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It's a well known story ...Death, panic, civilisation collapses ... but this time it really happened.
The powers that be, complacent as ever, released a highly contagious disease. They thought it was ok - after all it was in a contained area with strict quarantine rules...but then something unforseen happened. The plague got out. It was an accident of course. Noone wanted it to happen. Still, the plague quickly spread to the cities and the deaths mounted. No-one was safe. The subsequent worldwide panic was followed by anarchy as society crumbled...
It really did happen, but luckily only avatars died. It was in a virtual world, an online gaming environment in fact called 'World of Warcraft'. Still, it was a mistake, a bad mistake, but a mistake that may help us stop a similar thing happening in the real world. Why? Because an interdisciplinary scientist heard about it...
World of Warcraft has milions of users worlwide and the hardcore always need new challenges. Therefore back in 2005, the game's organisers therefore added a new challenge in a contained area - the plague. Would you be up for it? Could you survive the plague area?
The trouble is it got out and spread very much like a real epidemic might. It was carried around the virtual world by travellers and their pets. There was also a lot of 'stupid' behaviour. At the scene of major accidents ghoulish 'sightseers' gather round to watch and a similar thing happened in the game. People went and had a look, believing they could avoid the risk themselves. They didn't avoid it ...but left the plague area.
When the game's organisers realised what had happened they just reset the game - time travel to fix problems is possible in a virtual world afterall - and it could have ended there. Except student Eric Lofgren heard about it and told his supervisor Nina Fefferman. She is a leading researcher combining computer science and biology. In particular she is involved in studying the behaviour of people during disease outbreaks, creating computer models that simulate real epidemics. Such computational modelling helps scientists predict what might happen in future outbreaks and so helps policy-makers plan their responses.
Nina and Eric, decided to study more closely what had happened in the game and quickly realised that people's behaviour was both very realistic and included things no one had thought of before. In particular, the standard idea is that you need to quarantine people and worry about them trying to break out. In particular noone had modelled the effect of people going to a quarantine area to see what was happening and then leaving. As a result of the game outbreak, they are now going add such behaviour to the models so they can study the consequences.
Having discovered how powerful online games, with their millions of user, and realistic behaviour, can be in studying disease the researchers are now looking to run experiments in other games, so they can study them more thoroughly. After all, even though the game's organisers reset the game because it was 'just a mistake', many of the players thought it was really cool.
So you never know - your avatar might just one day save your life ... and millions of others too.