Online 'Epidemic' Gives Clues to Bird Flu Spread

TUESDAY Aug. 21, 2007 -- Online role-playing games could provide insight into how infectious diseases such as bird flu spread among people in the real world, American researchers report.

A programming error caused an epidemic of a highly contagious disease ("corrupted blood") among virtual characters in the popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft, scientists from Rutgers University in New Jersey and Tufts University in Boston wrote in the September issue of The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

The company that developed the game tried a number of quarantine strategies, but they all failed due to a number of factors -- the highly contagious nature of the disease; the inability to seal off a section of the game world effectively; and player resistance to quarantine measures.

Resetting the game proved to be only way to halt the epidemic.

Computer programs specifically designed to model infectious disease outbreaks are an important research tool but lack the unpredictable economic and social behavior exhibited by players of virtual online games, scientists Eric Lofgren and Nina Fefferman noted.

"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 analogue to real-world human reactions to disease might be observed and captured within a computer model," they wrote. "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."

More information

The World Health Organization has more about infectious diseases.

Posted: August 2007


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