Gaming: the real-world implications of an infectious pursuit - RSA

Gaming: the real-world implications of an infectious pursuit

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  • Behaviour change

The spectrum of pursuits gathered today under the label ‘video games’ is a bewilderingly broad one: from games of chess played across continents on iPhones to high-resolution racing and combat simulations played on fifty-inch screens. At the top end of virtual experience, however, lie some of the most fascinating products the information age has yet conceived: massively multiplayer games, those virtual worlds where millions of players can play together within functioning virtual economies, vying for excellence, idling away a few hours in conversation, and everything in-between. This one genre holds within it a staggering human variety, and the capacity for the emergence of behaviours well beyond anything conceived of by the games’ creators. In this, it also offers a unique environment for studying many of the most ancient forms of human behaviour – collaboration, competition, work, play, friendship, fear, leadership – in an entirely new way.

One of the most famous case studies of mass behaviour within a game arose entirely by chance in World of Warcraft, the most famous massively multiplayer game of them all, in September 2005, just a year after the game was launched. It began when a deadly disease generated by one especially tough monster (Hakkar, a blood god lodged at the heart of the Zul’Gurub dungeon) was accidentally transmitted by infected players to the world outside the confines of the dungeon.

Within hours, the disease had become an epidemic. Known as the ‘corrupted blood plague’, tens of thousands of player characters succumbed. What was interesting, however, was not the pile of corpses itself, but the fact that the sequence of events during this entirely unscheduled incident bore more than a passing resemblance to a genuine pandemic outbreak within a human population.

It sounds a little absurd, especially as genuine death or injury are quite impossible within a video game, yet it attracted some very serious medical attention, including a paper in the American journal Epidemiology, by epidemiologist Ran D Balicer, which argued that ‘virtual environments could serve as a platform for studying the dissemination of infectious diseases’ and that they might prove ‘a testing ground for novel interventions to control emerging communicable diseases’.

Video games and virtual worlds can bring a revolution to the social sciences

How could a virtual plague mirror a real one? For a start, it began in a remote area – an unexpected and isolated freak event, much like an isolated mutation in a virus such as avian influenza – and then spread via both humans and animals into population centres (in-game cities) where high densities of players quickly became hothouses for an uncontrollably escalating infection. There was also the known phenomenon of idle curiosity unwittingly contributing to the spread of the disease; and the existence of non-player-controlled characters who acted as ‘carriers’, spreading infection while themselves remaining healthy.  Then, of course, there was the gamut of player reactions: experienced healing-class players offering their services in population centres to cure the diseased, guild leaders and those in positions of authority attempting to organise players and disseminate information, guild structures acting as support and information networks, many players hiding out in remote areas, not to mention engaging in all manner of speculation on the thousands of blogs and forums relating to Warcraft.

Why, though, did any of this matter? It was a question addressed at the Games For Health conference in Baltimore in 2008, when another epidemiologist, Nina H Fefferman, argued that the involvement of thousands of real people in games offered a way of modelling the unpredictable behaviour of humans in epidemic situations that no existing technique could match. The degree to which a game environment is able to model a real disease outbreak is, of course, limited. Yet it’s the unreality of games that makes the modelling possible in the first place: there is simply no comparable ‘real’ method for studying the spread of a deadly disease in a population.

Most importantly, there is no better place for studying the people themselves. The environment may be virtual, but the players are not only real: they are also active, willing and highly-motivated participants within an arena that elicits far more sophisticated, ‘realistic’ behaviours than any comparable laboratory experiment. Not to mention that the quantity and depth of data that can be derived from virtual worlds is of a level that was only being dreamt of in the social sciences a few decades ago.

Within a virtual world, everything is not only measurable, but can also be controlled and reproduced in a precisely calibrated way. Two identical copies of a virtual environment can be created, with just a single precise difference between them: in the case of health, a virus with a modified percentage chance of transmission, perhaps, or one that is passed not by direct contact but via contaminated bodies of water. With willing players, scenarios can be repeated and measured and adapted as often as needed. And players of the world’s most successful online games are already numbered in the tens of millions.

This new science of mass engagement is barely in its infancy. Yet, whether you’re looking to motivate, to understand, or to train a group of disparate people in a digital setting, the mechanisms it puts at researchers’ disposal are potentially transformative ones. Whether or not video games and virtual worlds can bring a revolution to the social sciences, they are already part of both the question and the answer as to what it can mean to work, play and learn together in an increasingly mediated century.

