Confession: I'm not much of a gamer. I know that loses me major "geek chic" points in the trendier online circles, but to really delve into these marvelous virtual gaming worlds requires the kind of large uninterrupted blocks of leisure time I haven't enjoyed for at least a decade. (Oh, how I miss large blocks of leisure time!) It's a bummer because I know I am missing out on some really cool stuff -- like the 2005 "corrupted blood" incident that broke out in World of Warcraft. I heard about it at the AAAS meeting in San Diego from a Rutgers scientist named Nina Fefferman, who became fascinated by the in-game parallels to real-world epidemics and people's behavioral responses.
Assuming I am not the only person who has never played World of Warcraft -- although Jen-Luc Piquant and the Spousal Unit are now urging me to give it a whirl -- what happened was this. Blizzard Entertainment regularly updates the game, introducing new challenges for advanced players. One such update was a new dungeon called Zul'Gurub controlled by a demon (or "end boss" in game parlance) called Hakkar. Only really high-level players could even find Zul'Gurub. I guess the point is to slay Hakkar, who naturally is quite difficult to kill. One of his secret weapons -- wielded when the demon is about the expire -- is a spell called "Corrupted Blood," which inflicts periodic damage on infected players, gradually draining away their vitality points. The only "cure" is to finally kill Hakkar.
It was supposed to just infect nearby players, most of which by default would be at a high level. So as damaging as the spell could be, it was just supposed to be an added annoyance to make the game space a bit more challenging. But then things went horribly wrong. Because of a glitch in the programming, the virtual pets, or animal companions, of players -- while technically "nonplayable" -- could also become infected and spread the disease, although they didn't show any symptoms. Those pets left the Zul'Grub space and spread "Corrupted Blood" to the lower levels, where it literally wreaked havoc. While advanced players would take the damage, lesser players were "killed" outright. At least three servers were affected, and in the end Blizzard had to reboot the whole thing to fix the glitch. Played out in the game space, wherever the corrupted blood plague broke out, it looked a little something like this:
Those periodic bloody bursts are the spell inflicting damage. You can see players "dying" in the game space, and those still alive bolting around in a panic, with some taking advantage of healing spells and other strategies. But in general chaos reigns. And that's what Fefferman found so fascinating, because it was actual data that seemed to showcase how human beings behave during an epidemic -- and that behavior is not always rational, or courageous. In fact, there were a few players who teleported out of Zul'Gurub and deliberately spread the disease out of malice. Some players tried to help, administering healing spells, but others panicked and fled after being infected and also carried the disease to uninfected lower levels.
All of this mimics real-world behavior in actual epidemics, according to Fefferman, who pointed out that people choose to play certain roles in this type of crisis, much as they did in the game. There were opportunists, conspiracy theorists, and Fefferman found one video showing a player who decided his role would be to stand on the steps while carnage raged around him, narrating the action and foretelling the end of the world -- yes, he became That Guy, the self-appointed Doomsday Prophet. At least he wasn't one of the malicious infectors. Then there was the sheer idiocy of players who ignored the warnings and went to infected areas out of curiosity, thereby becoming infected themselves. And so she became convinced that we could learn a great deal from studying plague outbreaks in virtual gaming worlds.
Fefferman went on to co-author a paper (with Eric Lofgren) in Lancet Infectious Diseases discussing some of the implications of the "Corrupted Blood" outbreak for improving real-world epidemiological models. Such models, while useful, necessarily must make assumptions about human behavior -- specifically, they use mathematical rules to approximate human behavior. And it would be frankly immoral to deliberate introduce a pathogen into a controlled population to study how things played out firsthand. But what if someone could design a new disease specifically for a virtual online community and study the situation that way, using the collected data to further refine epidemiological models? That would be a dream come true for Fefferman.
Blizzard has always maintained that World of Warcraft is just a game and was never designed to mirror anything "real." Hakkar's spell is the stuff of online fantasy. Also, while players "died" of the plague in the game, a virtual death of an avatar just isn't the same as real, physical death -- plus there are ways to resurrect one's character in the game even after one's demise. Which might be why you had the malicious infectors deliberately spreading the disease, essentially behaving like terrorists. In fact, Charles Blair of the Center of Terrorism and Intelligence Studies thinks World of Warcraft could help scientists study how terrorist cells operate because it "involves real people making real decisions in a world with controllable bounds, which could provide a more realistic model for military intelligence analysts."
Real people making real decisions that affect others around them is why the game holds such fascination for Fefferman as well. That, and the fact that the Corrupted Blood plague was completely unplanned -- unlike the zombie plague that Blizzard deliberately spread to promote World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. And frankly, players get really invested in their avatars; they don't take their "deaths" lightly. It's more than just an in-game annoyance. These are people who really get into the fantasy world; their avatars are extensions of themselves. So there is real emotional stress that comes into play when a deadly plague breaks out in the game space.
