November 03, 2009

Cholera, Billy Corgan, and World of Warcraft

Cholera, Billy Corgan, and World of Warcraft

A man walks through the city centre, his heart rapidly beating as he tried to fully digest the situation. All over the street people were covered in blood, strewn about and slowly losing consciousness. He heard their cries, their screams, and frustrations. Where did this virus come from? Who was responsible for it? And why – after so many attempts to inform and quarantine the public – aren’t any of the government’s plans working? He didn’t know it, but the man would have to wait two days, unprotected, before the virus was eradicated.

Although this scene seems like an excerpt out of a summer blockbuster film or even a real life event, it actually very accurately describes a person’s character in World of Warcraft during the “Blood Plague” of 2005. This incident was documented as the first major outbreak of a virus in the virtual world, and has since caught the attention of social scientists, epidemiologists, and health experts all around the world calling for its documentation and further study.

On 13 September 2005, parent company Blizzard introduced Hakkar as a new boss for players to defeat and thus receive rewards in return. The boss’ main attack, “Corrupted Blood”, was a virus that depleted a character’s health and was highly contagious, making it difficult for players to defeat him. Minor coding and software problems inadvertently started an incident that would end the lives of hundreds of thousands of characters within the virtual world of Azeroth. This epidemic lasted for three days, and the 14th remains the “Day of Death” in many players’ minds. In the end, Blizzard had to do a hard reset of every server to remove the virus from the network.

Small problems within the code helped to disseminate the diseases over a large, densely populated area, thus modeling real-world tendencies. This outbreak led to various academic studies by professionals within the medical and social science community. Firstly, the virus was highly contagious not only to other characters, but to one’s pets and non-playable characters as well, which perpetuated the spread of disease. This drew comparisons to Avian and Swine Flu, where animals acted as reservoirs for disease (Balicer, 2007). Secondly, because the virus wasn’t correctly coded to disappear after a few seconds, the disease spread as characters teleported out of the site of infection (Zul’Gurub) into densely populated city centers. As players moved outward, so did the disease. The transmissible nature and travel of the disease could be analogous to the spreading of SARS in 2001, which was traced to airline flights coming out of heavily-infected China (Balicer, 2007).

One could see why social scientists and epidemiologists would want to invest time and money into this phenomenon. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG’s) present a way for scientists to study human behavior during a health crisis without breaching any ethical implications of releasing a disease to the general public. Usually, epidemiologists and scientists could only study an outbreak either through observation or in retrospect. Dr. Ran D. Balicer writes, “Multiplayer online role-playing games may even be useful as a testing ground for hypotheses about infectious disease dissemination” (Balicer, 2007). MMORPG’s present a safe way for scientists to study human behavior that is entirely too complex to try and map out in a mathematical model. Dr. Nina Fefferman and research assistant Eric T. Lofgren also explore the possibilities of a virtual laboratory: “Human-agent simulations…may potentially bridge the gap between real-world epidemiological studies and large-scale computer simulations” (Fefferman & Lofgren, 2007). Although prominent scientists have requested from Blizzard access to data and even proposed social science experiments within gameplay, Blizzard has been less than receptive of the idea. Fefferman recalls Blizzard representatives saying, “This is a bug, we're worried about fixing it, we're not worried about logging data for you” (Vastag, 2007).

Why is there adversity to research that might save lives during a real-world epidemic outbreak? For as long as there have been state-sponsored healthcare initiatives, there have been concerns over issues of privacy and the implications of government control over a person’s physical body. There has been a long, strenuous relationship between the state, its scientists, and its citizens. The outbreak of cholera, polio, and now H1N1 have incited backlash from citizens who refuse mandatory vaccinations by the state. There were anti-vax movements as early as the 1870s in Great Britain (Hays, 1998), and continue to last week, when musician Billy Corgan’s publically declared his refusal to the H1N1 vaccination out of fear for the “political machine” (Corgan, 2009). Although the state and its scientists worked tirelessly to introduce a vaccine before the winter months, they are never without criticism from the general public.

Even just the simple act of gathering pertinent data has become a struggle for scientists. If one adopts the metaphor of a person’s character being an extension of their real-world self, then certainly there are issues surrounding Blizzard’s potential release of personal information, which may include amount of playtime, bank account numbers, personal chat logs, etc. And the same principle thus applies to Blizzard as a private corporation – it has every right to withhold its player’s information from the state unless it is issued a warrant. Scientists ranging from independent researchers to members of the Center for Disease Control – an arm of the US Department of Health and Human Services – have requested access to players’ logs during the Corrupted Blood outbreak. Blizzard may be dismissing this case as a mere software bug of no consequence, but there may be political reasoning behind its decision to withhold information.

This is another, although very modern, battle of state health concerns through scientific accuracy versus the privacy of its citizens. There is an inherent tension between a state’s need for information and the citizen’s view of “intrusion” into their private sphere. The citizen has long fought for the right to control what personal information is released and its subsequent consequences. The scientist believes that “By imposing artificial restrictions on data, such as aggregation of location identifiers or time of disease onset, the researcher's ability to be precise and draw solid conclusions is seriously jeopardized”, thus prohibiting the state from adequately preparing for potential health hazards (Fefferman, O'Neil, & Naumova, 2005). One can’t help but question where the line is drawn between the right of privacy and, in the most extreme cases, the right to live.

Works Cited

Balicer, R. D. (2007). Modeling Infectious Diseases in Online Role-Playing Games. Lancet Infectious Diseases .

Corgan, W. p. (2009, October 28). Health and Well Being. Retrieved October 29, 2009, from Everywhere From Here to There:

Fefferman, N., & Lofgren, E. T. (2007). The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds to Shed Light on Real World Epidemics. Lancet Infectious Diseases , 625-629.

Fefferman, N., O'Neil, E. A., & Naumova, E. N. (2005). Confidentiality and Confidence: Is Data Aggregation a Means to Achieve Both? Journal of Public Health Policy , 430-449.

Hays, J. (1998). Burdens of Disease. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Vastag, B. (2007, October 28). Virtual Worlds, Real Science: Epidemiologists, Social Scientists Flock to Online World. Science News , pp. 264-265.

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