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How MMO Diseases May Save Real Lives

How MMO Diseases May Save Real Lives

In 2005, a glitch in World of Warcraft‘s newly released Zul’Gurub dungeon caused a condition called “Corrupted Blood” to infect the rest of the Azeroth. On four servers, major cities became the outbreak centers of what was, by all appearances, a lethal disease. It caused enough damage to take down a lower level character, could spread from one character to another nearby, and even had grotesque blood spray sound effects.

Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren were WoW players at the time, and upon witnessing the outbreak, the two researchers in the epidemiology department at Tufts University immediately called Blizzard Entertainment to get data on what was going on. Though Blizzard didn’t track nearly the kinds of data that the researchers needed to get the most from this digital disease, they did learn valuable lessons during the four days that the plague went on.

Learning from Corrupted Blood

Often during an outbreak, data is difficult to gather, and intentionally experimenting with how millions of people react to catching deadly diseases is, y’know, evil. The sudden outbreak in WoW was an amazing opportunity to witness the behavior of infected and uninfected in a crisis like this.

The researchers witnessed a number of interesting behaviors before Blizzard finally pulled the plug, reset those servers, and patched the problem code. Firstly, they saw people such as themselves intentionally getting themselves infected. They documented predicted behaviors from those who might be panicking, such as fleeing the area, ignoring public service announcements, or seeking out others in hopes of figuring out what to do.

The researchers also saw players “griefing” by contracting the disease with characters high enough level to survive the damage and moving into crowded areas to infect others. While this might seem without a real world analogue, we do see people going to work, school, or other crowded places despite illness. In the aftermath of the Corrupted Blood event, Fefferman and Lofren say the main thing they’ve learned is to allow for a wider range of behaviors from those affected by disease when creating new behavioral models.

The Rakghoul Plague

Bioware, creators of the Star Wars: The Old Republic game, appears to have been inspired by the Corrupted Blood event, intentionally creating their own plague. Bioware’s corner of the Star Wars cannon includes a zombie-like disease called the “Rakghoul Plague.” Beginning in 2012, the game began having recurring game-wide events which caused a communicable version of the plague to spread to player characters. Though there are decontamination droids stationed here and there, and temporary vaccines available; the disease still finds its way onto crowded space stations.

In some ways the Rakghoul Plague is even more similar to a real disease than Corrupted Blood was. Those infected cough audibly, slowly get worse and worse, and eventually becoming a monstrous zombie thing exploding in green clouds of disease. Ok, maybe that last part isn’t normal. But the fact that players have some inkling that they might catch it alters behavior in visible ways. This reporter often seeks out the more remote galactic market terminals when shopping during the plague outbreak scenarios.

You’d think with a vaccine available that spread of the disease would be limited, but the game grants achievements and special equipment for spreading the plague, there’s an artificial supply of “griefing” from opportunistic players. Even with (hilarious) public service announcements on the stations, PCs go unprotected into potentially infectious situations and die as a consequence.

Rakghoul-outbreak-001

What do you think of this kind of research? Does it justify all those hours spent raiding and questing to know there might be some useful theory coming out of it?

Featured Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Image Credit: Bioware 

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