A Virtual Plague Known As the ‘Corrupted Blood’ Incident in WOW Actually Saved Lives

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A Virtual Plague Known As the ‘Corrupted Blood’ Incident in WOW Actually Saved Lives

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By now, it’s an almost impossibility for most of us to not have already heard about the infamous massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) known as World of Warcraft (WOW). At its peak some years ago, the game had a total of over 12 million paying subscriptions, and about 2 million players constantly in the game. A world within another world, some may call it. In any case, what is little known about the game, however, especially by those of us who haven’t played it, is that in 2005 the game came on step closer to real-life than ever before.

As the game has seemingly no end in sight, in order to keep it interesting, the developers at Blizzard bring new challenges to it constantly. One of these changes came in the form of the new raid Zul’Gurub and its end boss Hakkar the Soulflayer. Here, a group of players would band together in an effort to destroy that creature. However, as part of the challenge, that said boss used a spell against those players, known as ‘Corrupted Blood’. Unlike many other spells in the game, this one was contagious and could spread from one player to the next; slowly but surely killing them.

Hakkar The Soulflayer. Image Source: Hacker
Hakkar The Soulflayer. Image Source: Hacker

The spell intended to last only seconds and function only within the new area of Zul’Gurub. But because of an oversight in designing the mission, the spell wasn’t effectively contained in that said area, and quickly spread all throughout the virtual world. This event became known as the ‘Corrupted Blood’ Incident.

What’s so interesting about it is that the incident became a perfect simulation of what would happen if the real-world would have been hit by a similar plague of Apocalyptic proportions. So much so, that the event attracted the attention of epidemiologists for its implications of how human populations could react to one such event.

The “disease” was especially virulent, as it was not intended for low-level players, and it could kill them in mere seconds. Those who faced the boss were of higher level and could better withstand it. However, because of the programming error, the players’ summoned pets and minions who took part in the battle didn’t recover once they cleared the challenge and soon enough infected the entire game. Moreover, the non-playing characters in the game could also get infected, but were, let’s say immune to the diseases, but could nevertheless infect players with it.

Lasting for about a week, the ‘Corrupted Blood’ Incident effectively put an end to normal gameplay, as all cities within the game became deserted. Either because the players were dropping off like flies, or because they evacuated the densely packed settlements in order to seek refuge in the relative safety of the countryside. Discussion forum posters described seeing hundreds of bodies lying in the streets of the towns and cities.

Dead WoW avatars killed by the Corrupted Blood plague. Image Source: Stick Twiddlers
Dead WoW avatars killed by the Corrupted Blood plague. Image Source: Stick Twiddlers

Even though dying in the game isn’t permanent, and players would respawn more or less instantaneously, dying in such a way is disadvantageous to the player’s character and incurs inconvenience. Moreover, a few quite interesting events happened within the game which really made the incident a perfect simulation to possible real-life events, drawing the attention of behavior scientists.

When the plague transformed into a full-blown epidemic, some players with healing capabilities willingly offered their services in the hopes of solving the problem. Others who didn’t have these healing capabilities volunteered to guide other players to uninfected areas. While others deliberately infected as many players as possible. Blizzard Entertainment attempted to institute a voluntary quarantine to stem the disease, but it failed, as some players didn’t take it seriously, while others took advantage of the pandemonium. Despite these and other security measures, Bizzard only solved the problem by instituting hard resets of the servers and applying quick fixes; in other words – cheating.

By then end of the “plague”, entire cities were completely abandoned, and many players stopped playing altogether. Jeffrey Kaplan—a game designer for World of Warcraft—stated that it gave them ideas for possible real events in the future. Brian Martin—independent security consultant for World of Warcraft—commented that it presented an in-game dynamic that was not expected by players or Blizzard developers and that it reminds people that even in controlled online atmospheres, unexpected consequences can occur. He also compared it to a computer virus, stating that while it is not as serious, it also reminds people of the impact computer code can have on them, and they’re not always safe, regardless of the precautions they take.

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The origins and pathways of some of the world’s major epidemics. (Click photo to enlarge). Image Source: Blogspot

But while the incident proved to be a temporary nuisance for the players at the time, the scientific community had a field-day with it, proving to be a perfect simulation for a real-life pandemic research. Many scientific papers were published in the following years on the subject and comparing the Corrupted Blood incident with those of the recent SARS and avian influenza outbreaks.

Health officials in protective suits transport sacks of poultry as part of preventive measures against the H7N9 bird flu at a poultry market in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, China, on Jan. 6, 2014. Image Source: Al Jazeera America
Health officials in protective suits transport sacks of poultry as part of preventive measures against the H7N9 bird flu at a poultry market in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, China, on Jan. 6, 2014. Image Source: Al Jazeera America

Moreover, in an analysis of the Corrupted Blood incident, Charles Blair, deputy director of the Center of Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, said that World of Warcraft could provide a powerful new way to study how terrorist cells form and operate. He was referring to those players who were infecting others deliberately during the outbreak. Blair explained that because World of Warcraft involves real people making real decisions in a world with controllable bounds, which could provide more realistic models for military intelligence analysts.

The Plague in the game