Scientists Using World of Warcraft to Study Real-World Pandemics


An epidemiologist at Princeton University is using the Corrupted Blood outbreak in World of Warcraft to help her study and predict behaviors of real-world pandemics.

Nina Fefferman, who wrote a report on the outbreak and its potential real-world impact with her former student Eric Lofgren, was alerted to the event by Lofgren, a World of Warcraft player. She quickly took notice of examples of behavior she had not previously accounted for in computer-generated models of disease outbreaks. “It really looked quite a bit like a real disease,” she said, referring to Corrupted Blood’s unintentional release into the game world, as well as its devastating effects on players and social structure. One element she had previously overlooked is what she called “the stupid factor,” manifested in the game as players who entered the focal point of the disease to witness its effects first-hand, and then moved on to other, uninfected areas.

“Someone thinks, ‘I’ll just get close and get a quick look, and it won’t affect me,'” she said. “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? No one ever looked at what would happen when people who are not in a quarantine zone get in and then leave.”

Fefferman has incorporated this and other Corrupted Blood-inspired behaviors into her simulations, and is working with Blizzard to model pandemics in other games. “With very large numbers of players, these games provide a population where controlled outbreak simulations may be done seamlessly with the player experience,” she said, also pointing out that Ran Balicer at Ben-Gurion University in Israel reached similar conclusions in a paper published in March.

Introduced in September of 2005, Corrupted Blood occurred as a result of combat with Hakkar the Soulflayer, and was meant to add extra challenge for high-level players. In an unforeseen twist, the “virus” escaped and wreaked unprecedented levels of havoc on the game world, wiping out huge numbers of low-level players and leaving entire cities uninhabitable. Blizzard was finally forced to modify Hakkar’s Corrupted Blood ability, removing its player-to-player transmission, in order to halt the devastation.

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