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2017 Conf. - Experiencing a designed epidemic in a virtual world: Language as symptom of engagement
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Virtual communities have become a central part of children’s social landscape, inviting thousands of children to join and play together. Occasionally particular events can bring together dispersed players to join in discussions of key importance to their virtual community. In this paper, we share findings drawn from one such event: the Dragon Swooping Cough, a virtual epidemic designed to infect thousands of players in the youth virtual world of Whyville.net. We designed the Dragon Swooping Cough virus to reflect real-life features of viruses that are particularly dangerous in the real world, like Ebola, in hopes of engaging Whyville’s citizens in considerations of how epidemics spread and the role people play in their spread and prevention. The virus succeeded at drawing a great deal of interest and emotion around the disease, especially as citizens sought to fight against (or for) infection that changed virtual appearance (dragon scales), chat (roaring), movement (swooping and circling around the screen), and finances (stopping salary deposits). To support citizens’ learning about epidemics, both real and virtual, we hosted several public discussions in Whyville’s “Greek Theater” with a professional epidemiologist. Our paper focuses on findings from these discussions.

In particular we identified humor as an intriguing form of talk around disease. Humor served several functions in the public conversations about disease. It provided a way to point out undesirable or uncomfortable aspect of diseases in a socially acceptable way, allowed participants to build rapport and elicit sympathy, enabled them to demonstrate understanding (albeit through funny comments), and provided a means to share negative feedback without offense.

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