What do video games and public health have in common?

One (the video game) has been used to predict possible scenarios of real life disease outbreaks. Sound a bit strange? It started back a few years ago when the popular game, World of Warcraft, had a digital virus spreading amongst its players. From a 2005 article describing the situation:

The plagues started on September 13 after Blizzard updated the game to include, among other new content, a dungeon known as Zul’Gurub. In the heart of that dungeon sat Hakkar, an in-game demon, that cursed any characters who attacked it with Corrupted Blood, a damaging curse that spreads from player to player.

The disease would have not spread from the original dungeon but for the efforts of griefers. The online roleplaying game equivalent to terrorists, griefers would teleport their characters to inhabited areas or used their pets as plague carriers to spread the disease to the general population of a server, according to postings on various community sites.

So it probably would not have been an epidemic if it weren’t for some malicious individuals using their pets to spread the disease. Still, Nina Fefferman, a medical epidemiologist at Princeton University, found inspiration in the scenario (or just a lot of useful data?). Instead of placing the blame on the ‘griefers’ (aka terrorists), Efferman attributes the spread of the virus to “the stupid factor,” something she apparently hadn’t considered before.

“Someone thinks, ‘I’ll just get close and get a quick look and it won’t affect me,'” she said.

“Now that it has been pointed out to us, it is clear that it is going to be happening. There have been a lot of studies that looked at compliance with public health measures. But they have always been along the lines of what would happen if we put people into a quarantine zone — will they stay?” Fefferman added.

“No one have ever looked at what would happen when people who are not in a quarantine zone get in and then leave.”

Ah…human stupidity…now a (new) factor in epidemiological studies. While I certainly can’t argue that it’s something that should be included in her analysis, I’m not sure if a video game world is completely applicable to real life (though I know some people who get way too involved in their games and start talking about it as if it’s real life). In World of Warcraft it seems, based on the little I’ve read, it was a group of individuals responsible for most of the outbreaks. I understand that there is always the possibility of some crazy nut trying to intentionally infect people, but I question to what degree that would happen in real life where there is also then the possibility of infecting friends and loved ones in the process (not to mention the death is…well…real). Plus in the game the characters could teleport themselves…last time I checked we didn’t have that ability, which I imagine would slow the spread of the virus. Regardless, it’s always difficult to model what would happen in real life…I’m not an epidemiologist -I just think it’s cool that video games are influencing real research. Perhaps we have yet to discover the deep wisdom of Super Mario Bros. and other games…

Reuters article on Fefferman and the ‘stupid factor’

Article discussing 2005 World of Warcraft virus outbreak



  1. chino said,

    March 23, 2009 at 11:17 am

    WoW is cool

  2. Shamynator said,

    September 23, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    wow ftw

  3. November 8, 2012 at 7:29 pm

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