Online Gamers' World Reveals Unexpected Secrets of Next Epidemic
There's a plague that was recently carried around the world by travelers, pets and curious teenagers, and I'll bet you didn't even notice. In fact, it took out large segments of the population inside the World of Warcraft, and indicates that experts have not taken everything into account when planning for the next epidemic, researcher Nina Fefferman of Princeton University pointed out recently.
While the outbreak of the virulent and contagious virtual plague known as "Corrupted Blood" was an accidental consequence of a software challenge added to the World of Warcraft game in 2005, Fefferman indicated that "It really looked quite a bit like a real disease," which included generally stupid behavior on the part of some, near-instant international travel, and infection by pets as well.
The disease was originally added as an extra challenge to high-level players. But it was accidentally carried out of its virtual containment area and was soon taking out online inhabitants everywhere. In their research, Fefferman and her student Eric Lofgren wrote that "Soon, the disease had spread to the densely populated cities of the fantasy world, causing high rates of mortality and, much more importantly, the social chaos that comes from a large-scale outbreak of a deadly disease."
Ultimately, the researchers came to realize that no current models of the spread of the next epidemic actually factor in the so-called "stupid factor" when it comes to calculating how the next epidemic might spread. As Fefferman indicated, all research to date relies on the understanding that the plague is controlled within a quarantined area. But what happens when someone like a curious teenager thinks that they can get close enough to "just take a look" but escape unscathed, when pets become infected, or when someone who is placed within the quarantine zone just decides to leave? Apparently, these unanticipated factors were quickly observed, and the experience suggests that the massive community of online gamers may well provide fertile ground for studying the next epidemic.
Of course with experts agreeing that the world is, in fact, long overdue for a pandemic of some sort of disease, and with researcher Ran Balicer of Ben-Gurion University in Israel reaching similar conclusions in a paper published in the journal Epidemiology in March, I suspect that we could really use as accurate an understanding of human behavior under just such a set of conditions that we can get. So let's hope together that the next outbreak is both virtual and a study, giving us even more of the insight we so definitely are going to need.