Vector Caledon

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The myriad uses and purposes for virtual worlds are slowly dawning on the rube world, as indicated by a story I stumbled across on Sky News last night.

It seems that a year or so ago, a plague called Corrupted Blood was introduced into World of Warcraft. However, this “illness” which infected player’s avatars was not introduced by some griefer or malicious script-kiddie, but by the game developers at Blizzard.

The plague was introduced as a way to “debuff” or handicap high level players so as to correct a balance problem in the game, and it was intended to effect only one area and one storyline in the game.

That is apparently when things became interesting.

First of all, Corrupted Blood had a far more serious effect on lower level characters then it did on the higher levels, handicapping or killing them.

Then, the plague began to have a profound effect on the entirety of the game, beyond that which was intended. So profound in fact that it gained the attention of several academics from Tufts University, who this week published the cover story on this month’s Lancet all about the way that the plague affected WoW, and how that can be used to theorize how future pandemics will effect the real world.

It seems that when faced with the plague, many people avoided the infected areas quite obsessively, while a few noble souls rushed there to attempt to help. As the plague worsened, some even spread out from the initial area in mobs, intentionally infecting as many people as possible.

Next, some infected avatars began to make their way to other areas of the game, either intentionally or unintentionally spreading Corrupted Blood into urban areas and soon throughout the entire game grid until what had been a simple attempt at creatively debuffing overpowered characters became a virtual pandemic…and a mirror for how scientists believe modern people would really react in such a situation.

While the awareness that virtual worlds can be used to test and study real human reactions has been slow to dawn on the scientific community, it is certainly welcome.

While the story of the WoW plague is fascinating in and of itself, it has also made me wonder how we in Caledon would react to a Second Life plague, one which had some real effect on our avatars, either making them unplayable, or damaging our inventories in some way.

First and foremost I think it would make us even more insular and distrustful of mainlanders. Caledon would be quite likely to close in on itself, shutting out the Metaverse at large.

Within Caledon itself, however, I feel things would be quite different. I like to think that Caledon would display the better sides of human nature to its own, with characters by and large cooperating and attempting to help the infected. There would be very little if any griefing or attempts to spread the plague to the uninfected.

In fact, just for the sheer Camille-like drama I imagine that actually BEING infected would become a status symbol for Caledonian ladies, with lots of demure coughing behind fans and many people trying to thwart that dangerous behavior and others gossiping about who REALLY has the plague and who is just a dramahound. Certainly it would give rise to many interesting role play initiatives, with colonies and pest tents for the infected springing up, and doctors valiantly working to save their neighbors.

In short, I think such a plague would pull Caledon even more tightly together, unifying the population and focusing our efforts and involvement on community.

If all that I suspect did indeed come to pass during this theoretical plague, then I fear Caledon would be quite useless to Tufts University and her scientists. If WoW and the Corrupted Blood served to illustrate how modern society would really react to such a plague, then Caledon would likely illustrate the best case scenario in such a situation.

And that, as we know, is not terribly realistic at all…just a lot more pleasant. Perhaps there are benefits to a virtual world beyond just simulating life as it is…perhaps Caledon simulates life as it should be.

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4 Comments

  1. Having lived through three virtual plagues in online worlds now (and not this one mentioned in WoW), and being quite in love with our fair Caledon, I must agree with your assessment.

    I must also say I’m rather surprised that the game designers at WoW were so surprised at the results, and so poorly handled the details of infection; there have been several other plagues spread in virtual worlds before, with the same results cited here. Of course none of them were on a scale of millions of players, but tens of thousands. Perhaps they were paid off by the Center for Disease Control to run this as a simulation.

    When I watched plague ravage beloved lands in which I lived and adventured before, it was both fascinating and disturbing, to watch human nature play itself out in a virtual setting. Eventually, I decided that such epidemics were bad for gameplay, being depressing, disruptive to the fun of adventuring, and undermining the already-tenuous social structures in place. Admittedly, anthropology and psychology geeks like myself had fun, but it was a sad, academic sort of fun. And it had a tendency to make my real body feel feverish, and not in the good way.

    There are many good reasons I have hung up my adventurer’s wand and settled here in Caledon. The games are more subtle and adult, the players kinder and more intelligent and interesting. Our ability to create and share our minds and hearts is well-supported (despite the ever-present complaints of stability). And I have faith that should plague come to the grid, Caledon would be one of the safest places to huddle together.

    /coughs delicately behind her fan and lays a soft hand upon her pale brow

  2. The Victorian Age had its share of epidemics. Polio, TB, scarlet fever.. and in this Grid we have our own unique maladies like the Cross-Eyed Syndrome, the Death Spiral and the Toxian Machine Plague. All the more reason to support your local Caledon Red Cross!

  3. Virtual tuburculosis?

    Though I see your point on the fans.

    I am surprised by their reaction, because as Miss Darkling mentioned, it has happened before, and with similar results. But yes, WoW affecting so many more people…obviously, it made more of a splash.

    To a more limited extent, this has also been proven out in the real world–many who get AIDS seem determined to spread the disease, out of maddened pain or spite, to the point where doing so in much of the world is treated as attempted murder by enforcing agents. And yet it still happens.

    Fascinating, though.

  4. Lofgren ET, Fefferman NH. The untapped potential of virtual game worlds to shed light on real world epidemics. Lancet Infect Dis 2007;7(9):625-629.

    I read this article today, though only after seeing your post. (Believe it or not, Lancet Infectious Diseases is not normally part of my journal-reading routine.)

    The observations on the spread of the virus were fascinating, though the authors did not (or, were not able to) specifically detail the “rules of transmission” between characters, pets, and non-player characters. These rules, and the virility of the infection, would be illustrative. Then again, Blizzard’s rules may be just as obtuse as real-life molecular mechanisms, come to think of it.

    I noted the parallels between the Corrupted Blood pandemic and other human diseases; HIV is the first in mind, as Ms Orr mentioned. A very poor comment on human nature in that, just as some seropositive patients intentionally infect others in the real world, some characters did the same in the Warcraft setting. Curious how some human natures cross the real/meta divide.

    I concur that massive online communities would shed interesting light on human epidemiology. The morals and ethics I’ll leave to others to comment on. The science of it, though, is worth thinking over. One would need to design a system of transmission that responds to strong stimuli — even primal stimuli, in the case of sexually-transmitted diseases. Or even stimuli that are difficult to quantify in RL (e.g., why in the world would a potentially-infected TB patient get on a transatlantic flight, putting hundreds at risk? The reader is left to imagine other scenarios.)

    The fact that one can draw conclusions about human behaviour in the context of pandemic disease in a virtual world is argument enough that further research in the metaverse would pay large dividends in the real world.

    Interested funding agencies may wire their grant moneys directly to me, and I’ll get right on it :)

    Regards —


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