Using a Virtual Epidemic to Educate
Virtual epidemics have existed for a while now; the most famous undoubtedly being World of Warcraft's corrupted blood disease, which in 2005 spiralled out of control and spread infection across many servers, killing off player characters in near endless waves. Fixing the problem was a major headache for Blizzard.
However, what if you could use a plague in a VR social or gameworld, as a tool for education? That is what Whyville is now successfully doing.
Whyville is an older virtual environment geared specifically for kids - in fact it was one of the first such to be successful. It is based round socialisation and education for youngsters in a safe online environment. However, it is starting to go beyond that. For the last three years, they have been emulating Corrupted Blood, but with a deliberate goal in mind: To teach kids the value of inoculation.
The US CDC (Centre for Disease Control) has teamed up with Whyville in a multi-year experiment that is starting to see real results. Their weapon of choice is a nasty, flu-like condition which covers sick avatars in very visible, pulsing red spots and sores, and causes them to sneeze randomly. The sneezes break apart any conversation the children are trying to have, making them a real nuisance. They also spread the disease to everyone within a certain radius of the sneezer, making these avatars very unpopular. The disease itself lasts for five days, then peters out.
The infection pattern mimics physical virus spread patterns which was very deliberate, allowing the flu to quickly spread through entire population centers, and turning the infected into social pariahs.
There is no cure for the disease, other than to let it run its course. However, there is a vaccine which can innoculate whyville's citizens from getting the disease for a whole year. Its not compulsory, and is something the whyvillians have to pay for, using clams - the local currency - that they have spent time and effort earning inside Whyville's many tasks and games.
The CDC annually sets up a field clinic and advertises flu shots at the rate of five clams, a very cheap thing indeed, but still five clams is five clams. Where's the benefit? The first year this was run, most whyvillians experienced doubt, and declined to take the injection. Whammo. Immeditately after the field office closed, outbreaks started to appear, and red boils and sneezing started to break out everywhere.
Suddenly the now-closed field office was mobbed by those still infection-free, desperately seeking a solution. The CDC opened the office again, and citizens could not pile in fast enough. The lesson was clear, and it hit home.
The kids remembered.
In the second year, most Whyvillians were ready and eager for the vaccinations before the outbreak started. Those who were not, became infected, again. However, 20,000 accounts were vaccinated, and the outbreak was far smaller.
2008 marks the third year of the trials. There are now two separate diseases, WhyFlu and WhyPox.
The vaccination program has expanded to include live broadcast lectures and Q&A sessions between experts and residents on vaccination, innoculation and disease control. These kids are taking that knowledge out into the wider world with them, discussing it with their parents and it is having an effect on flu vaccination results in the wider world.
This year, they ran a special Vaccinate Your Grandparent program. Whyville City Hall proclaimed that particular effort with elders a big success with some 40,000 folk vaccinated.