Fefferman is not not alone in her enthusiasm for the potential of online gaming platforms to improve models for real-world systems, especially those heavily reliant on predicting human behavior. Other scientists have suggested the use of role-playing games as a platform on which to model how infectious diseases spread throughout a population, the most obvious being Second Life. (Second Life has also attracted the attention of folks in behavioral economics who build economic models, particularly the collapse of a virtual bank in what turned out to be eerily similar to the real-world economic collapse of 2008.)The Spousal Unit linked recently to a great online interview with game designer Jane McGonigal, who is particularly gung-ho on the potential for video games to save the world.
The popular children's online multiplyer game, Whyville, has also gotten into the epidemiological act with its own family-friendly version of a plague: Why-Pox, similar to chicken pox, in which players' avatars develop red spots on their faces, among other symptoms. According to Fefferman, even though it isn't "real," kids are very attached to their avatars and find this quite upsetting. Whyville was designed from the start to be educational entertainment, so WhyPox is a designed disease, first introduced in 2002. The game now has its own virtual Center for Disease Control, where children can help "investigate" outbreaks via the Infection Simulator and Epidemic Simulator, learning the fundamentals of epidemiology in a fun, hands-on way. These principles can be difficult to teach, says Fefferman: "It's hard to explain why students should do something." With the simulations, students don't just blindly follow orders, they understand the purpose of the actions they take.
So gaming is now the hot trendy approach to epidemiology -- and education. Fefferman was one of several speakers at this particular AAAS session, which focused on the question of whether one could truly use video games to teach. There needs to be a learning goal apparently -- not just the goal of learning to play the game -- and some kind of genuine science content that goes beyond merely zapping, say, chemical symbols a la Space Invaders. And because educators love to measure progress, there must be some way to assess whether the material has actually been learned. This is actually pretty critical when it comes to educational video games, because unless they are carefully designed, kids can learn to place the game without actually absorbing the underlying scientific knowledge.
In addition to the whole "Corrupted Blood" incident in World of Warcraft, and Whyville's outbreak of Whypox, I learned about things like The Evolution Readiness Project, an NSF-funded game designed for fourth graders to teach them about evolutionary principles using plants in a virtual greenhouse. Eric Klopfer of MIT's Media Lab is designing educational games for mobile platforms -- games students can play for fun on their iPhones, cells, or other mobile devices, while still learning something useful. One pilot game was called Weather Links, which Klopfer described as "Pokemon meets weather prediction." Players had to figure out how to predict the weather six hours before a key battle is to take place. Another in development is Beetle Breeders, based on Mendelian genetics.
"We spend too much time teaching the outcomes of science, as meanings of words," said Diane Ketelhut of Temple University, who has designed her own epidemiological games and is keenly interested in building games that assess student performance through a new program called SAVE Science. "We need to teach the process of scientific inquiry beyond memorizing the steps of the scientific method." Traditional assessment tools are inadequate: standardized tests lack any context -- "nothing we do in science is decontextualized, it always has a purpose" -- and while regular performance assessments might provide that context, it is not cost-effective, highly subjective, and doesn't necessarily assess true student understanding.
That's where a well-designed video game might be able to help, says Ketelhut, who is experimenting with embedding assessment tools into virtual gaming environments, hopefully with such skill that students don't even know they're being tested. A database records all student actions, and the game should allow for nonlinear problem-solving pathways -- students should be able to integrate the spirit of inquiry with the content. That's different from most classrooms, which are usually organized very linearly. But most of us don't really learn that way.
In one of her pilot games, "Sheep Trouble," students got to design their own avatars and travel in time to medieval England, where they had to help a farmer determine whether an outbreak of illness among a new breed of sheep was science or "bad magic." Ketelhut isn't making grand claims based on one small pilot study, but the student response was overwhelmingly positive. They were engaged, got to play an active role, explore the virtual environment, and solve a practical problem. One student, caught on videotape, put it well: even though she knew it was a test, "They didn't tell you what to do like on a normal test. It seemed like a real-life question, not just a question on a piece of paper."
So, can a video game teach science? Most of the speakers responded with "Yes, but..." I liked Klopfer's analysis in particular: "Can a car teach science? Yes, some kids will learn science from a car, but most won't." He thinks the value of his mobile gaming platforms, and other educational video games, is best realized when it precedes the classroom but then is integrated into it. "Video games are preparation for future learning, and they definitely can help promote interest and excitement in science," he said. Entertainment is still entertainment -- but that doesn't mean it can't be useful in getting kids excited and motivated to learn. Just make sure they don't accidentally hack into a defense computer by mistake.