mirrorshard: (Default)
[personal profile] mirrorshard
The BBC have finally picked up on the World of Warcraft 'corrupted blood' incident, previously discussed by the game-studies and game-design community here. (Yes, that's almost a two-year gap between the timestamps on those posts. That's the BBC for you.)

To be fair to them, they're talking about it because health researchers are starting to think about virtual worlds in the context of epidemiology, and whether they'd provide a better model for studying the spread of infectious diseases than standard computer models.

There are a lot of unexamined assumptions there, though, and it sounds as though this team really do need a virtual world designer or theoretician on board. The first big one that jumped out at me is that there was quite a lot of griefing going on, with many players deliberately infecting others. The pat answer to 'why is this a problem for the model?' is that this behaviour doesn't happen to nearly the same extent in real-life epidemics (I'm sure it happens in some cases), but there's a deeper issue as well.

Deliberately infecting others involves sacrificing your character's life - that doesn't mean much in WoW, but the important point is that it means very different things to different classes of player. (If you want to go into this in more detail, the reference is Richard Bartle, and his matrix of player types.) And I'm not at all sure that this level of heterogeneity, of differing levels of commitment to (investment in) the world, translates at all to the real world.

The second big one is that the ethics of the case are problematic to say the least.
[A] major constraint for epidemiologists studying disease dynamics at the moment was that they were limited to observational and retrospective studies.

For example, it would be unethical to release an infectious disease in real life in order to study what the consequences might be.

So, of course, it would be entirely ethical and uncontroversial to release an infectious disease in a virtual world, without explicit opt-in or any of the usual niceties. Really it would. And the other problem, of course, is getting a virtual world with a decent population to do it in. You certainly won't attract anything near the required numbers (ie. large enough so you can study them statistically with confidence, and do the same with subgroups - large enough so they can be thought of as a fluid rather than a granular, er, blob) just by wanting sign-ups for an academic study. You won't be able to do it in an existing large VW without i) cutting a deal with the designers, who will not unreasonably want to know what's in it for them, and ii) risking some serious legal problems. Different jurisdictions treat virtual property (and virtual people) very differently, and if a third party is putting them at risk then it's very possible that that third party could suffer some consequences. It's a near certainty that they'll suffer from the process, even if found in the clear.

There are basically three levels of analogy on which we can think about the digital Black Death experiment (which hasn't been done, and I suspect won't be). The first is the deliberate spread of a plague affecting humans. The second is the deliberate spread of a plague affecting people's farm animals or pets (foot & mouth disease, for instance), ie. non-sapient (but still sentient) dependents with their own concerns distinct from their human's. The third is a botnet trojan, ie. a plague affecting people's stuff - non-sentient accoutrements whose existence and existential value depends entirely on their utility to their associated human.

There's no clear consensus on which of these is a better analogy for VW avatars - the first and third are a lot more common than the second, though.
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