Corrupted Blood Incident: WoW’s Virtual Pandemic as a Model for Medical Research

World of Warcraft
Indeed.

Back in September 2005, there was a pandemic in the MMORPG World of Warcraft video game. The actions of gamers (mass panic, empathy, malice etc.) were similar to real-world behaviour.

The incident was subsequently put in use as a model for epidemic research by the Centre for Disease Control and other epidemiologists.

The Corrupted Blood Incident

Okay, some context here. WoW is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. MMORPG for short.

It’s a fantasy world like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings. It’s played online, with millions of gamers interacting with each other across the world.

We got pretty addicted to it in 2009 through to 2012. So we missed the 2005 pandemic, but researched it around a decade ago and it piqued our interest.

Blizzard Entertainment created, and runs, the game. On September 13th, 2005, the developer introduced a new quest called Zul’Gurub.

The boss at the end of it, Hakkar the Soulflayer, had an ability to infect players with an exsanguination attack. That’s blood draining (we always like to use that bigger word).

That attack was called Corrupted Blood, which was contagious and could infect other players.

Now, Blizzard had intended for the attack to remain in that one new area.

But due to a programming oversight, infected players could take it out into the normal areas in WoW.

And so it quickly got out of Zul’Gurub. And then spread like bloody wildfire. Only when a character died did it disappear.

When you die in WoW, your character regenerates elsewhere. So it’s not too big a deal, but it’s an inconvenience enough to trigger off notoriously touchy gamers.

Once the asymptomatic disease carriers started visiting heavily populated areas, Corrupted Blood began passing from player to player.

The popular destination Ironforge was badly affected. And what interested medical minds (our term for epidemiologists) was the psychology of WoW enthusiasts.

The response from players was quite startling, in retrospect. Behaviour included:

  • Mass panic: Abandoning cities and populated areas to go into solitude.
  • Magnanimous efforts: Players with healing abilities volunteered their services to help anyone infected, helping to preserve life.
  • Empathy: Lower-level players assisted with directing others out of infected areas, as they couldn’t assist with healing.
  • Malice: Deliberately spreading the disease.

The last point is noteworthy, as some players ran amok in WoW infecting as many others as possible. This led to them being classified as “WoW terrorists”.

The game had over two million subscribers in late 2005, with many reporting in online forums that the streets of Ironforge etc. were lined with dead bodies.

Blizzard quickly setup a quarantine area to try and control the virtual disease. Normal gameplay, however, was severely disrupted as chaos took hold.

Eventually, to fix the issue the developer took drastic measures and hard reset the servers. The disease outbreak lasted for a week, with the issue solved for good by October 8th 2005.

It was such a big deal the press picked up on the incident. And that’s when Professor Nina Fefferman entered the fray with some progressive insights.

The Aftermath

In typical toxic gamer fashion, many WoW enthusiasts got belligerent. Blizzard received many calls from players irritated in the way they’d died.

That’s actually quite time by gamer standards, many of whom are quite happy to send developers death threats. Really, that petulant sect is what continues to embarrass us as lifelong gamers.

Anyway, others simply abandoned the game until they’d heard there was a fix. Blizzard game designer Jeffrey Kaplan said:

“We'd implemented a new dungeon which included a spell effect called 'Corrupted Blood'. It was a spell that did damage to you, and if you came near other players, the spell effect passed on to them. The idea was that this spell existed only in this dungeon, but there was a bug and it got out. Players went back into towns and were spreading it to other players. We quickly resolved the issue, but what surprised us was that on the game's forums, players were like: 'Wow, what a fantastic world event! The day the plague wiped out Ironforge!' We got calls from the CDC - the Centre for Disease Control - saying, ‘Hey, what's all this about the disease in your game? We want to look at the simulation data - it might help us in a real-world situation.’ We kept saying: ‘No, no, no, it's just a bug! We fixed it, it's just a game!’"

So, yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did in deed get in contact with Blizzard. They were after statistics about player activity.

But its easily comparable to real-life events. The disease got out of one area, was carried by players across the WoW, and the result was bedlam.

Interest in the outbreak continued thanks to Professor Nina Fefferman (PhD). Interviewed above, she was at the time an assistant research professor of public health and family medicine.

In 2007 she published a paper titled The untapped potential of virtual game worlds to shed life on real world epidemics. She noted:

“Since players gathered in common areas, the outbreaks were characterised by staggeringly high reproductive rates (R0), which we estimate at 102  per hour for the capital cities and transportation hubs, based on the few parameters known for the disease … Although the reproductive value for this particular disease was too high to accurately reflect the dynamics of any real-world pathogen, future experiments could easily tailor the parameters controlling disease transmission and mortality to more accurately reflect a wide variety of pathogens.”

There’s an interesting parallel to what’s happening on Earth right now she also documented:

“Although highly contagious, the disease in World of Warcraft may very well have run its course naturally in a very short period of time. To the game's powerful players, the disease was no more threatening than the common cold in a healthy adult. Less powerful characters (who were never intended to enter Zul'Gurub or encounter the disease), died very quickly from its effects.”

Right there with our present threat (coronavirus, if you’re forgotten) we have a mixture of issues.

Billionaires (the “powerful”) displaying their cowardice, legging it into hiding on personal islands. Plus, how our real-life virus hits those with underlying health issues.

Further parallels with coronavirus issues are documented:

“In an effort to control the outbreak, Blizzard Entertainment employees imposed quarantine measures, isolating infected players from as-yet uninfected areas.6 These strategies failed because of the highly contagious nature of the disease, an inability to seal off a section of the game world effectively, and more than likely player resistance to the notion. The game's developers did, however, have an option that remains unavailable to public-health officials: resetting the computers. When the servers ravaged by the epidemic were reset and the effect removed, the outbreak came to a halt.”

Despite this research, Blizzard consistently maintained that WoW is a game—it isn’t designed to mirror reality.

Yet there are, obviously, similarities to whats occurring now. Just without the bog roll hoarding.

However, the Corrupted Blood incident is certainly a freaky reminder of how quickly things can get out of control.

And whilst in WoW death is primarily a nuisance, with coronavirus the repercussions could reshape our entire socioeconomic outlook.

Stay safe, everyone! Wash your hands. Isolate if necessary. And, in an ironic twist, if you do so video games are a glorious pursuit during a pandemic.

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