It’s been nearly 18 years since the infamous “ Corrupted Blood incident” ravaged the largest online gaming community of the time, and captured the attention of scientists and gamers alike. A digital, in-game virus wreaked havoc among millions of “ World of Warcraft “ (WoW) players for one chaotic week. The player and developer responses to the pandemic drew the scrutiny of scientists and researchers, who found an eerie reflection of real-world epidemiology within this fictional universe that was typically used as an escape from reality.
The event was a combination of a seemingly minor software glitch, turned into a world-ending catastrophe by a few gaming trolls. And despite it’s ridiculous origin, we can find a crossover between the virtual world and real world come to life within the story of how it all unfolded.
From the fantastical lands of Azeroth to the hallowed halls of global health research, this is the tale of the Corrupted Blood incident-a compelling narrative that underscores the increasingly significant interplay between our digital constructs and the reality they simulate.
The World of Warcraft Universe
While WoW is still alive and kicking, it no longer has the cultural significant it once held. It’s historic run has stretched so long, that kids who were born at it’s release are now old enough to vote. So let’s touch on just how massive of a Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) this behemoth of a game was.
Released in November 2004, WoW sold more than 240,000 copies within 24 hours of launch, and accumulated 4 million players globally by the time of the Corrupted Blood Incident in 2005. This figure, equivalent to the population of New Zealand in the same year, provides a sufficiently large sample size for a large-scale experiment.
As an immersive and player-driven virtual environment, WoW boasts a complex and vibrant social ecosystem. Players frequently mimic real-world social behaviors within the game, forming a fascinating microcosm for observing collective human responses to significant events or, in this case, disasters. The Corrupted Blood Incident serves as an excellent example, owing to its unforeseen and unanticipated emergence, as well as the magnitude of its impact on the game world throughout its short existence
The game’s evolution continued beyond its release. With WoW’s $15-per-month subscription model, subscribers received new content regularly, corresponding with the pace of its development. However, this model also introduced unforeseen issues in the form of new bugs with each update and expansion.
I’ll first cover the basics of the WoW game mechanics at play in this incident. This is intended for those who have never played WoW, don’t play games, or aren’t even remotely familiar with common video game mechanics.
The key feature here is what’s called a “debuff.” A debuff is a temporary condition cast on a player’s character by a hostile character which weakens or hurts the player in some way. In WoW, debuffs can reduce strength, slow movement, or damage a player’s health until… you know death.
The most potent debuffs typically reside in “Raid Dungeons” (raids), which represent the apex of WoW’s content in terms of challenge and reward. Raids feature formidable enemy bosses to vanquish and highly coveted loot to claim from their defeated bodies. Many of these debuffs had minimal influence on the world beyond raid dungeons, as they typically did not persist long enough for players to return to major cities while still affected by the debuff.
However, a lesser-known bug existed that certain players, referred to as “griefers,” exploited to create intentionally harm and harass fellow players. A few players observed that combat pets, non-player characters summoned and controlled by those who selected the hunter or warlock class, could occasionally become targets of potent raid boss debuffs.
Additionally, players observed that they could “dismiss” their combat pet after the debuff was applied but before it expired. Dismissing a pet essentially made it disappear from the game world. But where did these pets go? They were stored on the game servers in the exact state they were in upon vanishing, including any debuffs affecting them at the time.
The first instance of this exploit being used involved a mechanic called “Living Bomb” from the “Molten Core” (MC) raid, which was released in July 2005. Veteran MC raiders were well-acquainted with this mechanic.. It was the moment when your raid leader would shout at you over a voice-chat server, “BALANOR, YOU’RE THE BOMB!”
For those who grew up in the 80s or 90s, this might sound like an outdated compliment. In this context though, it meant “GET THE HELL AWAY FROM US BEFORE YOU EXPLODE!” The debuff’s effect was to damage all players surrounding the affected player after a brief duration.
Griefers used the debuff and the combat pet exploit, to summon a literal Living Bomb into the busiest areas of WoW. These crowded locations also happened to be the core of WoW’s in-game player economy and would later become targets for griefers during the Corrupted Blood incident.
While this tactic was certainly annoying, it lacked two key features that would eventually lead to the pandemic caused by the Corrupted Blood:
- The damage inflicted wasn’t significant enough to kill players who had reached the highest level and possessed decent gear. It mostly affected lower-level characters.
- Once the Living Bomb detonated, the effect ended. It was a one-time occurrence that didn’t persist after the explosion. Additionally, it didn’t spread to other players.
Enter Corrupted Blood.
The Corrupted Blood Incident
In September 2005, a new raid called Zul’Gurub was introduced, featuring the powerful raid boss, Hakkar the Soulflayer. Players who fought Hakkar would contract Corrupted Blood, a debuff that rapidly drained their characters’ health and, crucially, spread to nearby players.
Similar to Living Bomb, Corrupted Blood was designed to be short-lived and confined within the boss battle area. However, it appears that the developers did not fully learn from the Living Bomb experience, likely due to Living Bomb’s relatively minor impact and the fact that the method of exploiting it was not widely known among players.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for a few players on different servers to test the exploit, and the consequences were disastrous. The debuff quickly spread throughout densely populated cities, causing widespread virtual panic. As news of the incident on one server circulated, griefers learned about the exploit and intentionally spread the disease to their own servers.
Logically, a disease that lasts only a few seconds before either vanishing or killing its host should quickly burn through a city and then disappear. However, a secondary bug complicated the situation. Non-player characters (NPCs) in cities and towns could also contract and transmit the debuff, but they wouldn’t die from it. These NPCs became asymptomatic carriers and spreaders of the virtual disease, prolonging its presence and impact.
