Back in 2005, a very rare phenomenon happened: millions of people found
themselves trapped in the clutches of a raging pandemic. Humans and animals were
both affected. Cities were not safe anymore. Many fled away from highly
populated areas to reduce of risk of being infected by the disease.
And believe it or not, all of this happened inside a video game.
World of Warcraft (WoW) is a huge online role-playing game set in the fantasy
Warcraft universe. Created by Blizzard Entertainment in 2004, it is one of the
highest-grossing video games of all time, with more than 100 million user
accounts over its lifetime. Players control individual avatars who interact with
each other, complete quests, and gain abilities and skills.
Unexpectedly, it was in this virtual world that epidemiologists and disaster
planners discovered an untapped resource in trying to predict mass economic and
societal responses to a global pandemic.
This incident was never meant to be an actual thing. Everything was a coding
accident. A spell cast by “Hakkar The Soulflayer” was intended to deal damages
during a boss fight. This spell could indeed be passed between players in close
proximity. Though, due to “hunter pets and teleportation”, the debuff spread
outside of the boss area. Just like a real virus it started infecting characters
in cities and usually peaceful areas.
Corrupted Blood created mayhem throughout WoW. It would instantly kill new and
weak avatars, which not only brought in thousands of complaints from players
with dead characters, but also left piles of skeletons and corpses scattered
throughout the cities and towns. Users had their characters leave the cities for
more isolated areas, or stopped playing the game all together.
What was amazingly stunning is the behaviour of the players during the incident.
Some tried to heal, and some tried to spread the virus. Blizzard even attempted
to impose quarantines on players to contain the disease but these were not well
received and in the end, Blizzard reset the servers and fixed the code.
The incident inspired researchers
After the incident, many papers were published inspired by the reaction of
players during the pandemic. Searchers strongly pushed forward the use of video
games to help study human behaviour.
Epidemiologist use complex mathematical models to predict the spread of
infectious diseases. But this does not take into account the irrational
behaviour that us humans are capable of. Moreover, it is simply impossible to
test it in a real-world experiment.
So why not use virtual worlds to run social experiments?
Social experiments are expensive, require lots of time, effort and money. But
one could easily replicate them in video games! Let’s offer a cheap and
effective way to run social experiments for psychologists, epidemiologists,
economists… and financially support small game development companies.
Who’s with me? :D