Wake Forest researchers use online game to study flu outbreaks

Researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are using an online game to simulate the spread of an infectious disease among its players to learn how people behave during outbreaks.

The team, which consists of three economists and a computer scientist, said that the study shows how people act in multiple decision-making situations, such as whether to get a flu shot. The virtual epidemic experiment shows how people actually behave when faced with choices about whether to self-protect during widespread outbreaks, the News & Observer reports.

The game simulates an epidemic among players for several weeks, giving players the option to choose a protective action to reduce the likelihood of getting infected.

"(The study) is ultimately a study of human behavior," Frederick Chen, one of the authors of the study, said, according to the News & Observer. "I want to do a lot of experiments using this virtual disease framework. This is the first set of experiments I ran, and I wanted to show that this is a valid protocol...The fact that we have very intuitive results is actually a good thing because it further validates our experimental framework. Although there are no experiments running currently, we are applying for funding to run more experiments."

The researchers found in a baseline study that players were willing to risk not getting a shot in an effort to stay healthy without paying protection costs. Players were compensated for the experiment and they earned more points and money if they stayed healthy without getting self-protection. The game did, however, present a downside to risk takers.

"There's a downside to taking risks," Chen said, according to the News & Observer. "If you get infected, you're going to get lower points in the future. The game was set up so that if you're healthy and you don't do anything, you're going to get 60 cents (or 0.6 points) a day. But if you get sick, you're getting 10 cents per day. If you're healthy but you take self-preventive action, it's 35 or 45 cents per day. If you're super safe, you're going, 'All right, I'm going to get my 35 or 45 cents a day.' If you want the 60 cents per day, sure you can gamble and try to get that, but then that means you could get infected and end up with the 10 cents."

Chen said that he looked forward to the next phase of the experiment if the team can get more funding, the News & Observer reports.