Tom Chatfield is the Arts and Books Editor at Prospect magazine. His book Fun Inc: Why Games are the 21st Century's Most Serious Business (Virgin Books) is out now

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  •  one could argue that while this virtual world is not a valid portrayal on how people would react in an epidemic situation, it definitely can portray the change in psyche. Experiment for yourself. [it requires a bit of empathy]
    But Imagine you start hearing rumors about an infection. 
    The next thing you know, those you know are dropping one after another.
    Only the rich [high-leveled players] can sustain themselves to live another day
    you start seeing quarantines getting setup
    makeshift healing centers start popping up, but it's not enough.

    Eventually, you try to make contact with those that you know to try and find a place to hide.
    it's too late, a group of infected people jump you, and now you're just like one of them.

    The people you made contact with want nothing to do with you now. 

    what do you do?
    you know you won't last long,
    you have all this hate built up from those that left you to die.
    you start to become jealous of the non-infected people.

    you start off with one person you see by themselves, you go up to them and infect him.
    It satisfies you, but only temporary, not unlike when one kid bullies another.
    but you need more.

    so you run into the thick of the big city, and infect everyone you see.

    yea, it's definitely the worst case scenario, but each of those were events and decisions that each person would have to go through at some point in that kind of situation, that can be compared via virtual world.

    Another example of psychological tests in video games is the PC game Portal by Valve.

    in the game the character Chell [Player] goes through many tests involving puzzles. in one test chamber, The Player is instructed about the importance of a certain"Weighted Companion Cube"- a waist-high beveld cube with a pink heart on all six sides- and how it is vital to completing the puzzle. 
    The Player must then solve the long puzzle, all the while bringing the Weighted Companion Cube along with them every step of the way. 
    At the end of the test, they are then told to, in the words of the Tester GlaDOS, "Euthanize" their weighted companion cube in an incinerator before they can continue.
    Because of the Testers Dramatization of the importance of the cube The Player ironically makes an emotional connection with it, and will hesitate to destroy it, even though they know they will be stuck there unless they do so.

    Many Players, myself included, have spent hours and hours, trying to find ways of bringing the Companion cube with them throughout the rest of the game, refusing to let the Tester destroy your only friend, the Companion Cube. eventually most players come to the realization that nothing can be done for it, and kill the cube. 

    The very fact that I just worded the destruction of an inanimate object as "killing" means that it had a profound enough reaction within me. 

    It just goes to show you, that no matter what kind of world you are in, virtual or otherwise, when presented with the rules of that world, people will act according to their normal human behavior. 

    A more accurate depiction of how an epidemic would work, is if everyone only had one life to live in World of Warcraft.

  • I like the Slate piece a lot. It's something I've tried to address in my book: the slippery semantic lines between what is "addictive" (bad) and "compelling" (good). Page-turning fiction = good. A film keeping us on the edge of our seats = good. Glued to the console = bad. Some people have tried to extend the measurement of behavioural addictions (such as gambling) to games, with mixed success. You can try to use the DSM criteria on gambling, for instance; but when it comes to asking questions like "have you ever avoided work in order to…" the phase has a very different resonance depending on whether you end it with "gamble / read / watch television / play a video game." My own feeling is that some people do indeed have pathological relationships with video games: but that we should generally be looking for the roots of their pathologies elsewhere. Not to mention exploring games and the kind of interactions they offer as a potential root out of damaged states of mind. This was, for me, a fascinating announcement back in 2008:

  • Thanks Tom, that Guardian article illustrates well the idea of a game world as a temporary refuge. I hadn't noticed the tag-line about your book - I should check that out. Last thing: a friend of mine, Vaughan Bell, a clinical psychologist currently working in Colombia, has written rather a lot about the misapplication of the 'addiction' label, especially in relation to internet use and gaming. Here's one example: which you might find interesting if you haven't already seen it.

  • @ William - adding to Tom's point about over elevating the quality of sampling in sociological research, but it is also worth saying that WoW is not a shoot-em up, and at the risk of being dismissed for pedantry, awareness of the variations in genre amongst videogames is important here. The technology can be used to create or constrain possibilities for players in vastly different ways within game environments.

    Taking that into account fully in understanding what this might tell us is, as another commenter has suggested, perhaps akin to understanding how variables might be defined and controlled/observed in an experimental setting.

  • Very fair point Tom. I am, suitably, shot down.