In addition to real-time strategy games, I also enjoy MMOs from time to time. Currently this means the semi-new release – Star Wars: The Old Republic. Today an in-game event started that could have real-world implications for studying diseases and their transmission.
By traveling across the galaxy and encountering Rakghouls, you become infected. First there is an incubation stage debuff “Lightheaded” which has symptoms of “Dizzyness and nausea”. After 10 minutes it changes to “Feverish” – “Medical attention might be required”. In addition to showing visible symptoms(noxious green clouds and evil glowy eyes) you can gain “Sickness” which causes you to turn green and double over in pain - “That can’t be good”. In another 10 minutes the infected player reaches the end-stage and explodes in a burst of green goo, “dying” and infecting anyone without a vaccine or active infection in range.
This event is not isolated in the MMO gaming world, as World of Warcraft had a Corrupted Blood outbreak (unintentional) as well as the Zombie Scourge event (intentional).
The reason this can be compared to the real world is that it has a set behavior that in some ways mimics actual infections.
1. It can be avoided through immunization. In-game Medical droids sell a 6 hour vaccine that is instantly and 100% effective. Vaccines can be a hotly debated issue but they are at least effective at doing what they claim to do. Unlike the real world, it also prevents one from carrying the virus to infect others.
2. In order to cause a mass outbreak, it is necessary to travel to high populated zones. Because infecting one or two suckers in some backwater cantina isn’t as satisfying as exploding on the Fleet and watching them all turn green.
3. New strains and new victims must be found, or the virus will reach critical mass and die out.
Unlike real-life, the virus is transmitted only by exploding at the end of the course of illness and not in the initial phases when most real-world diseases are most communicable.
For the purposes of this piece, each time a player gets infected it is an original strain. However, the virus has certain properties that limit its behavior. For instance, if a player is already infected, they are immune to further infection and will not be affected by any new strains that are introduced during that period. This is why new victims must constantly be found. Furthermore, the more people that become infected with a strain, the more quickly it will reach critical mass where all players are immune from vaccination or previous infection – and so the strain dies out. A staggered timeline with multiple strain introduction is necessary to maintain a high level of population infection.
Pragmatically, this manifests itself in the multiple simultaneous explosions (on Jung Ma, near the PVP vendors on Republic Fleet). Unless a player feels like waiting 20 minutes to be reinfected by the same strain they just passed on, they rely on other strains incubating in other hosts to speed up the process. Though this event is very new, I can imagine the plague dying out during low-population hours and needing new strains to reignite the outbreak.
Clearly this is not a direct corollary between game and life, (especially considering the in-game incentives to infect others) but I think it can (and probably will) be used to test the behavior of outbreaks and perhaps offer insight into real life phenomena. Perhaps this is only the first stage and this in-game virus will change its behavior through mutation, becoming more communicable with more deadly symptoms. I eagerly await the results.
Edit: It seems that the Changing Phase bug or dying prematurely (such as infecting others in a Warzone) – really anything that changes the timing of the explosion, by my definition, causes a new strain to “mutate”. There is more variety to the virus strains than I had originally thought.