I ran across an article while browsing Wikipedia the other day which caught my interest. It was talking about the Corrupted Blood Plague which swept through the massively multi player online game World of Warcraft. This is hardly new news, having taken place all the way back in September of 2005, but like many such things, it has bubbled to the surface at a time that I was already thinking about several related topics, and has captured my attention. The interesting thing to me had less to do with the details of what happened in this particular case than it had to do with the broader concept of what incidents like this mean to the world beyond the game.
The plauge itself was entirely virtual, and never reached past the confines of the game. Within the game, many characters were affected, but even they faced no lasting ill effects. What is interesting to me is that the way in which the events of the plague played out in the virtual world has attracted a great deal of attention from serious researchers who are interested in how observation of these phenomena can be applied to improving our understanding of the real thing.
The Corrupted Blood was a disease that a player’s character could catch in the game. It was only possible to catch the disease when participating in a specific portion of the game, when a particularly powerful enemy could ‘curse’ a player, giving them the disease. Once the player was infected, they rapidly began losing health. At the same time, they could spread the disease to other nearby players, potentially infecting the entire group of players banded together to fight the enemy.
The game was designed to prevent infected players from carrying the disease beyond the immediate vicinity of the enemy who caused it, but some particularly clever and bloody-minded players found a way around these limitations. They were able to carry the disease out into the rest of the game world. A very powerful character was required to reach the place where they could catch the disease, and a powerful character could survive its ill effects for several minutes, or even a great deal longer with the aid of healing spells and other assistance. A low-level character of the sort found in other parts of the game, however, could be killed in only a few seconds, much too quickly for someone to cure them of the disease.
As infected players, either intentionally or not, traveled from place to place in the game, they spread the disease to others. In the space of a few days, entire cities in the game were depopulated. At its peak, some servers had as many as half of the total number of players infected at one time. Some players were cured, either by themselves or others, only to be infected again. Others died and returned to the game to be infected once more. Some died over and over again, either by accident or design.
In the midst of this chaos, many players fled large cities, attempting to avoid large groups of other players. Some players rushed to help others, using their abilities to cure those who had been infected, or to heal them so that they might live long enough to be cured by another. Those players who put themselves in contact with the infected this way often contracted the disease themselves.
Other players intentionally sought out the disease, and then used their abilities to keep themselves alive long enough to spread it to as many other players as they could. These ne’er-do-wells were especially dangerous when they targeted places where players were forced to congregate near the entrances of certain areas of the game, or near places that allowed them to travel to numerous other places. The clusters of players at these locations allowed the disease to quickly spread to many other players, and by infecting several players at the start of their journeys to far-flung destinations, the disease could be quickly spread all over the game world.
The plague was a significant enough event in a game with a sufficiently huge player base (roughly 9 million players, worldwide at last count, though slightly fewer at the time of the Corrupted Blood outbreak) that it quickly gathered attention in the media. Various major media outlets reported on the events in the game. In the aftermath, researchers began to see the potential value of what had happened.
Over the course of the two years since the incident in the game, various research groups, including the Centers for Disease Control, have expressed interest in using virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and others to study how diseases spread in large populations. Epidemiologists have long used computer models to study how diseases spread, but a computer model is only as good as the understanding that went into its design. Incidents like the Corrupted Blood outbreak offer a chance to gain a better understanding of how real people react when faced with an epidemic.
Obviously, game worlds cannot be one hundred percent accurate in their modeling of human behavior. Gamers know that they are in a virtual world, and react differently than they likely would if their lives were on the line in the real world. In spite of these limitations, the events in the game offer very real insights into human reactions to communicable disease. Even better, virtual worlds allow researchers to pore over logs that allow them to see exactly what happened and when. This offers obvious advantages when compared with attempting to back trace a disease outbreak in the real world, where many of the victims might well be dead, and investigators may never be able to uncover all of the information about where the disease came from and how it spread.
Some game companies have recognized the great value that researchers in fields ranging from epidemiology to economics could gain from studying how large populations of players interact with their virtual worlds. A few have recognized business opportunities in harnessing this value. In the process, they have given shape to a budding industry. I find the concept fascinating, and it is a topic I intend to revisit here on the Buffet another time.
-posted by Mark