TechNewsWorld recently published an article discussing how epidemiologists are using the outbreak of a virtual disease in a MMOG to study human behavior and hopefully apply the lessons to future outbreaks of disease. The incident in question is the intentional introduction of a plague by Blizzard Entertainment two years ago into its own World of Warcraft, basically to “add a little kick” to the game.
The disease was called Corrupted Blood and, just for fun, the makers made it truly viral so that, once infected, gamers would pass on the virus to others. That said, the pandemic was supposed to be limited to a new area in the game only meant to be accessible to high-level players who, it was presumed, would have the strength and knowledge to deal with the disease.
Of course, gamers - being gamers - soon got around the quarantine and began using the virus as a weapon on weaker players - to devastating effects. Some areas of the game became virtually uninhabitable and players soon learned to avoid major cities or large groups. The one virus, in effect, had changed the entire world. Unable to contain it otherwise, Blizzard eventually imposed a cure from above, reducing the potential damage to be inline with other dangers of the game.
The article, having noted the behavioral patterns and similarities “between this outbreak and the recent SARS and avian influenza outbreaks,” then discusses how researchers are now suggesting that game makers intentionally introduce other viruses into online worlds to help prepare for outbreaks in the real world.
One interesting cautionary comment about this came from Dr. Bill Scaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical School, who warned against applying MMOG gameplay onto real world behavior:
"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... 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.”
The cautionary note may hold true for applying these models in the real world, but is not this same subset of the population – young, male – basically the same profile of your average hacker? So in a sense, maybe virtual modeling would apply after all. Can profiling the behavior of participants in these virtual worlds help us react to Internet security threats? After all, like gamers, malicious code attackers will exploit any new vulnerability as much as possible until “someone from above” – such as, dare we say, Symantec – shuts the door on the attack.
Nowadays, of course, the lines between virtual and real are becoming increasingly blurred. Never mind “harmless” plagues unleashed by the makers, now MMOG players and other denizens of persistent virtual worlds have to contend with a growing number of actual threats, from an increasing amount of phishing spam to Trojans like Gampass to outright robbery.
As my avatar used to say, before its untimely demise in a dark online alley, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”