The Virtual Plague That Predicted A Real Pandemic
In 2005, an infectious disease killed thousands all over the world — World of Warcraft, that is. Even though it wasn’t real, the Corrupted Blood Incident has been used a model for real pandemics — including this one.
Scientists traced the origin of the plague to the vast and remote jungles of Stranglethorn Vale. The outbreak began in the troll city of Zul’Gurub, unknowingly carried back to the four corners of Azeroth by brave bands of unstoppable heroes. They may be some of the mightiest warriors in all the land, but they were not immune to this plague. They had contracted it while vanquishing the fearsome Blood God, Hakkar the Soulflayer. Soon much of the realm would be infected with Corrupted Blood. Untold numbers would die.
The scientists observed with great fascination that the disease did not remain localized within the lair of the Blood God, as it should have been. Cases soon emerged in the dense population centers of Azeroth. It swept through packed marketplaces, ale houses, and inns — leaving the streets littered with the bones of the dead.
Curiously, teleportation greatly increased the disease’s reach. In an instant, a level 50 Dwarf Warrior could bring the disease from the isolated and abandoned city of Zul’Gurub to the bustling urban center of Ironforge. From there, any race the dwarf came in close contact with could be infected, from elf to orc to human, regardless of allegiance. But large portions of the population would experience no ill effects from the disease and carry the infection without displaying any symptoms whatsoever. Yet they could still expose everyone they came into contact with.
The scientists calculated a startlingly high basic reproductive rate for the disease. A single carrier could infect something on the order of 1000 individuals every hour. By comparison, measles — one of the most infectious diseases on planet Earth — has a reproductive rate of about 18.
Not only was the disease highly contagious, it was also extremely deadly.
A level 50 Dwarf Warrior could shake off the disease with little ill effects, but a level 5 Rogue would have little to no defense against such a disease. Their HP would quickly be depleted. Death would be swift.
But the disease had another transmission route. The pets of these mighty warriors, mages, and warlocks could become infected as well and act as disease vectors. So when a guild returned victorious from Zul’Gurub, so did their familiars. Showing no symptoms, these animal companions could spread the disease without anybody being the wiser.
And so the plague descended upon great Azeroth, all the way from Kalimdor to the Eastern Kingdoms. It was a full-blown pandemic by the scientists’ standards. Quarantine measures were instituted to slow the spread, but to the scientists’ consternation, many didn’t comply. Selfless heroes rushed to the aid of the sick and dying with healing spells and magic buffs, only to expose themselves to the deadly affliction. Alliance and Horde alike evacuated the cities. In a panic, some retreated from the realm altogether.
Rumors spread almost as fast as the disease itself. Almost immediately, the plague was accused of being orchestrated, manufactured even — although all the scientists agreed it clearly arose naturally and accidentally.
But a planned plague intrigued the scientists. The data they could glean from such an experiment was almost too enticing. But no sane ruler would allow them to do such a thing.
And yet none of it was real, the scientists had to admit. It was all a game. Even death was merely an annoyance. The afflicted would re-spawn moments after drawing their last breath. All the townspeople who spread the disease unknowingly weren’t people at all. They were programs. Non-player characters.
But there were real people. They may not be dwarves or elves or warriors in reality, but behind those avatars were actual human beings, with typical human desires and motives. The virtual world of Azeroth might live on four separate servers in data centers across the United States, but the scientists contend, it could stand in for the real world and act as a model of actual human behavior.
And real humans are notoriously tricky to model.
But by all accounts, the Corrupted Blood Incident in World of Warcraft in September of 2005 was a surprisingly accurate simulation of how an infectious disease spreads in a population and how that population might respond.
In real life, new diseases often emerge from far flung corners of our world, like Zul’Gurub. Animals can become vectors, just like Avian flu. While the real world doesn’t have teleportation, air travel can make an infectious disease go global in a very short time. People in real life outbreaks often flaunt quarantine measures, just as the players did in World of Warcraft. First responders and healthcare workers will be the first to rush into the epidemic zones to help the sick, often infecting themselves in the process. Disease outbreaks can be so rife with rumors and conspiracy theories that this has led to the term “infodemic,” describing the parallel spread of misinformation during a pandemic. And the World of Warcraft forums experienced an infodemic of their own as players tried to make sense of the disease plaguing the game.
And so scientists studied the game, hoping to gain insight into how we would respond to a real pandemic by observing a virtual one. In fact, the prospect of being able to run a simulated pandemic in a controlled environment appealed to the scientists. Variables could be modified. Increase the death rate. Lengthen the incubation period. All data could be captured in real time and recorded for posterity. The outbreak could be repeated endlessly. Hypotheses could be tested, then confirmed or repudiated. All with real live people behind it all and without any loss of life. Any massive multiplayer online role playing game could be turned into a virtual epidemiological playground for them. The scientific possibilities excited them to no end.
But games like that are expensive to build. Far outside the budgets of most research institutions.
So the scientists had to content themselves with the 2005 Corrupted Blood Incident in World of Warcraft.
One behavioral oddity stood out. A small subset of players would actively get infected and spread the disease. The scientists described them as virtual bioterrorists. But in the online world, they are called “griefers.” These are players that actively impede the game’s progress and generally take pleasure in ruining other people’s fun.
Without a doubt, they made the Corrupted Blood Incident worse.
But the scientists mostly dismissed the griefers. No one in real life would act in such a way, they thought. No one would just go out during a pandemic and risk catching the disease, risk exposing more people and risk killing people. People in the real world wouldn’t behave so recklessly and maliciously. A human life would not be treated so carelessly. Not if you couldn’t restart your game. Not if death was final.
That is a problem with the Corrupted Blood Incident and any virtual plague for that matter, the scientists admitted. Online, death is only a temporary setback. A life in World of Warcraft — whether it be human or dwarf or orc — isn’t worth that much. After all, the plague was finally rested under control by rebooting the entire world and bringing everybody and everything back to life with the flip of a switch — so to speak.
But if they ever got the chance to run this experiment again, the scientists proposed that any future disease in an online virtual world like World of Warcraft should be tailored to attack something that really matters to the game — like weapons and treasure. Items of real value. Then the disease would have real stakes and that could bring a virtual pandemic a little closer to reality.
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