Can Computer Games Help Us Understand Epidemics?

Outbreaks of deadly diseases have been with humanity for thousands of years. Everyone has heard of the Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague which wiped out between 30% and 70% of the population of Europe in the mid 1300s. More recently, various new strains of influenza have caused minor epidemics, and the AIDS pandemic (worldwide epidemic) has claimed the lives of over 30 million people.

Medical science has made significant progress in curing and preventing diseases over the years, with vaccination being one of the greatest achievements. Smallpox has been entirely eradicated from human populations, and polio is close to disappearing as well.

However, another important aspect of epidemics is how people behave in these situations.

A Virtual Epidemic?

And this is where World of Warcraft comes in. WoW is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), lovingly called a “muh-MOR-pu-guh”, in which thousands of players interact on a single server (world) and team up or battle each other to overcome various obstacles. The world has cities, towns, mountains, deserts, jungles, and some amazingly beautiful locations.

An update to the game in September 2005 introduced a new dungeon where players had to fight an enemy named Hakkar the Soulflayer: click here to see a fantastic piece of art depicting Hakkar and his troll minions. During the fight, Hakkar would occasionally inflict player characters with a disease called Corrupted Blood. However, due to a bug, the disease made it’s way out of the dungeon (where it was intended to stay) and into the world.

Although death in the game is only temporary (you can resurrect at a nearby graveyard) the minor inconvenience was enough to cause people to exhibit behaviours similar to those seen during real-life epidemics. Some people tried to help others (by using healing spells and ‘dispelling’ the disease), and others intentionally tried to contaminate people. Most people fled, and the major cities become almost deserted. Non-player characters in the game (such as guards and quest-givers) could contract and spread the disease but were immune to its effects, making them asymptomatic carriers (just like Typhoid Mary).

The incident attracted the attention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and epidemiologists from around the world, and even the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies. Generally, epidemics and pandemics can only be studied during an outbreak and by analysing data after the event, as it is (obviously) highly immoral to cause one for scientific study! However, perhaps taking the Corrupted Blood incident as a cue, scientists might be able to get some further insight using computer-game style models in the future.

The photo of Doctor Smurf is borrowed and edited with thanks from JD Hancock under a Creative Commons License.