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How a 'World of Warcraft' video game plague can help doctors understand the coronavirus pandemic

The "Corrupted Blood" pandemic hit "World of Warcraft" characters in 2005.
Popular game, World of WarCraft games, on display at GameStop store in Redwood City, Calif., Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Almost 15 years ago, a virtual pandemic swept through the massively popular online multiplayer computer game "World of Warcraft."

Some researchers and doctors believe the "Corrupted Blood" plague can be seen as a testing ground for human behavior during the current coronavirus pandemic.

"We really saw the full gamut of behaviors we see in the real world reflected in the player characters during Corrupted Blood," Dr. Nina Fefferman, a mathematical biologist, said to the Washington Post.

Fefferman, who was playing the game at the time of Corrupted Blood, and her colleague Eric T. Lofgren, co-wrote a study in 2007 on how virtual game worlds can shed light on real-world epidemics. The paper touches on how rapidly this virtual disease spread among players, detailing virtual quarantine and social distancing practices.

"The outbreak we have described marks the first time that a virtual virus has infected a virtual human being in a manner even remotely resembling an actual epidemiological event," the two wrote in the study, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.

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During the Corrupted Blood outbreak, which Blizzard Entertainment said was not intentional, a new "end boss" had among his arsenal of weapons a "spell" called Corrupted Blood. Players who entered Hakkar the Soulflayer's new dungeon and were infected suffered damage at repeating intervals.

The infection drained away players' health points until their avatars exploded. After those intervals were done or players finished the battle, the infection was supposed to end. It didn't.

According to Wired, a programming glitch and player panic while in the dungeon caused the virtual disease to spread beyond the battle area. And, the outlet said non-playable animal companions in the game were also able to be infected.

Just like a real virus, Corrupted Blood could spread to other players if infected players got too close to one another.

To control the outbreak, Fefferman's study said Blizzard imposed player quarantines and imposed isolation efforts. 

"These strategies failed because of the highly contagious nature of the disease, an inability to seal off a section of the game world effectively, and more than likely player resistance to the notion," the study said.

Fefferman and Lofgren also noted in their study how some players rushed into infected areas as first responders of sorts, desperate to help contain the spread and treat infected players.

"Their behavior may have actually extended the course of the epidemic and altered its dynamics," the two wrote. "Of course, this behavior could also have greatly reduced the mortality from the disease in those they treated."

The cure for Corrupted Blood: Blizzard restarted every game server, an option the real world does not have.

"For me, it was a good illustration of how important it is to understand people's behaviors," Lofgren said to PC Gamer. "When people react to public health emergencies, how those reactions really shape the course of things."

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