A Virtual Outbreak On World Of Warcraft Taught Us A Lot About How Humans Behave In Pandemics
Betwixt the mundanity of the real world and infinite virtual realities, human behaviour is fascinatingly fickle.
The gaming medium is a cipher for small-scale yet unparalleled freedom. Some venture into the Wild West Eden of Red Dead Redemption 2 in search of serenity, while others release their bottled, daily fury upon the unwitting pedestrians of Grand Theft Auto.
However, in players’ clashes with others and the world, their actions are rife for research – particularly in the case of the ‘Corrupted Blood Incident’, an online multiplayer epidemic the likes of which gamers had never seen.
Back in 2005, Blizzard Entertainment added a new raid in World of Warcraft for higher-skilled players. Named Zul’Gurub, it was equipped with a devilishly difficult end boss in the form of Hakkar the Soulflayer, a blood god.
When players attempted to slay the villain, Hakkar would cast a never-seen-before debuff spell called ‘Corrupted Blood’. Highly contagious with the capacity to drain hit points, it was a brilliant – but frustratingly difficult for gamers – ace up the game designers’ sleeves.
The spell was only intended to last for a few seconds and work within the confines of the raid area. However, as you’re probably expecting, a fateful glitch had other plans. When infected with the Corrupted Blood, not every player bucked up their courage. Many escaped, retreating to the less chaotic areas of Azeroth.
As these unwitting carriers roamed the game, other lower-level players also became infected as a result. Soon, the spell spread like a plague, causing players to explode into clouds of blood far and wide. Areas became mass graves, laden with the bones of the fallen. It was a terrifying, unprecedented event.
In the fallout of the epidemic, researchers realised its value – can you think of a better way to see how people respond in the event of an outbreak? In 2007, Eric Lofgren and Nina Fefferman, epidemiologists at Tufts University in Massachusetts at the time, published a paper in The Lancet citing the potential of the Corrupted Blood incident in redefining the measures we take when faced with a virus.
The paper explained that some ventured into the worst areas for the thrill of maybe catching the spell, while others spread it on purpose, but some players with healing abilities tried to act as de facto first responders, attempting to help their fellow players.
However, this ‘may have actually extended the course of the epidemic and altered its dynamics – for example, by keeping infected individuals alive long enough for them to continue spreading the disease, and by becoming infected themselves and being highly contagious when they rushed to another area’.
The paper added:
Of course, this behaviour could also have greatly reduced the mortality from the disease in those they treated. Such behaviour and its effects would have been extremely difficult to capture accurately in a pure-computer model.
Human response is, almost by definition, difficult to predict, requiring experiments on emotionally involved subjects to determine the proportion of the population likely to respond in various ways. This understanding would provide the groundwork for the examination of the effect of those behaviours on the system.
The Corrupted Blood outbreak continues to inform Fefferman’s research, who is now based in the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, looking at (among many other things) how ‘the social construction of risk affects the behaviour in response to it’.
Fefferman told PC Gamer:
A lot of my work since then has been in trying to build models of the social construction of risk perception, and I don’t think I would have come to that as easily if I hadn’t spent time thinking about the discussions WoW players had in real time about Corrupted Blood and how to act in the game, based on the understanding they built from those discussions.
Amid unprecedented times, video games are an easy distraction for some and an essential escape for others. But in those worlds, viruses emerge regularly – just like the software engineers, we can all do our part in patching this pandemic.
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