In 2005, an in-game pandemic hit the World of Warcraft.
The disease was never meant to spread. WoW’s programmers created a monster that made the players who attacked it sick. As designed, those players would infect other nearby players, weakening them, and making it harder to attack the monster. The intent was that only very high-level players would get infected, it would only stay in one very controlled region, and the damage to a given player would be relatively minor — more annoying than life-threatening.
But it spread. The programmers never expected an infected player to leave the battle before it was over. They never expected infected players to return to the in-game cities. And they never expected the powerful players to infect their less powerful friends. And they certainly never expected those less powerful player characters to die off in the thousands.
Of course, death in a virtual game is just an annoyance, but it was still disturbing to the real humans who played. Of more relevance to our concern about how pandemics spread and the challenges we face in fighting them, human behavior patterns were revealed.
Simulating how diseases spread
Dr. Nina H. Fefferman thinks WoW can teach us important lessons about fighting pandemics. And she ought to know: Dr. Fefferman has a Ph.D. in biology and a masters in math. And she is co-director of the Initiative for the Forecasting and Modeling of Infectious Diseases at New England Medical Center/Tufts University School of Medicine and a computer science professor at Rutgers.
Governments, of course, are aware of the potential of pandemics and, over the years, have developed strategies for dealing with them. These response strategies are often tested and refined with computer simulations, in some cases simulating hundreds, thousands, and millions of people in a population.
These simulations are at the pinnacle of modeling research and they’re quite good. But each simulated person is just that — simulated. Scientists have attempted to instill in these simulated people expected behaviors and then watch to see how those behaviors play out.
So you can thank me and the millions of nerds like me who play this game with only your health in mind. That thanks best shown by paying my monthly fee of $14.95. I take checks by the way.