Infectious Behavior
October 5, 2005 6:29 PM   Subscribe

"Virtual Virus Sheds Light on Real-Life Behavior." A researcher at Tufts University's Center for the Modelling of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Nina Fefferman, is studying the behavior of World Of Warcraft players during the recent plague that broke out in Ironforge (discussed on Metafilter here.) But Dr. Fefferman is not the first academic to study MMORPGs seriously. Edward Castronova, an economist, arguably pioneered the field with his 2001 paper Virtual Worlds, in which he argues that the economy in Everquest produced a GNP per capita somewhere between that of Russia and Bulgaria. (He has followed up that paper with many more on similar subjects.)
posted by dersins (9 comments total)
Having played WoW pretty intensely, I really think the social scientists studying it take it (and other MMORPGs) too seriously.

Most people fundamentally understand that WoW is a game, and that there are no real lasting consequences to death. Teleporting oneself to Ironforge while infected with a deadly plague is a prank, not a crime. It's more like throwing a water balloon at people than shooting them. There are some slight negative consequences to death (some time lost, and a small amount of money to repair equipment, which is damaged whenever you die), but at MOST it would be like egging someone's car. It's not at ALL like deliberately infecting someone with a disease in real life. The consequences are enormously different, and people understand this.

Because of these hugely different consequences, asserting a correlation would seem to require a high standard of proof, which I haven't yet seen. Unfortunately, that would probably require numerous, well-documented real disasters, so I sincerely hope it's many, many years before they can prove or disprove any correlation.

It's still very interesting to think about. Thanks for the post!
posted by Malor at 8:26 PM on October 5, 2005

According to the end of that Dr Ferrerman report, Blizzard is possibly interested in teaming up with social scientists for collaboration on future world 'events' (read - plagues, natural disasters etc) to study the results.

MMORPG in a petri dish anyone?
posted by rawfishy at 9:33 PM on October 5, 2005

This stuff was more compelling to talk about/ponder in 199x when MMOG's were still taken somewhat "seriously" by those who participated.

WoW is a good indicator of nothing, as it skews so heavily juvenile. I play WoW, and enjoy it, but we play as a group of known (adult) friends via Teamspeak and do not monitor the general chat channel. Reading general chat for more than 4 minutes would cause most adults considerable consternation.

If I had to play with random 12 year olds (of which there are legions in WoW) then I wouldn't have lasted the first month.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:00 PM on October 5, 2005

Jeez, wet blanket city.

Hm, Malor, I think the researchers really do understand the difference too. It's not like we haven't seen games reconstituted before our eyes in real life. A game is a distortion of real life, but that doesn't mean it can't give you insight into real behavior. Very few people face a real prisoner's dilemma, yet the overall lessons can be seen in many real-life interactions.

And I don't think they're extrapolating from a world of 12-year-olds directly to the adult world. It isn't that simple. But even 12-year-olds can provide a model for human behavior. Sure, I see your point about the kids caring so little about the game particulars that they engage in PK or some such, but what the researchers are looking at is probably more granular -- even 12-year-olds can be ruthlessly rational,goal-oriented, and so forth. Even more so than adults.
posted by dhartung at 1:05 AM on October 6, 2005

But even 12-year-olds can provide a model for human behavior

There's a reason Lord of the Flies is such a powerful book, after all...
posted by dersins at 1:13 AM on October 6, 2005

This is not a double post but you might be interested in the older discussion.
posted by Octaviuz at 7:19 AM on October 6, 2005

Thanks for that, Octaviuz; I had searched the archive, of course, but didn't find that-- perhaps because I searched for the name of the economist in question (which isn't mentioned in the older discussion) rather than simply for "Everquest," which I assumed would be too brpad a search.
posted by dersins at 8:58 AM on October 6, 2005

Broad. Too broad a search. Dammit.
posted by dersins at 8:59 AM on October 6, 2005

You're right of course dhartung. But, I think there would be more academic "value" to studying something that is not quite as large, and quite as "mainstream" as WoW. The early Ultima Online economy was incredibly rich and sophisticated. Star Wars Galaxies is a game that is almost completely built around the economic simulation. (No surprise the same guy was designer on both).

The WoW economy is not quite as robust or sophisticated due to the bind on pickup/soulbound mechanic, meaning once you pick up certain items, or equip MOST items, they become "soulbound" to you, and can no longer be traded to other players or sold on the auction. So, if you are a priest and cannot use a sword, you may sometime receive a great sword as a quest reward, but it is soulbound, so instead of being able to sell it to the highest bidder on the auction for perhaps hundreds of gold, you can only sell it to an NPC vendor for a few coins. The vast majority of desirable weapons and armor are "bind on pickup", with some notable exceptions. And almost all weapons and armor are "bind on equip", so therefore you can't do hand-me-downs from one higher level character to a lower level one.

And, in almost all cases, better armor and weapons drop than can be crafted by players. So, WoW gameplay centers around questing and raiding, NOT crafting. And there's nothing wrong with that. But, again, there would be more economic value to studying a system that crafting was a key component instead of a side issue.

The flip side of course is that WoW is so popular, it allows you to take very large measurements of many hundreds of thousands of players. (WoW has something like 1 million players in North America, and 4 million worldwide.)

A fellow MeFi poster I play WoW with is about 27 and was quite proud of the fact he had leveled his warrior to level 56. He was so proud he showed it to his nephew, age 13.

He was a bit surprised when the nephew logged in his own level 58 mage.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:19 AM on October 10, 2005

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