Virtual Epidemics

How do you kill that… which has NO LIFE? Apparently with an epidemic. 

I am absolutely HYPED for the release of Classic World of Warcraft. And with that, I would like to look back at one of the most interesting glitches this game has seen. A full-fledged pandemic threatened the World… of Warcraft.

Although the World of Warcraft is a digital fantasy environment, it mimics the real world in a lot of ways. This digital environment has both densely populated cities and scarce countrysides. There is a lot of travel back and forth in both fast (flying/teleporting) and slow (foot/mounted) manners. And its own marketplace with an economy that resembles our own stock market. You can wonder whether disease would spread in a similar manner in the World of Warcraft, as in our own world… 

One day in 2005, a new raiding dungeon opened: Zul’Gurub. This is a 20-man raiding dungeon in the lush Jungle of Stranglethorn vale. It demanded the players to battle a large number of Jungle Trolls worshipping their Old Troll Gods that -of course- wished to wreak havoc on the World… of Warcraft. The problem arose after defeating the fearsome God Hakkar: the God of Blood. On its death, Hakkar curses the Players with a disease: ‘Corrupted Blood’. The ‘Corrupted Blood’ disease could be passed on for only a few seconds and inflicted enough damage that weakened characters could die. This disease was supposed to stay confined within the raiding zone. However… a glitch allowed this disease to be transported to major cities. This is where the virtual shit hit the fan. 
Hakkar, wow
Hakkar, the god of blood, in Zul'Gurub. From World of Warcraft: Chronicle Volume 3. Artwork by Bayard Wu
Hakkar originally releases the 'Corrupted Blood Disease' which infects both humanoids and animals. Later, these pets act as an Animal Resevoir and transmit the disease to more humanoids.

Once the ‘Corrupted Blood disease’ arrived in bigger cities like Ogrimmar it was able to spread to different players, who then spread it as well. Here it became an epidemic. And most strikingly, players responded to the Corrupted Blood Epidemic in a similar way to how people would react to epidemics in real life. Players fled to low-inhabited areas to avoid the disease. Some tried to keep players from infected cities by warning others. Some players with healing abilities chose to stay in infected areas and attempted to heal diseased characters. Here we see that not even the World of Warcraft is safe from unexpected epidemic outbreaks…

The major reason for the spread of ‘Corrupted Blood’ were pets. In World of Warcraft, players can have small pets that follow them around. They are cute and disease-ridden, just like some real life pets. When cursed with the ‘Corrupted Blood’ in Zul’Gurub, players have left the combat zone after the few seconds during which the disease was infectious. This was supposed to ensure that the disease would not spread into the World… of Warcraft. However… the pets were also able of carrying and spreading the disease – but they did not die. Here, the pets became an asymptomatic-yet-infective animal reservoir. Meaning that they did not show symptoms of the disease but were able to spread the infection. This effect was not anticipated by the game creators, so the epidemic was a surprise for everyone. 


There are some unique problems to epidemics in online games. During the ‘Corrupted Blood epidemic’, some players went on a mission to spread the disease as far as possible, like an act of terrorism. Or perhaps curiosity. This is an example of meta-gaming, where you don’t play the game as it’s intended, but when you make a play on the game. Can you judge these players for ‘trolling’ or playing the game the way they enjoy it? Nope. It even slightly matches some real-life problems, as there have been cases where people knowingly spread HIV. I think these cases make an MMORPG a more interesting object of study for epidemics than a simulation in which every human would adhere to rules set in place by the programmer. Instances where people don’t follow rules – like not going into quarantine, not getting tested, or traveling despite a ban – cause major real-life problems. Here, I believe recalcitrant behavior makes a simulation more realistic and interesting. 

It would be absolutely immoral to spread a disease in the real world, just to see how it spreads and how people respond to it. But… a virtual world would give the opportunity to do just that. Should MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV become platforms to observe behavior and spread of epidemics? Players could be tagged with a visible or invisible ‘disease’, and the response could be monitored. Things like medication (for a price), vaccination or immunity could even be included. Besides being interesting for researchers, it would be a great way to generate awareness for how easily epidemics can spread. 


World of Warcraft is a product of Blizzard Entertainment