TWiV #7 – Viruses in video games

7 November 2008

This Week in Virology episode #7 has been posted at www.twiv.tv.

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In this episode, Dick, Vincent, and guest Aidan discuss how viral infections play prominent roles in notable video games such as World of Warcraft, Pandemic II, and Bioshock.

The popular online video game World of Warcraft recently became a model for the transmission of virus infections. In late 2005, a dungeon was added in which players could confront and kill a powerful creature called Hakkar. In his death throes Hakkar hits foes with “corrupted blood” that contains a virus and causes a fatal infection. The infection was only meant to affect those in the immediate vicinity of Hakkar’s corpse, but the virus spread as players and their virtual pets traveled to other cities in the game. Within hours after the software update that installed the new dungeon, an epidemic ensued as millions of characters became infected.

Although such games are meant only for entertainment, they do model disease spread in a realistic manner. For example, the spread of the virus depended on the ease of travel within the game, interspecies transmission by pets, and asymptomatic carriers. These aspects of the game world mirrored real-world epidemiology, except for how the disease was halted: the game developers removed Hakkar’s dungeon and rebooted their computers.

Epidemiologists are limited to observational and retrospective studies when studying human infectious diseases. Computer models of epidemics have been developed, but they lack the variability and unexpected outcomes found in real world epidemics. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games have large numbers of participants (10 million for World of Warcraft) and therefore are excellent pools for experimental study of infectious diseases. While enjoyment and entertainment are the central focus of such games, the players are serious and devoted, and their responses to situations of danger approximate real-world reactions. For example, during the “corrupted blood” epidemic, those players with healing ability were the first to attempt to help the infected players. This action likely affected the dynamics of the epidemic since infected players survived longer and were able to travel and spread the infection. Multiplayer video games provide an excellent opportunity to examine the consequences of human actions within a statistically significant and controlled computer simulation.