Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Virus in World of Warcraft?

Hakkar the SoulflayerA couple of years ago Blizzard create a contagious disease or virus that infected players characters to add some spice to the online world. The virus was meant to infect only players who can handle it, however news to Blizzard some players managed to break through the quarantines. "Now researchers are using the event to study human behavior during a pandemic."

Blizzard created this disease in an effort to increase gameplay in the multiplayer online role-playing game of World of Warcraft, the disease was a new villain called "Hakkar the Soulflayer".

"Little did the company know that the virtual plague Hakkar would spread to avatars in the online world would help epidemiologists learn a thing or two about human behavior during a pandemic."

What happened is Hakkar began infecting players with corrupted blood, the virus caused an outbreak that spread thought the World of Warcraft to some 4 million players in 2005 in the month of 2005 according to Tufts and Rutger universities.

There was a report published in the journal The Lancet Infectious diseases released on Monday the 20th of August use World of Warcraft's outbreak to get an idea of people responses during and epidemic.

The First Patient

The plague that corrupted the blood of avatars in the virtual World of Warcraft started in a new area called Zul'Gurub, a dangerous realm for high-level World of Warcraft players. Hakkar lived there a winged serpent that would cast a spell that would cause negative effects to the avatar over a set amount of time, infecting them with the corrupted blood disease.

It is important to note that the corrupted blood was contagious. Meaning it didn't just infect those in direct contact with Hakkar but any avatar in close proximity to the infected players as well.

Once infected, the Hakkar's spell would drain 250 to 300 health point from the player infected every few seconds. Stronger players had the ability to counter act the affect for the disease due to a higher stamina. Player could also use healing spells and use other high-level powers to survive the disease until it runs its course. However lower-level player were killed within a few seconds.

The engineers at Blizzard didn't take into account the variety of human behavior regard the virus. the developers built a virtual quarantine area designed to contain the virus. However some players worked around the problem, healing themselves just long enough to leave the quarantined zone. Some used the virus as a weapon to infect entire cites.

"People who were infected would escape quarantine and spread the disease," he told TechNewsWorld. " Player learned how to use it as a weapon, infecting pets and sending them out into densely populated areas which would destroy lower level player almost instantly.

"Eventually, players learned to avoid cities -- which became uninhabitable -- and large groups," he continued. "The only sure way I know of to avoid infection was not to log in, but so many of the players are nearly addicted to the game that wasn't really an option, and it seemed to make the game a bit more interesting."

The Blizzard programmer realized the quarantine zone had failed so they ended the "outbreak by resetting the game a few day later and removing the properties that allowed the Corrupted Blood spell to spread from one character to another."

Real-World Behavior in a Virtual World Environment

"Since the influence of individual behavioral choice has been shown to greatly affect the range of societal outcomes in many fields including epidemiology, differences between the human-agent simulation and a pure computer simulation of the same disease, incorporating the vast complexity of human behavior -- rational or otherwise -- could examine the effects of these behaviors on the course of an outbreak," University Researcher's asserted.

Interesting, But ...

"The finding I found most interesting was that many people would try to either ignore, avoid or somehow get around orders of quarantine. I find that very telling because my gut sense says that is correct," Dr. Bill Scaffner, chair of the department of preventive medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical School, told TechNewsWorld. He had never imagined an online game would be grist for an epidemiologist and might actually be useful in helping researchers think about pandemic planning.

"Although our Canadian cousins were very compliant, as I understand it, during the quarantine orders when they were infected with SARS, I think the United States population should not be confused with our more orderly and sober northern cousins. We are a much more turbulent group," he said, referring to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in November 2002 and July 2003 that spread from China to other Asian countries, then to the Middle East and eventually Europe and Canada.

Schaffner cautioned that using online games as a model to study behavior to during epidemics only return a small amount of data. The demographic in the case of World of Warcraft is made up of primarily young males with the money to afford computers and a Internet service so their behavior is not necessarily indicative of an entire population.

"This was a bit of a lark. All models and tabletop exercises and games of bioterrorism and pandemic planning are useful up to a point," he opined. "But it is not the general population that uses these games. It's a subset of the population that tends to be young and tends to be male. And in so far as you don't over-interpret the results, I think that's fine. It may indeed provide some additional information as we all go forward and try to protect ourselves as a complete society."

"It is difficult to use this the way you would a carefully stratified sample of the national population, a Gallup Poll, for example. It's nonetheless intriguing. It's kicky. Who would have thought? It's kind of fun. I'm just saying let's not over-interpret the data. On the other hand, sure, let's have a look-see what happens and it may give us a moment's pause and moment's thought to consider some things we hadn't considered as seriously as we might have." Schaffner concluded.