A Pandemic in a Video Game?
Did you know that a video game provided (and still provides) a model for scientists to study a pandemic? Well, it’s true, and it did. It being the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft and the Corrupted Blood incident. Many gamers may be familiar with this incident, but for those who aren’t, or for those who thought video games were nothing but killing monsters for points, here is the story of how a video game became more than just a game.
Back in September of 2005, a new raid was added to the popular online game World of Warcraft. The raid was called Zul’Gurub, and it contained a boss named Hakkar. For those not familiar with gaming, a raid is a special area in the game where a group of players group together to fight a series of high level characters (bosses) to gain loots or rewards (like swords and stuff). Hakkar was a flying serpent monster that provided high level players with a challenging fight. One of Hakkar’s abilities was something called Corrupted Blood. If hit with Corrupted Blood, a player would take some initial damage upon being hit but then have their health slowly drained over time. Once infected, a player could pass the infection on to other players standing nearby them. Corrupted Blood did not typically kill high level players, and only high level characters could enter Zul’Gruub and confront Hakkar. Also, Corrupted Blood was only meant to infect a player while they were in Zul’Gruub. Blizzard, the company behind World of Warcraft, had no reason to believe it would cause any major problems in the game. Boy, were they wrong.
There were factors the game developers did not consider when designing the fight: a significant factor being hunter pets. Hunters, a class in the game, have the ability to tame wild creatures out in the world, making the creature an ally to fight by their side. One of the abilities hunters have is to dismiss their pet and then summon it again at a future time and place. Hunter pets could become infected with Corrupted Blood. If a player were to dismiss their pet after the pet became infected, the timer for the infection would pause, only continuing to count down once the pet was summoned again. So if a pet was dismissed after being infected during the fight, and then summoned again, say in a big city, the infected pet would now be able to infect other players.
As mentioned, high level players didn’t typically die from Corrupted Blood. But low level players could. Once Corrupted Blood made its way into populated areas of the game, many low level characters were infected and died. The infection soon spread all over the world, littering the ground with skeletons. It became a huge problem, totally disrupting gameplay.
Scientists, especially epidemiologists, took an interest in the Corrupted Blood incident. The incident provided them a model in which they could safely study the spread of a pandemic. It was noted that Corrupted Blood spread similarly to real world diseases: it started in a remote area and was spread to more populated areas by animals. What proved interesting to those who study the incident is not just the spread of the infection, but the reactions of players, players controlled by real humans. People’s reactions turned out to be very varied. Some players made quarantined areas to protect their characters and others from the infection. Others logged in just to gawk at the chaos erupting in the game. There were also more malicious minded players; once infected, they would purposely travel to other areas to infect and kill lower level players.
Group efforts were made to keep an eye out for infected players and shout out alarms when infected players were spotted. People who had characters in the game with healing abilities logged in to heal the infected.
Eventually, Blizzard had to shut the game down and restart all servers. They also introduced a patch that made it so Corrupted Blood could not spread outside of Zu’Gruub. They also firmly maintained that their game is just that, a game. And it is a game, to played and enjoyed. But it is interesting to think what a game can teach us about the real world.