'Virtual' Virus Sheds Light on Real-World Behavior

A recent outbreak of a "plague" in a popular online game has scientists considering how the virtual world may provide clues to what people would do in real-world pandemics. In the role-playing game World of Warcraft, a "corrupted blood" spell killed characters and affected players in unexpected ways.

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The spread of a virus or a disease has a lot to do with human behavior, and a recent plague in an online game got a few scientists thinking. They started looking at the virtual world for clues about how people might react to an outbreak in the real world. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

Online computer games are an over-$300 million industry and growing. World of Warcraft, or WOW, is a massively multiplayer online game, or MMOG, that has more than four million registered users. In this type of game, the players create a character within a particular world--there are many worlds in the game--and become an active part of a story like this one.

(Soundbite of World of Warcraft)

Unidentified Man: For 10,000 years, the immortal Night Elves cultivated a druidic society within the shadowed recesses of Ashenvale Forest. Yet recently, the catastrophic invasion of the Burning Legion shattered the tranquility of their ancient civilization.

SYDELL: Players move their characters around mythical worlds like Ashenvale Forest, work together with friends and allies to defend it and go on quests. Successful battles with players and monsters make the character more powerful.

(Soundbite of World of Warcraft; battle noises)

SYDELL: The individual worlds can be both mundane and pretty complex. John Kirkland(ph), known to his online friends as Siren(ph), says there are towns where characters go to the bank, chat, eat.

Mr. JOHN KIRKLAND (Online Gamer): It's got its whole economy. There's things that you need on a daily basis. There's things that are luxury items. They have different creatures that will fly you from point A to point B, which is a kind of a nice little transit system they have going on. They have a tram system.

SYDELL: Then one day last month, a plague broke out in the town of Iron Forge.

Mr. KIRKLAND: You see all kinds of people running around. There were also skeletons and corpses everywhere because quite a few people died from it.

SYDELL: One player whose character died from the plague described the scene as frightening. He says players were crying out in his virtual world and shouting for the people in charge--that is the game creators--to do something. Of course, it's only a game, but Sherry Turkle, a professor of social science and technology at MIT, thinks to many people who play it, it's much more. She's interviewed hundreds of online players who spend hours of every day playing.

Professor SHERRY TURKLE (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): It's not that it's not part of your real life just because it's happening on the screen. It becomes integrated into really what you do every day. And so where you have loss of that part of your life that was involved in the habits and the rituals and the daily life, it's very traumatic. It is play, but it's very serious play.

SYDELL: Other games like The Sims and EverQuest have had epidemics of a sort, but it was the recent outbreak within World of Warcraft that caught the attention of Dr. Nina Fefferman(ph), co-director of the Tufts Center for Modeling of Infectious Diseases. Fefferman says one of the hardest parts of researching human behavior is that people often act differently in an emergency than they imagine they will.

Dr. NINA FEFFERMAN (Co-director, Tufts Center for Modeling of Infectious Diseases): To have a horrible example from current life, most people say, you know, if someone tells you a natural disaster is heading your way, do you leave? And the answer is `Yes, I leave immediately.' And then when it actually happens, a lot of people have the emotional response of `You know what? I'm going to guess it's going to be OK. I'm gonna try and stick it out.' And it's a very reasonable emotional response, but it's very hard to predict even in yourself.

SYDELL: Fefferman knows it's not possible for any virtual world to completely reflect real life, but she thinks because of the emotional connection game players have to their characters it can come pretty close. She says peoples' reactions to the plague in World of Warcraft were remarkably realistic.

Dr. FEFFERMAN: Some of them decided once they were infected, you know, `I don't really care anymore about anybody else. I'm going to teleport within the game to a crowded urban center and infect as many other people as I can.'

SYDELL: Player John Kirkland says there were also those who were altruistic.

Mr. KIRKLAND: And a lot of people who decided to go out there and help people, and there's quite a few people giving resurrections to people who had died from the plague.

SYDELL: Blizzard Entertainment, the company that creates World of Warcraft, reports the plague was actually a bug in the program that got out of control and was fixed within a few days of the outbreak. Shane Dabiri, WOW's lead producer, says they could imagine intentionally creating a virtual plague.

Mr. SHANE DABIRI (World of Warcraft Producer): Because the players' response to it in some ways was very good--they thought it was a cool world event--we thought, `Well, maybe in the future, we could actually introduce something like this to the game, but not have the same type of fatal effects.'

SYDELL: Fortunately, World of Warcraft doesn't totally mimic life as most of us experience it; players who die can be resurrected. Epidemiologist Fefferman says it would be useful to question players after the fact about why they made certain decisions and to look at the impact their reactions had on other players in the game. She says she'd like to team up with the game companies so that she could scientifically document an outbreak. Blizzard Entertainment says it's open to the idea of working with her. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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