an infectious disease outbreak. By designing virtual diseases that spread and affect players in a similar nature to a known, potentially pandemic-causing disease, it may be feasible to develop more successful pre-emptive protocols to minimise the damage and panic that is caused by the emergence of epidemic strains of various pathogens.

This is not an entirely new idea. Games such as Plague Inc., which was released over four years ago, enable the player to direct a virtual pathogen in a simulated pandemic, and may give us a more global-scale view of the spread of pandemic diseases. Perhaps most worryingly, in the case of Plague Inc., is that even if the player designs an asymptomatic pathogen, the disease will – over an admittedly long period of time – eventually spread through most of the population and evolve traits that can make it potentially fatal. (If you are not curious enough to spend €10 on Plague Inc., there is a free, online alternative called Pandemic 2 which you might want to check out.) While these pre-existing simulators may exaggerate both the transmission of diseases and the associated government responses – for example, in Pandemic 2, if a man in Japan is seen to have a light head-cold, Madagascar will often close its borders and cut off all ties with the rest of the world – with some tweaking and input from academics, these games may present a good global-scale model for the realistic spread of known diseases, should they begin to spread over a wide geographical area.

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Screenshots from Plague Inc. (by Ndemic Creations)

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Screenshots from Pandemic 2 (by Dark Realm Studios) – developers take note: H1N2 is an influenza A virus subtype, not a species of bacteria

There is an abundance of literature on The Corrupted Blood Incident available online. As such, I would direct interested readers to the 2011 blog-post written by Alex Ziebert for engadget.com, as I feel it presents a more thorough discussion of the incident than is often found elsewhere – as well as a more flattering view of the players involved.

To conclude, while video game simulations may not be the most intellectual method by which to predict the spreading patterns of infectious diseases, it would be a shame to dismiss the potential of video games in the study of epidemics and pandemics. This is because although the world of video games may be virtual, the responses of player-controlled characters may often provide a good approximation of the person controlling them, and can teach us how they might react in a similar, real-world scenario – within reason of course.

Featured Image: In-game screenshot taken by Richard Smith during the Convergence of the Real and the Virtual – the first scientific conference ever held within World of Warcraft – which took place from the 9th to the 11th of May 2008, and which had a total of 120 participants. A book has been written about the event.

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