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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.<!--more-->

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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