In-game WOW plague sparks real-world medical study

Boasting a population greater than most real-world cities, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft crams its 9-million-plus population into a comparatively tiny space. Granted, those massive numbers are dispersed over a sizable number of independently operating realms, but at any given time,...

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Boasting a population greater than most real-world cities, Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft crams its 9-million-plus population into a comparatively tiny space. Granted, those massive numbers are dispersed over a sizable number of independently operating realms, but at any given time, hundreds of players can commingle or ply their wares in the game's densely packed cities. And with gnomes and trolls roaming the halls of the relatively few cities for each respective faction, it was only a matter of time before unsanitary living conditions arose.

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Such was the case in September 2005, when World of Warcraft was racked by the effects of Corrupted Blood, a disease many have likened to medieval Europe's bubonic plague outbreak. As reported by Reuters, Princeton University medical epidemiologist Nina Fefferman and her former student Eric Lofgren have extrapolated real-world implications out of this in-game demitragedy in a study just published in the medical journal The Lancet. In the study, Fefferman noted that the disease was initially introduced by way of a newly implemented large-group encounter known as Zul'Gurub. It could be spread to other players through proximity contact, and as with the bubonic plague, it slowly ate away a player's hit points until it either ran its course or said player died.

In particular, Fefferman was interested in how the disease spread. According to her study, Corrupted Blood was introduced to the public by way of a few mischievous gamers, and it soon spread throughout the land of Azeroth, infecting those well outside the scope of the game mechanic, due to what she called the "stupid factor." "Someone thinks, 'I'll just get close and get a quick look, and it won't affect me,'" she said. This behavior led Blizzard to take drastic action, such as rolling back servers to prior play periods, according to the study.

Gamers' behavior during the outbreak presented Fefferman with an insightful take-away for her study of real-world disease outbreaks. "Now that it has been pointed out to us, it is clear that it is going to be happening. There have been a lot of studies that looked at compliance with public-health measures. But they have always been along the lines of what would happen if we put people into a quarantine zone--will they stay?" Fefferman added. "No one has ever looked at what would happen when people who are not in a quarantine zone get in and then leave."

Fefferman plans to work with Blizzard in the future to model outbreaks using WOW's massive player population. "With very large numbers of players, these games provide a population where controlled outbreak simulations may be done seamlessly within the player experience," she said.

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