Real World Insights from the Corrupted Blood Incident
The Corrupted Blood Incident quickly caught the attention of researchers and scientists in fields as diverse as epidemiology, psychology, and sociology. These experts recognized the event, and the player response, as a unique lens through which to study human behavior in the face of a pandemic.
Epidemiology, the branch of medicine that focuses on the spread and control of diseases, frequently uses mathematical models to predict how diseases might propagate. However, these models have limitations when it comes to predicting human behavior. This is where the Corrupted Blood incident revealed its true value. While the event was purely virtual, the response from players was undeniably human.
Researchers observed a wide range of player behaviors during the incident:
- Some players attempted to heal those affected and halt the disease’s spread, mirroring the roles of first responders, doctors, and scientists typically deployed during real-world epidemics.
- Others fled major cities for more remote locations in the game world. Having witnessed continuous coverage of COVID-19 for several years, we can now recognize these behaviors as familiar. Although fleeing to a mythical region in a video game, such as “The Burning Steppes,” may not seem relatable, the underlying behavior mirrors our own social distancing and self-isolation practices to protect ourselves and others from the disease.
- Lastly, there were the griefers, players who intentionally spread the disease. They served as a twisted reflection of the misinformation and neglect of safety protocols that exacerbated our world’s recent health crisis.
The incident also highlighted the importance of expert-driven intervention, and clear communication from authorities. In WoW, the absence of an immediate official response resulted in chaos and confusion. This failure by the developers echoes the early stages of our own pandemic, when governments and news organizations struggled to deliver accurate information without inadvertently causing further confusion or prematurely asserting facts-and ultimately fell short.
Lastly, the Corrupted Blood incident emphasized the role of “super spreaders” in a pandemic-individuals who disproportionately infect a larger number of people. In WoW, non-playable characters (NPCs) and pets unintentionally took on this role, acting as carriers that spread the disease while remaining unaffected themselves, much like asymptomatic carriers in a real-world outbreak.
Studies, such as one by Dr. Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren, used the Corrupted Blood incident as a model to examine how people might react in the early stages of an epidemic when the disease’s parameters aren’t fully known. They gained valuable insight into not just how diseases spread, but also how individuals and societies might react under such extreme circumstances.
Limitations of the Corrupted Blood Model
The Corrupted Blood incident offers an intriguing and unexpectedly rich model for studying disease spread and human behavior. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the limitations of drawing too many conclusions from a virtual pandemic in a game environment.
One significant difference is the absence of real-world consequences in a game like WoW. Although players may be attached to their characters and invested in the game, a character’s “death” is a temporary setback rather than a permanent loss. This distinction can considerably affect behaviors and responses to a virtual pandemic compared to a real one.
Moreover, the mechanics of Corrupted Blood, while serving as an interesting disease analog, were overly simplified compared to real-world diseases. Corrupted Blood was highly contagious, had a short incubation period of only a few seconds, and it featured an extremely high rate of lethality, making it more extreme and less nuanced than most real-world diseases.
Unlike human behavior grounded in reality, WoW player behavior is influenced by the inherent “rules” and expectations of gameplay, which do not always have a direct analog in real life. For instance, the nonchalant attitude of some players who decided to ‘respawn’ and return to infected areas, due to the lack of severe consequences for their in-game character’s death, may not directly translate to real-world behaviors during a pandemic where the risk of death carries a far more significant weight.
Finally, the demographic of WoW players does not accurately represent the global population. Factors such as age, socioeconomic status, health status, and access to technology can all influence behavior during a pandemic, and these were not adequately represented in the WoW player base.
The Lasting Impact of the Corrupted Blood Incident
Despite its scientific limitations, the Corrupted Blood incident expanded our understanding of disease dynamics. It emphasized human behavior’s power to dramatically influence an outbreak’s outcome, shedding light on the importance of rapid response, effective communication, and accounting for diverse behaviors in real-world disaster situations. Furthermore, it revealed the potential of virtual worlds as tools for modeling social behavior and psychology.
The incident also left an indelible mark on the gaming world, remembered as one of the most significant “emergent events” in multiplayer gaming history. This moment pushed players to react and adapt to an unprecedented and disruptive situation, leading to changes in game design. Developers became more aware of the potential for such events and the need to prevent or mitigate their impacts.
The unexpected real-world lesson from the Corrupted Blood incident illustrates the increasing potential for virtual worlds in social and scientific research. If a popular 2005 game could have such an impact purely by accident, consider the possibilities in today’s larger modern games. Envision a scenario where these games are intentionally designed to model potential disasters, aiming to improve real-life responses using insights from the virtual world.
As we continue to face health crises in the real world, the Corrupted Blood incident serves as a stark reminder of the unpredictable ways virtual and physical realities can intersect. It attests to the potential of digital worlds to mirror our own and the increasingly blurred lines between them. From Azeroth to our world, this story remains relevant, reminding us of the shared dynamics underpinning both our digital and real-life societies
- Fefferman, N. H., & Lofgren, E. T. (2007). The untapped potential of virtual game worlds to shed light on real world epidemics. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 7(9), 625–629.
- Ziebart, A. (2011, July 26). WoW Archivist: The Corrupted Blood plague. Engadget. https://www.engadget.com/2011-07-26-wow-archivist-the-corrupted-blood-plague.html
- Smith, T. (2005, September). World of Warcraft plague ‘swamps servers’. The Register. https://www.theregister.com/2005/09/21/wow_virtual_plague/