Nearly 15 years ago, a deadly pandemic spiralled out of control among a population of about four million. Entire cities were plagued with a highly contagious condition that caused gushing blood and death within seconds. At the time, this catastrophe wasn't widely reported because it was entirely virtual. Known as the Corrupted Blood plague, it is regarded as online game World of Warcraft's biggest disaster—and to this day is a valuable case study in epidemiology.
Amid the current COVID-19 outbreak, the aftermath of Corrupted Blood serves as a stark warning to those not taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously.
Here's how it went down: On September 13th 2005, game developer Blizzard introduced a new 20-player raid called Zul'Gurub. (For the uninitiated, a "raid" is a type of mission in multi-player virtual role-playing games, whereby people attempt to defeat an enemy.) Its final boss, Hakkar the Soulflayer, could drain players' blood to heal himself using the "Corrupted Blood" debuff (a debuff being a type of spell with a negative effect). It caused massive amounts of damage over 10 seconds, was transmitted player-to-player within a close vicinity, and to players' companions.
Corrupted Blood was supposed to be confined to the raid; Blizzard thought players would either die at the hands of Hakkar or kill him, both of which would've ended the spell's effects. But unpredictably, when Hunters dismissed their infected pets or Warlocks their minions, which paused the debuff timer, and resummoned them in highly populated areas well outside Zul'Gurub, all hell broke loose in a matter of hours.
Attempts to quarantine infected players failed: either people didn't pay them much attention or deliberately spread the virus in the name of mischief. While there's no way of knowing how many players died or how many times—Blizzard's priority was damage control rather than collecting data—cities were littered with skeletons.
Nina Fefferman was playing as a Night Elf Hunter at the time. As an epidemiologist, she was so intrigued by what she observed, she and fellow researcher Eric Lofgren authored a paper titled “The Untapped Potential Of Virtual Game Worlds To Shed Light On Real World Epidemics” in 2007.
"What struck us instantly was how directly parallel the social reaction was [in-game] to what we study in the real world," she says. "We had been joking about using video games as simulators for disease but when we actually saw it happening in a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, we thought this was a great way to learn about the diversity of human response and how people react to these things."
Obviously, death in this virtual world is different than it is in our biological one, because death in WoW isn't permanent. There's usually a long, inconvenient journey to get from the cemetery back to your body where you can resurrect, but there are no real everlasting repercussions. Resurrection "most certainly allows riskier behaviours," Dr Fefferman wrote in her 2007 paper, but many WoW players "strive to create a believable alter ego in the virtual world, complete with the weight of responsibility and the expectations of others." In the case of Corrupted Blood for example, players with healing abilities "were seen to rush towards areas where the disease was rapidly spreading, acting as first responders in an attempt to help their fellow players."
Refusing to self-isolate or ignoring quarantines sounds eerily familiar these days amid the current novel coronavirus outbreak. In the arrogance of youth, some think they're impervious to contraction and continue to go to crowded places, eat at restaurants or riot in supermarkets over toilet paper. Others consider the statistics that roughly 80 percent of people who test positive for COVID-19 will experience mild symptoms, and completely ignore the fact they can transmit the virus to more vulnerable people for whom symptoms can be life-threatening.
We have gained pretty much everything we can from the Corrupted Blood plague in terms of containment measures, but Dr Fefferman believes there will be harsh lessons in the recovery stages of COVID-19: those of social responsibility and breaches of social trust.
"We saw friendship groups that had been stable in World of Warcraft for years dissolve because someone felt as though somebody else in the group had behaved badly and infected them, or didn't take the proper precautions… We're going to see things like that in the real world, " she says.
While there won't be direct parallels ("We aren't actually groups of people roaming the world in search of adventure"), each of us has a slightly different understanding of what our social duty is to each other and that could seriously affect social groups en masse for the foreseeable future.
"The aftermath of feeling as though those mismatches compromised each other's safety is something I expect we're going to have to deal with for a generation," she says.
"A lot of current millennials who aren't taking this outbreak very seriously, if they lose elderly loved ones, if this gets as bad as we think it could and we don't succeed in shutting it down, I can imagine there being a lot of generational guilt [and] recrimination within groups."
We're already witnessing the shaming of others, on social media and the news, for not taking the proper precautions, like getting shitfaced at a busy pub on St. Patrick's Day. The long-lasting social impact of COVID-19 may not be felt for months if not years in the future, but Dr Fefferman says it will be "horrible" if we don't get serious about this pandemic now.
"Even more than the social pressures we see right now being brought to bear [on social media], it's going to be a horrible and fascinating thing to watch happen as we hopefully all recover from this.”