GDC11: World of Warcraft and Disease Control

If you’re a World of Warcraft player of a certain vintage (cicrca 2005), you remember Zul’Gurub, particularly its end boss: “Hakkar,” a giant, quetzalcoatl-looking beast with one notable debuff — “Hakkar’s Corrupted Blood Plague.”

The Blood Plague was an AoE spell that Hakkar spammed throughout the fight, mostly serving as an annoyance for raid healers, who had to work overtime to keep their charges disease-free. For high-level players, its deleterious effects were simply added spices in the rich broth of pain that Zul’Gurub’s winged-serpent-Troll-god was busy dishing out.

There was a caveat, however. Player characters debuffed with the Blood Plague would auto-cast it on other friendly targets, meaning that the longer you waited to cleanse people, the faster and more virulently it would spread through your raid group. The Blizzard devs, in their infinite wisdom, were playing with power they didn’t fully understand. They had intended the disease to be made final by either death or victory, but they didn’t account for the creativity or the chaos that runs rampant in the World of Warcraft.

Players soon realized that they could use hearthstones to exit the instance while still infected. Hunters could also banish infected pets, then resummon them while in civilized areas. Soon, the metaphorical Norwegian Black Rats of the world’s most popular online game were spreading the disease everywhere they could. It spread unchecked, turning Ogrimmar and Ironforge into Monty Python-style charnel houses. Piles of skeletons appeared on the ground, grisly visual evidence of Hakkar’s infectious handiwork that distinguished such expirations from normal in-game deaths, which do not leave anything behind. Low-level characters, unable to withstand the end-game-calibrated damage dealt by the Blood Plague, became almost unplayable, trapped in an endless cycle of resurrections, followed by explosions in a cloud of blood.

For your average player, it was a pain in the ass. For mathematical epidemiologist Nina Fefferman, it was a dream come true. Epidemiologists study exactly the kind of sudden disease outbreaks that Blizzard had unwittingly created, though they were often hamstrung by two problems: a) How to find a large and demographically diverse population willing to be, y’know, infected with a disease, and b) how find out whether the behavior people say they’re going into engage in when confronted with an epidemic situation contrasts with what they actually do when confronted with an outbreak.

The Blood Plague outbreak provided answers to both questions. Even in those ancient, pre-iPhone times, WoW had a subscriber base of about 6 million people. By closely monitoring the behavior of people in the thrall of a fictitious disease, Fefferman, her colleagues, and big-balls governmental organizations like the CDC and the Department of Homeland Security were able to learn a lot about what would happen if humanity were ever struck by a real one.

Their previous efforts had mostly been comprised of complicated mathematical models — Fefferman showed a slide that looked like a hand grenade had gone off in a typesetter’s office. Modeling human behavior is not impossible, but it requires a lot of guesswork, and in some cases, the same kind of predictive logic required when game developers program A.I. behavior. Dangerous situations like disease outbreaks, however, lead people to do unpredictable things.

Say you’re caught in a plague. Do you run the risk of being infected by caring for a sick child? Do you go to the hospital if there is a chance you could infect the hospital worker? These are just a few of the knotty moral questions Fefferman posed. People’s personal answers varied, and they were certainly unpredictable.

Evaluating the plague in Azeroth, the professor said that she had encountered “altruism, courage, compliance, fear, suspicion, public concern, non- compliance, opportunism, maliciousness, and even curiosity,” and that this kind of diversity of response was an important component of the outbreak’s usefulness. Blizzard’s attempts to control the plague, too, was instructive. All attempts at a quarantine failed, and, after four or five days, they had to reset the servers. If only the CDC could do that next time we have a serious disease outbreak.

All in all, the Hakkar’s Corrupted Blood Plague panel was a good example of GDC at best. Bringing together serious academic subject matter with the world’s most popular game is what the convention is all about, and Fefferman was both enthusiastic, articulate, and engaging. One gets the sense that whenever the next fictional disease happens, she’ll be ready to pounce. And we should all be ready to learn what she has to say, once it does, and she does.

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