Other medical professionals might be worried about whether or not games like World of Warcraft are addictive, but a recent game event has caused social scientists to use such games to study how real people might behave should a sudden epidemic should arise. The event in question involved an easily transferable blood plague that spread among the inhabitants of the world. Much like what might have happened in real life, some people helped to stay the afflicted despite putting themselves at risk, other people trying to stay away from the affected areas, and other people deliberately spreading the plague.
Truthfully, this is not the first time that a game has mimicked real life. Economists started to look at Everquest, which at the time had the fifth largest economy in the world shortly after its release. Students of the discipline used its model to study trends that might happen in real economies and a few cynics commented on the people willing to trade real world money for products or services in the game.
The intent of the designers may not have been a place to give epidemologist, sociologists, and economists a place to study real world trends and experiment relatively harmlessly with their pet theories, but it seems that as the games more closely mimic the world in which we all inhabit, social scientists find the types of behaviors people exhibit in the game a fertile ground for developing real world models. Part of the reason is that although there is no real danger present in the games, players will treat their characters almost as carefully as they treat themselves.
The negative impacts of games such as Everquest, World of Warcraft, and my new favorite Sword of the New World will likely be debated for many years to come. For people who study disease the virtual computer models overcome the one factor that overcomes study in the real world. Ethic concerns prohibit them from unleashing an epidemic just to see what the results will be so what results they could obtain had to be from retrospective and and observational studies.
Fundamentalist Christians may complain about the possible moral corruption caused by fantasy gaming, but it seems that some good may come out of them whether or not the players intended to be a part of it. Be wary, the next time you do an in game event, a sociologist may be closely watching your behavior.