Monday, July 12, 2010

Massively multi-player games: an epidemiologist's workshop

I've been engrossed in reading This Gaming Life by Jim Rossignol recently. A significant portion of the book discusses the oddities of the role of video games (and games in general) across world cultures. This book also presents the most comprehensive defense of playing video games recreationally, that video games are not a pointless time-sink and that the players are not simply "blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious [B. Johnson]."

The most fascinating content of this book is the discussion of how people behave in multi-player online games. Numerous examples are given, ranging from piracy and espionage in EVE online to collaborative meeting spaces in 2nd Life. Such aspects of gaming really hit on my own personal research interests of human behavior in technology mediated social networks. One example of human gaming behavior in particular highlights an unexpected application of online gaming worlds: modeling the spread of disease, or epidemiology.

At one point the game World of Warcraft had a game play mechanic where players could contract a disease called "corrupted blood". This disease caused physical harm to the players' characters, and was communicable from one player to another. The disease was never intended to appear except under very controlled circumstances. Once the disease was unleashed, Blizzard had to run rolling restarts of their servers to eradicate the plague.

Epidemiologist use complicated statistical models and utility function driven multi-agent simulations to try and predict the spread of diseases. One problem with these models is that they are missing a human component. The models are designed to approximate human behavior on a large scale, but this can only truly be accomplished by measuring actual human behavior.

I'm a little late to the party with this story, but Nina Fefferman has been featured extensively in the press for her 2007 paper with Eric Lofgren titled "The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds to Shed Light on Real World Epidemics," published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Nina has recognized that online gaming worlds contain a wealth of data about human social behavior and that this could be used for epidemiology.

According to Rossignol, these data can be harvested from games without affecting the gamers' experience in any way. An online community could be infected with a disease which exhibits no symptoms at all, but merely spreads in a non-deterministic way. As long as the characters carrying the the disease (or payload) can be identified then useful data will be available to researchers.

Harvesting human behavior patterns for epidemiology is just one of the ways in which modern gaming can benefit society. Passionate gamers and radical scientists like Rossignol and Fefferman are helping to give gaming a good name.