Can video games help rid the world of COVID-19?

Probably not, but a strange incident inside World Of Warcraft back in 2005 suggested they might be able to help us understand it better

The date is September 13th, 2005. The place is Blizzard’s hugely popular MMORPG World Of Warcraft. There’s been a glitch in the matrix whereupon huge numbers of players have had their avatar’s powers debuffed. Somewhat spookily, infected players can pass on the unwanted effects to other uninfected players. Just like a virus. The debuff is so powerful, in fact, that you only need to stand a metre or so away from them for them to get it. It’s an incident WoW players refer to until this day as ‘Corrupted Blood’. Is anyone else finding this a bit close to the bone?

And yet unlike our present reality with COVID-19, 15 years ago, Blizzard quickly established where the ‘virus’ originated from. That would be Hakkar The Soulflayer, boss of the Zul’Gurub raid which came with the 1.7 patch, unloaded upon the game the same day as said outbreak. Blizzard quickly acknowledged its fuck up. The company worked out that the debuff plague could be spread outside of the area that Hakkar populated – and where it was supposed to be contained – via warlock or hunter pets, creating a massive in-game epidemic. Thanks to pure oversight on Blizzard’s part, it could even be passed from pets to pets. Over the course of just a few hours, Azeroth became a boneyard.

The results were catastrophic. Within hours, cities like the dwarven citadel Ironforge and orc city Orgrimmar were overrun with the dead and dying. Even non-playable characters (NPCs), programmed to be immortal for the sake of storylines and quests, were able to catch the virus. They were also able to spread the disease to anyone who came in close contact, effectively becoming asymptomatic carriers.

It took time for all the information to filter through. Guilds desperate not to catch the thing started sharing information about where was safe and where wasn’t. Players with healing abilities headed out, essential worker-style – to revive the sick. Just like they are now, players were enthralled, scared, confused, or a combination of all of the above.

One such player was Dr. Nina Feffermann.

Fascinated by the data unspooling before her, Dr. Feffermann reached out to her colleague Dr. Eric Lofgren. Two years later they published a paper together, for the legendary medical journal The Lancet, entitled The Untapped Potential of Virtual Game Worlds To Shed Light On Real World Epidemics. Within, they listed the findings that the ‘Corrupted Blood’ incident had shown to them. They described the experience as akin to having an ‘intriguing experimental laboratory’, somewhere they could observe human responses to a threat which back then seemed – alas – largely hypothetical.

WoW Classic
Orgrimmar. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“For me, [the WoW ‘pandemic’] was a good illustration of how important it is to understand people’s behaviours,” Dr. Lofgren recently told PC Gamer. Dr. Lofgren is now employed by Washington State University. Washington is one of the US’s worst-hit states. His current work is focused on healthcare-associated infections: trying to predict how COVID-19 will impact healthcare systems in the US. Dr. Lofgren says he’s found his and Dr. Feffermann’s old paper a useful reference tool.

“When people react to public health emergencies,” he continues, “those reactions really shape the course of things. We often view epidemics as these things that sort of happen to people. There’s a virus and it’s doing things. But really it’s a virus that’s spreading between people, and how people interact and behave and comply with authority figures, or don’t, those are all very important things. And also that these things are very chaotic. You can’t really predict, ‘Oh yeah, everyone will quarantine. It’ll be fine. No, they won’t.”

“It led me to think really deeply about how people perceive threats and how differences in that perception can change how they behave,” Dr. Fefferman adds, also to PC Gamer, from her current base at the University Of Tennessee. “A lot of my work since then has been in trying to build models of the social construction of risk perception and I don’t think I would have come to that as easily if I hadn’t spent time thinking about the discussions WoW players had in real-time about ‘Corrupted Blood’ and how to act in the game based on the understanding they built from those discussions.”

WoW Classic
Hakkar. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Want the good news? Earlier this month, The Elysium Project, a group independent of Blizzard who for the last seven years have endeavoured to keep the classic WoW server up and running at all times, decided to deliberately replicate the events of September 13.
With the globe experiencing its own pandemic, what better time to remind ourselves what we’d learned in 2005 and put into place any other progression in thinking that might have come since. They called it ‘Pandemic In Azeroth’. Kotaku reports that, in just 24 hours, by players adhering to handwashing, sanitising, and isolation, the simulation managed to bring the infection percentage from 88 per cent (no preventative measures), to 42.2 per cent.

How did Blizzard get ‘Corrupted Blood’ under control back in 2005? Well, not being able to make any of the aforementioned work, they simply turned the servers off and back on again.

Oh, to be able to do that within this increasingly wretched reality…

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