from WIRED

Real-World Lessons From a World of Warcraft Virtual Outbreak

Nearly 15 years ago, player responses to the “Corrupted Blood incident” helped researchers better account for unpredictable human behavior.

WHEN IT COMES to a global pandemic, human beings are the ultimate wild card. That makes it challenging to build accurate mathematical models to predict how the progress of the disease will play out. We’ve certainly seen plenty of all-too-human responses to coronavirus over the last two weeks, with some people panicking and  hoarding food, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. Others cling to denial, and still others are defying calls for “social distancing” by continuing to go to restaurants, bars, concerts, and so forth. Our epidemiological models are a bit better able to account for that unpredictability thanks in part to a virtual outbreak in World of Warcraftnearly fifteen years ago, known as the “Corrupted Blood incident.

The Corrupted Blood outbreak was not intentional. In 2005, Blizzard Entertainment added a new dungeon called Zul’Burub into World of Warcraft for highly advanced players, controlled by an “end boss” named Hakkar. Hakkar was a blood god known as the Soulflayer, who had, among his arsenal of weapons, a “debuff” spell called “Corrupted Blood.” Infected players would suffer damage at regular repeating intervals, draining away their “hit points” until their avatars exploded in a cloud of blood. The only cure was to kill Hakkar.

Blizzard thought this would ensure the infection wouldn’t spread beyond that space. They were wrong. Rather than standing their ground, many infected players panicked, teleporting out of the dungeon before dying or killing Hakkar, and taking the disease with them. And lower ranking players, with fewer hit points, would “die” very quickly upon exposure.

The biggest factor in the rapid spread of the disease was a glitch in the programming, such that non-playable animal companions also became infected. They didn’t show symptoms, but they were carriers and ended up spreading the disease even faster. As Corrupted Blood infections spread uncontrollably, game spaces became littered with virtual “corpses,” and players began to panic. Efforts at quarantine proved unsuccessful in stopping the outbreak. In the end, at least three servers were affected, and Blizzard had to reboot the entire game to correct the problem.

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