Virtual Epidemics as Learning Laboratories in Virtual Worlds

Yasmin B. Kafai, Nina H. Fefferman


In this article, we put forward the proposal to use virtual epidemics as learning laboratories for players to develop a better understanding of infectious disease, its social implications, and inquiry process. In the case of virtual epidemics, players can use their own experiences and observations of the community to learn about processes of infection and immunity, the interactions of social behavior, and reactions to perceived health risk – investigations difficult to replicate in real life due to ethical considerations. Different learning laboratories can engage students in testing different parameters in epidemic simulations, identifying and developing vaccines, analyzing archival records of past epidemics, and discussing ethical issues. Such laboratories would allow students to become epidemiologists using the very same tools that professional scientists now use to model and study the outbreak of an infectious disease. These are not unreasonable expectations given prior experiences with the virtual epidemic Whypox in, a large-scale virtual world with over 2 million youth ages 10-12 years. This article reviews past research findings and outlines new approaches for students in K-12 education to learn about and with virtual epidemics.


virtual epidemic, science inquiry, ethics, virtual laboratories

Full Text:



The full website for the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research can be found at