The year was 2005 and World of Warcraft was one of the hottest games on the PC market with over 2 million active players. Released in 2004, it had already broken numerous records for most active players and its expansive Gameworld; but something was about to happen in this MMORPG that had never been seen in gaming before.
In September of 2005, Blizzard (the developers of the game) released a new raid into the game. (For the uninitiated, a raid is a dungeon containing bosses and mobs that players can take on with other players around the world for experience and valuable in -game items.) The raid called Zul’Gurub was but the latest to be added and contained and end raid boss called Hakkar. It was not the boss however that caused the problems that would later seep into the game but the effects that he had on players during the battle.
Hakkar had a ‘debuff’ effect called Corrupted Blood, which over time chipped away at the players health over the course of the battle and could be transmitted as it were to other players in proximity. This was one of the mechanics of the fight and within the confines of the raid made tackling the boss a more formidable task. However, when it was found that some classes could take the debuff outside the raid, all hell broke loose.
The Corrupted Blood spread from the confines of the raid to the outer world where it’s ability to spread from player to play caused havoc. Not only could it spread to players; NPC’s could also contract the debuff as well and although they couldn’t die from it, they could transmit it. This all lead to the major cities of Azaroth being mostly uninhabitable, with the city streets being littered with the corpses of fallen players.
The incident lasted for two weeks until Bizzard patched the aspect of the game that allowed the Corrupted Blood to be transmitted outside of the raid dungeon. The way that players reacted to the epidemic however was of interest to many researchers and organisations, many of which saw the potential merits of studying the incident, for lack of a better word, organic nature of the outbreak.
This included healer characters who helped to Shepard people from harm who were essentially trapped in the high player density areas; and lower level players who helped usher players away from the worst affected areas. This combined with the way that the bug spread trough the player base is what interested researchers most. Researchers likened it to a real life epidemic as it originated in an area of low population density area and spread rapidly to the major population centres in the game, this in tandem with its ability to spread by proximity and through asymptomatic vectors showed true parallels to real life outbreaks.
The data mined and correlated by the in-game incident could hopefully have some parallels with what would happen in a human population, which in turn could help with preparedness to any future epidemics.
Events like this show how increasingly the virtual world can reflect our own; giving us insight into the way people behave and think unlike anything we’ve seen in human history.
By Ryan Pointon