World of Biological Warcraft
cw: reference to gambling
World of Warcraft. The name itself evokes some sort of feeling in nearly every millennial, whether it be passion, tingles of nearly forgotten addiction, or immediate disgust. At its peak, the game was a cultural phenomenon; it boasted a player base of 12 million, reinvented the mould for the fantasy game genre, and soaked up the life force of nearly everyone who touched it.
While its reputation as a destroyer of social lives is probably its most publicised achievement, what is often overlooked is the story of a small programming oversight in the game’s early history — an error that might casually save all of humanity. This is a story of how a video game could make the difference between life and death in the event of a species-ending pandemic.
For a bit of background, World of Warcraft is a standard role-playing game, where players must gain experience to level up. Once they have achieved the maximum level they can participate in ‘raid dungeons’. These raids are groups of around 20 players who work to kill several ‘bosses’ until they face the final ‘boss’. Each boss has their own special ability and in September 2005, one boss would see the world’s most popular online game descend into mayhem.
This particular boss’ special ability was infecting a player with a disease, which would then spread to anyone within a few metres of them. This was designed to have players disperse and stand apart while killing the boss. Simple, right? Well, the game developers forgot to account for the players’ pets, which were also susceptible to the disease. While normally the game code automatically removed the disease for players’ avatars leaving the dungeon, this wasn’t the case for their pets.
Within a few hours what was originally meant to be an enclosed disease became the first video game pandemic, spreading throughout cities and towns, and killing millions (not an exaggeration, a lot of people played this game). Admittedly, this is slightly less dramatic when everyone has infinite lives, but for the sake of keeping this article filled to the brim with drama we’re going to brush over that. It took the developer, Blizzard Entertainment, one whole month to figure out what was causing the outbreaks and, after numerous changes in the code, put a stop to it. While many in the gaming industry, including Blizzard, saw this as a massive design failure, there were a few groups who saw a way to make the best out of a bad situation. Independent researchers, epidemiologists, and even counterterrorist agencies all began to study the outbreak to see how people react when shit well and truly hits the fan.
When a disease breakout takes place, there are three things that must be known in order to contain and remove it: the traits of the disease, the health condition of the affected population, and the behavior of the population. While the first two are relatively straightforward, the third is a little bit of a wild card given humanities streak for irrational decision-making. This is why the Warcraft plague received so much attention; it’s arguably the closest you can come to studying human behavior in the event of a worldwide disaster without actually creating one yourself (which ethically is a bit how ya going). It was only a few days before the researchers all came to the same conclusion: video game characters are eerily similar to humans. By comparing the two, they paired up different professions with different types of in-game characters and tallied up their chance of survival. So, if you’re a gambling fan and fancy taking a multi out on the apocalypse, here are some inside tips:
One of the first things noticed was that several players who had the ability to ‘heal’ others flocked to the main cities to provide some relief. Naturally, similarities were drawn between these players and doctors; they were selfless, able to save lives, and a bit too keen on the idea of working around death. Unfortunately for doctors, if this virtual plague is anything to go by, their chances of survival are about as high as the chances of Brendan Fraser making a Hollywood comeback. They were almost all annihilated by the plague, and those of them that were high-level enough to survive could do little to help the victims. They either realised it was a losing battle and left, or stayed for so long that any experience meant very little — and then they also died. For all aspiring doctors out there, the lesson is this: a degree in medicine at USyd does not make you immortal, just statistically a bit of a wanker.
In every apocalypse movie there’s someone who gets too close to whatever danger there is (zombies, global warming, a shark tornado — take your pick) to further their career. If you thought this was unrealistic and would never happen in real life, think again. According to researchers, the number one act that got people killed was curiosity. These bright bulbs were, naturally, labelled as ‘the media’, and tried to get a first-hand look at the plague for themselves. While being a doctor during a mass plague outbreak is, on the surface, one of the most dangerous jobs, it’s good old independent journalism that’ll really get ya. Defined broadly as “anyone who gets close to the plague for the sake of ‘reporting’”, it ranges from the Karl Stefanovics of the world, all the way down to your average Joe trying to get a really sweet boomerang for their Insta Story. So for you social media entrepreneurs out there, your lesson is: people can’t hit you up with a ‘like for a like’ when they’re all dead, and neither can you.
Now down to what the study really wanted to know: how does the average person, not tied down with a need to save others or dreams of social media stardom, react during a pandemic? The answer: surprisingly okay. The researchers found that, while evolution probably didn’t shape the human body with the goal of defending itself from a mass pandemic, all of our go-to survival instincts still apply — you just have to amplify them. Soon after the outbreak, every city became a ghost town as players realised the number one key to surviving a contagious plague was to flee to areas where population was sparse. Communication lines opened up and people swiftly informed each other of outbreak areas and how to avoid them — and this was one of the big takeaways. Communication was everything. While it may sound like keeping up television stations and phone lines is a no-brainer, it reinforced this notion a hundredfold — so much so that they were unable to estimate just how many deaths it prevented. While keeping these lines of communication does, ironically, encourage some to go down the ‘news reporter’ route, it’s a necessary evil — and nobody will mourn the loss of the media anyway.
All in all, what began as one of the biggest and most widely publicised fuck-ups in the history of video games ended up being one of the most useful case studies in modern day epidemiology. And when the pandemic finally breaks out, you’ll know that the government’s solution was the result of a software coding intern who accidentally pressed a couple of 2s instead of 0s.