Why *This* Zombie Plague Doesn’t Matter

03Nov08

I’m very, very interested in the idea of virtual (or to use the slightly swankier term, in silico) epidemiology. Simulation models, computational epidemiology, etc… its all interesting, and I think there’s a lot of insight to be had. One part of this field that keeps getting attention is the World of Warcraft. The poor dears keep having outbreaks of disease. First there was Corrupted Blood, and now the world is besieged by plague-spreading zombies.

I was first-author on one of the papers that looked at the epidemiological implications of the Corrupted Blood outbreak, and have given several talks on it. So one would think I’d be thrilled that, once again, infectious diseases wash over Azeroth. I’m not.

 Neil Ferguson at Imperial College in London was talking to the Times Online about the outbreak here. The basics of his stance: The disease is slightly more realistic than Corrupted Blood, because of its lower R and the fact that one has a probability of being infected, rather than a 100% chance of infection – something not true with Corrupted Blood. What’s R? Basically, R is the Reproductive Number, which is the average number of people a single infected person will infect. So if 1 sick zombie gets 2 healthy people sick, R = 2. Corrupted Blood had an R in the tens at least, much higher than any typical human infection. The zombie plague is a little more realistic in that sense.

But that’s just about it.

First of all, the second part of his argument, that you only have a probability of being infected, is wrong. If you get exposed to the disease, by doing one of the many things that can give you the disease (most colorfully the zombie exploding and spraying you with pestilent little bits), you’re getting it. Period.

The second problem is with how the disease was introduced and acts within the game. Part of the appeal of Corrupted Blood, for academic purposes, was that it was an unintentional disease that spread while people were either unaware of what was happening at first, and later despite control efforts. It was an accident, and it wasn’t something that enhanced your gameplay in any way. One of the huge hurdles something like the use of a MMO to study epidemics has to get over is people’s behavior not matching people’s behavior in real life. If Corrupted Blood had this problem, Zombie Plague has it by the bucketful. 

Being turned into a zombie is fun. Its am amusing little mini-game to roam around the towns of the world, trying to eat other players, preferably while muttering “BRAAAINNNSS” to yourself. My better half and I spent at least a good hour terrorizing the good people of Goldshire. But it was fun. It was something to go and do, something to deliberately get yourself infected with so you could be part of the mayhem. Which makes it useless – diseases should be part of the game’s content, but they can’t be a desirable activity or it all goes out the window. Spreading it to other people becomes the objective of a plague victim – if we want to talk about unrealistic diseases, how many common infectious diseases can you think of that incentivize infecting as many other people as possible to join your cause? And with Blizzard supporting it, providing an unending stream of computer-controlled zombies and actively discouraging control efforts when they didn’t get a big enough plague…well, if Corrupted Blood was two steps forward for useful studies of virtual epidemics, the zombie plague has been one step backward.

Where one you could start getting a glimpse of how we might incorporate human behavior into simulation models of epidemiology, we’re now just seeing the end result of something that uses an infectious process in name only, and is in reality just an odd new form of player-versus-player combat.

Which is a pity, because zombies are ten kinds of cool.

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