Everyone remembers the Ironforge Plague, back when Zul’Gurub was new and some enterprising raiders brought the Curse of Corrupted Blood back from fighting Hakkar, and in doing so turned the Undercity and Ironforge into a scene from a charnel house. You remember it: Skeletons lining the hallways of every urban locale, the plaintive cries of the newbies as they died matched in intensity only by the laughter of the high-end hunters who brought the curse back with them by stashing their infected pets in ZG and then releasing them in IF. At the time I recall hearing that the Centers for Disease Control were excited by this story as a way of using virtual worlds as a way of understanding the spread of disease. And a couple of months ago Elizabeth alerted me to the article in Nature in which a couple of epidemiologists discussed exactly this idea in some detail.[fn1]
Now the problem for me is that Lofgren and Fefferman’s Nature article is really nice. It’s smart and informed and actually demonstrates that the authors actually know their Jin'dos the Hexxers from their Bloodlords Mandokir. The thing is that I’ve used the “Problem with Hakkar’s Blood” as one of my standard pitches about the dangers with drawing real world conclusions from virtual world behaviors.[fn2] And the article has once again made me ask what are appropriate questions for the field of what might be labeled “computational social science.” So after the fold, I want to discuss the conclusions of the article, and ask the Terra Nova hivemind for some help with understanding what computational social science might look like.
Ok, so let’s begin with the Problem with Hakkar’s Blood. This is just another way of saying that we have to be careful about draw real world conclusions from the actions of players in virtual worlds. The milieu of all virtual worlds is different from the real world, the stakes are different, the player base is unrepresentative of real world societies, etc etc. So it’s a mistake to conclude from the Ironforge Plague that people find it amusing in the real world to infect others with a fatal disease. Coz, you know, they don’t.
The nature of the conclusions we can draw from any study of the virtual world are radically circumscribed. We can certainly conclude that, e.g. “Some people playing WoW find it funny to watch noobies of their own faction die in the hallways as a result of an overly-strong debuff.” But this is a conclusion about gameplaying, about the nature of the virtual world itself. It’s not seeking to use the study of virtual worlds to make a conclusion about human behavior more generally. So, the Problem with Hakkar’s Blood means that it’s not clear to me that we can conclude much (anything?) about transmission rates of disease based on what happened one night among the Gurubashi.
Lofgren and Fefferman’s Nature article about the plague is actually really measured about this problem. Their conclusions are essentially little more than a call for more study on how virtual worlds can be used in epidemiology. They suggest, for example, that we could reduce the reproductive value of the curse to study differential propagation rates for the disease; and to study the different rates of infection in different zones that have different population densities; and so on. The article is worthwhile because it doesn’t make any conclusions from the Ironforge Plague, but simply suggests what we could do if we could tweak the state conditions of the world and from this see what happened.
Which leads onto the issue of “computational social science,” and the questions I have of you. I think that Dmitri “Catass” Williams was the first person to suggest that we should create two virtual worlds where all-but-one of the starting conditions are the same. This would mean that we could examine player behavior under controlled conditions, and could generate useful conclusions about the significance of the “dependent variable”, i.e. the only one which differs between the two worlds. So we might have two worlds, one where certain types of communication were possible, and the other one lacking it. We could start both worlds, and then see how they differed as a result of this one difference.
I think I was the first person to call this “computational social science” [fn3] because it seemed to me to be roughly analogous to the development of computational physics, which added a brand new methodology to the previously exclusive duo of theoretical and experimental physics. Computational social science would allow us to generate all manner of amazingly powerful insights, but there are lots of problems with the development of it. Most obviously is the difficulty of building and populating virtual worlds that are intended to answer social science questions, rather than provide a fun experience for the user. And then there is the issue of cost.[fn4] But let’s assume arguendo that we can solve these problems.
My question for the Terra Nova community is how we can develop computational social science and manage the Problem with Hakkar’s Blood? That is, what sort of issues could meaningfully be examined using the computational social science of two all-but-identical virtual worlds?
One obvious—but unsatisfactory answer—is only to ask questions where the significance of the answer is confined to the virtual world (or even more constained, only the specific virtual worlds under study). So we could create two virtual worlds where, say, the only difference was the presence or absence of an auctionhouse, or real estate, or soulbound items, and then examine relative user enjoyment of each world, or retention rates, user churn, etc etc. While the answers here might be of interest to the developers, it doesn’t tell us anything interesting about human behavior in general (i.e. in the “real world”).
The more difficult approach is to do what Lofgren and Fefferman are on about, and what I take Robert to be investigating in his work. This posting isn’t really the place to engage in questions about the design of any individual experiment, but I am interested to know what people think might be appropriate areas to investigate, and how.
Epidemiology and finance have been proposed. What other areas might work for computational social science? What questions might usefully be answered? And why?
[fn1] And Elizabeth’s mom provided me with access to the article, which I’ve posted here. I’m indebted to them both.
[fn2] I’m going to persist with the “real world” vs “virtual world” dichotomy which I know is problematic. Life is short, and I’m gonna ask you to indulge me this time because the alternative language is so clunky; and besides, if I’m being honest, I’d rather be pithy than accurate. Therein lies the story of my life and my downfall, but that (as Hammy the Hamster would say) is a story for another day.
[fn3] Although inevitably it was a journalist who interviewed me, used the expression, and then failed to even mention that he had spoken with me. I love the hours and hours that I’ve spent giving “deep background” to journalists in this area, only to fail to be quoted. Truly, I don’t miss those wasted hours at all.
[fn4] Although the recent announcements of Metaspace, Croquet, Sun, etc etc do provide some indication that this might become easier over time.