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Video Game Enables Research into Real-World Pandemics
“In September 2005, programmers of the popular World of Warcraft (WoW) game introduced a blood pathogen to an area accessible only to high-level players. Due to a programming bug, the disease jumped beyond the intended area, infecting and killing many lower-level players. With a dramatic spurt of digitized blood, those who were in range of the carriers died. It did not take long before entire cities were decimated, littered with the computerized corpses of players’ characters, with survivors either running about in pandemonium or disappearing into the countryside.
The event was triggered by a programming glitch that allowed players’ “pets” and “minions” to catch the so-called Corrupted Blood disease and pass it back to other humans, combined with the ability of characters to teleport out of the restricted area—an interaction that had not been anticipated by the game’s programmers.
In the chaos and shock that ensued, several unexpected behaviors emerged as players had to make decisions about the safety and survival of their characters, and opportunities arose to pursue murderous and destructive activity. Blizzard Entertainment®, the game’s developer, set up voluntary quarantine areas when it realized what was happening, but players ignored them. Some characters with healing powers tried to help those who were sick and dying, while others who were infected but immune intentionally spread the disease by teleporting to densely populated places along with their infected pets. Thousands of virtual characters died.
These observable behaviors were incredibly useful to epidemiologists who rely on computer simulations to model pandemics. Such simulations are difficult to construct and cannot reliably predict human behavior. Infected chickens propagate diseases differently than vengeful people intent on using their infection as a weapon. Realizing that teleportation was the equivalent of modern-day air travel, epidemiologists studied the Corrupted Blood incident, exploring how the digital disease could be used to model other diseases that can jump from animals to humans, such as SARS and avian flu.
Back at Blizzard, the plague itself was contained only when programmers created a “spell” to cure the patients. If only fighting disease were so easy in the real world.”
SEE ALSO Morris Worm (1988)
A programming bug in World of Warcraft unleashed the “Corrupted Blood” disease, which spread through the online community much like a real virus in an actual pandemic.
Balicer, Ran D. “Modeling Infectious Diseases Dissemination through Online Role-Playing Games.” Journal of Epidemiology 18, no. 2 (March 2007): 260–1.
Lofgren, Eric T., and Nina H. Hefferman. “The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds to Shed Light on Real World Epidemics.” The Lancet, Infectious Diseases 7, no. 9 (September 2007): 625–29.