They’re already starting to turn to simulated universes to study economics and human behavior, and now scientists hope to use online worlds to predict the impact of plagues, too. Epidemiologists first identified the scientific value of these virtual worlds after an imaginary virus began to spread unchecked in the popular online game World of Warcraft.

In 2005, programmers released a contagious disease called “Corrupted Blood” into a new zone in the game. At first, the disease effected some players, while others shrugged it off. But then it began to spread, both through avatars – virtual versions of real world people – and their pets. The game’s overlords, Blizzard Entertainment, actually had to shut down World of Warcraft and re-boot the system to get things running normally again.

Scientists who study these problems in the real world typically deal in mathematical simulations, but the World of Warcraft case presented an opportunity to study the behavioral side of plagues, too. If epidemiologists can get a better idea of how people might react in such situations, they may be able to build stronger models, which will in turn help them predict what would happen in the real world. A group of scientists is in talks with Blizzard to see how they can work together in the future.—Gregory Mone