Digital Disease: The Corrupted Blood Plague

World of Warcraft, an extremely popular massively multiplayer online (MMO) game set in an ancient fantasy setting, was started in 2004 and has since continued to garner a huge following. On September 13, 2005, WoW introduced a new boss for players to battle named Hakkar the Soulflayer as part of the larger raid Zul’Gurub. It was this boss that would inadvertently lead to the outbreak known as the Corrupted Blood plague.

Hakkar the Soulflayer
Hakkar the Soulflayer

As part of a last ditch attempt to kill players attempting to defeat him, Hakkar had a move he would utilize when low on health called “Corrupted Blood.” This spell dealt high enough damage that players, depending on their levels and amount of health, could be killed instantaneously or have their health drained over time. After awhile, the player either died or the disease would slowly go away. If players stood too close to each other, then the disease could be spread that way as well. The infection was meant to help make the raid more difficult, but unfortunately the disease managed to escape into the rest of World of Warcraft.

After defeating Hakkar the Soulflayer, players who were infected with Corrupted Blood could teleport out of Hakkar’s lair while still carrying the disease. This is where Corrupted Blood spread among WoW players like wildfire, and the reasons why are what make the incident stand out to experts.

For example, players initially didn’t initially believe that they could bring Corrupted Blood outside of the raid. Players’ pets could also carry the disease, and although the pets couldn’t be killed, they could infect other nearby players and pets. Non-playable characters (NPC’s), or characters controlled by the computer, could become infected with the disease but also couldn’t die, further helping to spread the disease.

Corrupted Blood Aftermath
The aftermath of Corrupted Blood in a heavily populated city

Blizzard, the company which made and maintained WoW, didn’t foresee Corrupted Blood escaping outside the Zul’Gurub raid, and once it was found that players were transporting the disease outside of the raid dungeon asked players to quarantine themselves. Unfortunately, some players didn’t believe a plague could spread unintentionally in a videogame, while others who were already infected chose to either quarantine themselves (after possibly inadvertently infecting others) or tried to actively spread the disease. There was also a select few who even tried to help fellow players, such as resurrecting those who died from the disease.

One individual, Dr. Nina Fefferman, the co-director of the Tufts Center for Modeling of Infectious Diseases, compares players’ reactions to that of real people suffering major disasters. For example, when an area is warned of an approaching hurricane, there are those who decide to play it safe and evacuate whereas others decide to remain and wait it out because they assume they’ll be okay. Dr. Fefferman argues that the logic players employed in WoW was more comparable to real-life than other video games because of the amount of time and effort players invest into their WoW “lives.”

Zika VirusAnother important aspect of Corrupted Blood’s spread was the use of the in-game transit system. For example, creatures and trams in WoW allow players to quickly travel from one city to another, which helped to quickly spread the disease without having to teleport. This reflects a real-world concern that the ease-of-travel, such as that allowed by international flights could allow for epidemics to spread. An example of this would be the recent Zika virus outbreak in South and Central America, as people infected with the virus (mostly recent travelers to affected regions) have caused cases of the disease to be recorded throughout North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Once the outbreak was in full swing, the effect of Corrupted Blood on the world of WoW was described by some players as “frightening.” Entire cities, such as Ironforge or Orgrimmar, were infected and killed off by the disease because of the high player populations. One individual stated that players in one city stood around “crying” and calling out for Blizzard to do something, and for days after the initial outbreak cities were covered in the skeletons of deceased players.

Corrupted Blood Aftermath 2
Another city affected by Corrupted Blood

The issue of stopping Corrupted Blood was an extremely difficult one for Blizzard, as entire servers were infected and some players were actively combating Blizzard’s attempts at eliminating the disease. Some players even placed their infected pets into their inventories, so that after Blizzard “purged” a server, the players would withdraw their pets and start small outbreaks. Eventually, after restarting all of the affected servers and applying a series of fixes, Corrupted Blood was finally purged from WoW and was prevented from being able to leave Hakkar the Soulflayer’s dungeon.

Since the outbreak, multiple real-world organizations have used the Corrupted Blood plague to study how real people would react to outbreaks. For example, there was the Tufts Center for Modeling of Infectious Diseases stated above, as well as an epidemiologist at the Israeli Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who compared the outbreak to the avian flu and SARS outbreaks.

However, other groups have used the Corrupted Blood plague to study bioterrorism and how terrorists would operate in such circumstances, such as the Center of Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, although they do stress that an effective counter-terrorism strategy could not be based off of a video game.

CETISOddly, many WoW players had a positive reaction to the realism and the excitement of the whole ordeal, and Blizzard even created a zombie-based disease for the game later on based on Corrupted Blood’s popularity which was well-received. As inconvenient as it was to some players, at least the Corrupted Blood provided a means for which experts could study a small-scale outbreak that could hopefully prepare the real-world or provide some insight as to what to do during such an event.

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