In 2005 one small coding error caused a pandemic that killed millions in the famous online game World of Warcraft – The Corrupted Blood pandemic.
This event was forever remembered as “The Corrupted Blood Pandemic”.
The Corrupted Blood incident was a virtual pandemic in the online MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft, which began the 13th of September 2005, and lasted for almost a month.
The epidemic began with the introduction of the new area Zul’Gurub and its end boss Hakkar the Soulflayer.
When confronted and attacked, Hakkar would cast a point-draining and highly contagious debuff spell called “Corrupted Blood” on players.
The spell, intended to last only seconds and function only within the new area of Zul’Gurub, soon spread across the virtual world.
Due to a programming oversight, when hunters or warlocks dismissed their pets, those pets would keep any active debuffs when summoned again.
Non-player characters could contract the debuff and could not be killed by it, but could still spread it to players; in effect, this turned them into asymptomatic disease carriers and a form of vector for the debuff.
At least three of the game’s servers were affected. Discussion forum posters described seeing hundreds of bodies lying in the streets of the towns and cities.
Deaths in World of Warcraft are not permanent, as characters are resurrected shortly afterward. However, dying in such a way is disadvantageous to the player’s character and incurs inconvenience.
By both accidental and purposeful intent, a pandemic that quickly killed lower-level characters and drastically changed normal gameplay, developed, and players did what they could do to avoid infection.
Player responses varied but resembled real-world behaviors.
Some characters with healing abilities volunteered their services, some lower-level characters who could not help would direct people away from infected areas, some characters would flee to uninfected areas, and some characters attempted to spread the disease to others.
Players in the game reacted to the disease as if there were real risk to their well-being.
Blizzard Entertainment attempted to institute a voluntary quarantine to stem the disease, but it failed, as some players didn’t take it seriously, while others took advantage of the pandemonium.
Despite certain security measures, players overcame them by giving the disease to summonable pets.
Blizzard was forced to fix the problem by instituting hard resets of the servers and applying quick fixes.
The plague ended on the 8th of October 2005, when Blizzard made pets unable to be affected by Corrupted Blood, thereby rendering it unable to exist outside of Zul’Gurub.
At the time, World of Warcraft had more than two million players all over the world. Before Blizzard Entertainment commented on the outbreak, there was debate whether it was intentional or a glitch.
On Blizzard’s forums, posters were commenting about how it was a fantastic world event and calling it “the day the plague wiped out Ironforge.”
An editor of a World of Warcraft fan site described it as the first proper world event.
After the incident began, Blizzard received calls from angry customers complaining about how they just died and Some players abandoned the game altogether until the problem was fixed.
The people who spread the disease out of malice were described by Security Focus editor Robert Lemos as terrorists of World of Warcraft.
He commented that this might be the first time a disease passed from player to player in a game.
Brian Martin, independent security consultant for World of Warcraft, commented that it presented an in-game dynamic that was not expected by players or Blizzard developers and that it reminds people that even in controlled online atmospheres, unexpected consequences can occur.
He also compared it to a computer virus, stating that while it is not as serious, it also reminds people of the impact computer code can have on them, and they’re not always safe, regardless of the precautions they take.
In March 2007, Ran Balicer, an epidemiologist physician at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, published an article in the journal “Epidemiology” that described the similarities between this outbreak and the SARS and avian influenza outbreaks.
Dr. Balicer suggested that role-playing games could serve as an advanced platform for modeling the dissemination of infectious diseases.
In a follow-up article in the journal Science, the game Second Life was suggested as another possible platform for these studies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contacted Blizzard Entertainment and requested statistics on this event for research on epidemics but was told that it was a glitch.
The Corrupted Blood incident was described as a fascinating yet accidental case study of modelling disease origins and control at the “Games for Health” conference in Baltimore, Maryland
They compared it to a real-life epidemic, in that it originated in a remote, uninhabited region and was carried by travellers to larger regions;
hosts were both human and animal, comparing it to the avian flu;
was passed through close contact;
and there were people, in this case non-playable characters, who could contract it but were asymptomatic.
However, there were elements that differed from a real-world epidemic, including an indicator for carriers that they have the disease and how much risk they are at, which cannot be done in the real world.
One aspect of the epidemic that was not considered by epidemiologists in their models was curiosity, describing how players would rush into infected areas to witness the infection and then rush out.
This was paralleled to real-world behavior, specifically with how journalists would cover an incident, and then leave the area.
Aside from the fact that this all happened in a game, it does sound familiar to what we are experiencing right now.
Though no cure has been found yet, many areas had to be quarantined to hopefully contain the spread.
Even UK, who recently suffered a major COVID-19 outbreak, had to perform a nation-wide lockdown to ensure it doesn’t suffer any more losses.
Back then, WoW‘s player base was only 2 million, and already Corrupted Blood felt like a major pandemic.
Our world today consists of roughly 7.8 billion people, but any loss from COVID-19 is still massive, as we don’t have the luxury of respawns.
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