It’s time to combine two of my favorite things! Zombies and video games. We’re going to talk about an epidemic that affected 6.5 million people worldwide. We’re going to talk about the spread of a disease that wiped out whole cities just from contact. We’re going to talk about one of the biggest online games in the world. And we’re going to talk about how all of it became one of the scariest, realest, and most relevant examples of real life simulation in gaming history and what it means for our society.
We’re going to talk about September 13th, 2005: The Day the Plague Wiped Out Ironforge.
World of Warcraft was first released by Blizzard Entertainment in 2004. It was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that let players create characters who would explore the fictional game world of Azeroth. Much like the real world (hence the ‘role-playing’ part) you would take care of your character avatar, leading them on quests, fulfilling tasks, interacting with other players, and growing stronger over time learning new skills and talents. The game grew quickly in popularity and after just one year reported more than 6 million active online subscribers (hence the massively multiplayer aspect). You could run on your own, join factions or guilds, fight against other players or computers, and basically live a life of adventure by proxy.
One popular aspect of the game was ‘raiding’, wherein players would work together to explore vast and complex dungeon systems and ultimately defeat a dungeon ‘boss’ for the promise of vast wealth and powerful weapons and armor. Blizzard kept appetites sated by constantly releasing new and exciting dungeons with varied bosses and level design to keep players on their toes.
On September 13, 2005 Blizzard released the Zul’Gurub raid and its end boss, Hakkar, on the world of Azeroth. One of Hakkar’s abilities, Corrupted Blood, was designed to be so that only high level characters could challenge him. When your character became infected with Corrupted Blood you would take a small amount of damage repeatedly over time. Higher level, more powerful characters would be inconvenienced but ultimately could continue to fight him with little interruption but the weaker characters would almost certainly die before time ran out. Additionally, any characters within proximity of the infected would catch the disease and also take damage over time. It was a dynamic feature that promised smart, strategic gameplay. But there was one huge oversight. Your character could be accompanied by pets who could in turn catch the disease. Although the ability was programmed to end over time after leaving the vicinity of the dungeon, this only affected the characters. The pets, therefore, went unnoticed, unaffected, and when entering a crowded in-game city, could infect other players and other computer characters.
The entire world was thrown into chaos following the swift widespread pandemic that affected almost every character. Animals and pets were unaffected by the damage and could run around and infect everyone it came into contact with. Non-player characters (like civilians and shopkeepers) were asymptomatic but still carried the disease.
This did not just affect your stereotypical gamers. The reason why World of Warcraft was so popular and had such a rich fan base was its universal appeal. Anyone who wanted a shot at adventure or at least a chance to reinvent themselves was on this game. You were witnessing an epidemic that affected teachers, lawyers, plumbers, stay at home mothers, deployed military, ministry, young, old, and all races. The world was literally dying and we had a front-row seat to the final curtain. People were acting out exactly as they would have in real life, and the sample size reflected that. This was not just the actions of 18-35 middle class males. Predictably, you had those whose characters had the ability to heal organizing and attempting to field recovery efforts in makeshift centers around the world. The game designers attempted to impose player quarantines to separate the sick from the uninfected. Players who could not heal and were willing to risk infection went out into the world to find players and direct them to safe havens where their characters could remain curse free and alive. Those who were infected were marked so those uninfected could know to avoid them. Some abandoned the cities for the relative safety and isolation of the more rural environments in the game. Others straight up decided to simply not play the game until the glitch was resolved. Worse yet though, were the ones who were infected and purposely and maliciously attempted to trick other players and infect them. Some would purposely get their pets sick and then, disguised as uninfected, infiltrate uninfected camps and unleash their animals.
We saw bravery during this time. We saw courage, fear, paranoia, and even malice. We realized how little we knew of each other and how unpredictable mankind really is, especially in moments of crisis. We saw the effectiveness and/or ineffectiveness of organized attempts to control sickness. Cities literally piled with the white bones of dead player characters. Mass exodus and refugee situations. A simulation of the weak and the strong, the old and the young, the poor and the privileged. Hospitals sprang up; quarantines and evacuation attempts were made; purposely planned attacks on populaces were executed.
The gaming community was witnessing a simulation as close to real life as possible short of actually releasing some sort of disease into the world. And they were not the only ones watching.
Epidemiologists, behavioral psychologists, and even counter-terrorism experts began to take notice. They wanted this raw data because of how relevant it was to their fields. Remember that at the time, the world was dealing with a very recent SARS and avian flu outbreak. Epidemiologists were fascinated by how quickly the disease spread and the various factors that caused it. Animal carriers were now a huge concern as in the real world
ducks from Asia had spread avian flu to the western world. The ‘stupid factor’ was exemplified in players who, completely spared of the epidemic by not playing, purposely logging in to ‘see what was going on’ and ultimately contracting it themselves. Behavioral psychologists wanted to witness the madness, try to make patterns and predictions for behaviors and responses to things like quarantines and the knowledge of infection. They saw how many quarantines ultimately failed because, spared of the sight of the mass character deaths, many ‘didn’t take it seriously enough’. They were horrified by how quickly players realized the most efficient way of infected the largest population possible and the repeated efforts to implement these attacks. They wanted to know why those who helped were helping, observed the train of thought of the general population and decisions to either stay in the cities or take their chances in the countryside, and tracked the spread of paranoia among characters who could no longer identify the sick. Naturally, counter-terrorist agencies wanted to witness for themselves how biological attacks could take place in large populaces and how quickly it could spiral out of control. The best and most effective ways to create the most amount of damage and how to anticipate and prevent this from happening.
A variety of studies were done and released based on the Corrupted Blood Incident. Many more were based on future iterations and versions of this computer simulation. These studies could help us better understand how we react and how our enemies could react as well.
I’ve always wondered if a zombie apocalypse could actually happen. We like to assure ourselves that we have a plan set out for any possible iteration of disaster. Then something happens that tests every single one of us and we realize, humans are unpredictable. Behaviors are unpredictable. Disaster is unpredictable. These were not isolated cases. This was not just a population of gamers messing with each other. These were real people making real decisions in real time. We don’t have to be wizards or orcs or elves or mages. We don’t have to imagine a world of magic and monsters just to see how this can relate to us. The world was virtual, but the player decisions were very much real.
September 13th, 2005. The Day the Plague Wiped Out Ironforge.0
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