How video games could help protect the agriculture industry

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) New research is out on how to keep animal diseases out of farms.

Europe and Asia are right now battling outbreaks of African swine fever. The disease is forcing farmers to cull thousands of pigs and is driving up the price of the pork you buy.

American farmers are afraid the disease will crop up here. That's because back in 2013, a different type of pig virus spread through 33 states here, wiping out 7 million pigs which is about 10 percent of the nation's swine.

Boosting biosecurity practices is the best way for farms to prevent that from happening again. But some farms do and others don't.

University of Vermont researchers are using video games to predict how human behavior could impact animal disease outbreaks. It's part of a $7.4 million biosecurity initiative going on on campus now.

Our Cat Viglienzoni found out how their projections could help protect the agriculture industry.

Tracking a pig diarrhea virus through farms doesn't sound like a video game you'd even think of developing... unless you're in UVM's Social Ecological Gaming and Simulation Lab.

"What happens on a farm doesn't stay on a farm," researcher Gabriela Bucini said.

Bucini says in the past, disease outbreak projections didn't include how human behavior factors in. Their work changes that.

"Once you learn how people behave, the next question is how do we apply this in a larger system?" Bucini explained.

To get data, they paid players to go through a series of video games and make decisions about how much risk they were willing to expose their swine herd to-- designed to mimic scenarios farmers would face daily. And then, they used that data to simulate how a hog disease would spread if it were introduced.

"These are real problems that people are dealing with. These are like life-changing problems when a disease goes through their barn, they feel crushed," researcher Scott Merrill said.

Merrill says billions of dollars of losses may come down to how farmers view decisions like washing hands. Their simulations found small shifts in human behavior can have dramatic impacts. Reducing risk tolerance a little helped everyone a lot.

"We're changing people's willingness to obey rules from 30 percent to over 80 percent of people following the rules by just changing the way we're talking about it in a situation," Merrill said.

And while video games can't fully predict how people will react in the real world, the game's designers say more interaction makes it more real for participants.

"You can do a lot of different things with experimental games. You can also do the same sort of things with surveys-- a piece of paper-- but people react differently if it's a piece of paper in front of you," Merrill said.

The next step is to take the simulations to an even more realistic level. The lab is currently working on versions for virtual reality. They hope that will give them even more accurate depictions of people's behavior.

Click here for more on UVM's research into curbing animal disease outbreaks.