The current global pandemic is inspiring a lot of people to look back through history to see how humans responded to the spread of similarly deadly viruses in an effort to, hopefully, learn from our mistakes and save some lives. With that in mind, let us venture back to the distant past of 2005 when a dangerous bloodborne illness nearly decimated the digital population of Blizzard’s World Of Warcraft.
As the host of the highly informative YouTube channel Half As Interesting explains, the “disease” that infected World Of Warcraft began with the introduction of a new boss, Hakkar the Soulflayer. Given this particular Soulflayer’s predilection for draining players’ blood in order to refuel his own health bar, the trick to defeating him involved infecting yourself with “Corrupted Blood” so that Hakkar found himself weakened as opposed to healed when he drained you of your fluids.
It was a fun mechanic that should have stayed isolated in the raid arena of Zul’Gurub, but, unfortunately, a coding error resulted in players’ pets retaining the corrupted blood when they re-spawned in the main world. This quickly spread to other pets, other players, and soon threatened to kill everyone’s digital avatars.
What resulted from this viral glitch was an epidemiologist’s dream: A live model of viral spread in which avatars were controlled by real humans making real choices about how to stay safe, how to help those in need, or, as the case may be, how to ignore warning signs and continue to infect other players. It’s a fascinating look at the diversity of responses to a deadly contagion with, of course, much lower stakes than our current pandemic.
In the end, over 4 million players were infected and Blizzard was forced to do a hard reset on the World Of Warcraft servers. We’re no scientists, but we don’t think that solution will work in the real world.
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