WoW’s pandemic – how the underestimated danger took over the virtual world

By Artur Odwald

Hakkar the Soulflayer was a final boss of the Zul’Gurub raid.

What Hakkar, and even his creators, did not know was the incredible impact he would have on both the virtual and the real worlds.

World of Warcraft is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game released in 2004 (2005 in Europe) by Blizzard Entertainment. There is a huge open world inhabited by characters created and controlled by real players, as well as the non-player characters (NPCs). One of the more popular features of the game is the so called PvE (Player-versus-Environment), where players group up to raid together. Raids are the most challenging scenarios players can partake in. A coordinated group is needed in order to defeat the monsters and reach a final boss. The final boss often contains an element of surprise – something players must analyze and react to properly if they want to defeat the boss.

How it all started

It only took a few days for the world to turn into chaos. On September 13, 2005, Hakkar made his first appearance. Players quickly figured out that by corrupting their own blood, they will then infect the blood-sucking serpent. The players, as well as the developers, must have been too focused on the boss, to realize the real danger. The Corrupted Blood, which was the name of the disease, was carried with the players back to the capital cities. The disease spread to all the characters in proximity, causing the entire cities to carry the plague. And so, the WoW pandemic has begun.

Dealing with the pandemic – the people

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”

– unknown source, shared on social media

Curiosity

You log in one day and immediately you hear people talking about a pandemic. They say that an entire city has turned into a graveyard. “No way!” you think to yourself, as you run to see it for yourself. You enter the city, you see the corpses, and soon enough, your character is infected as well. Chances are you infected others, before hitting the ground yourself.

The curiosity killed the cat. And the player.

People acted irrationally. Ignored the warnings. Something that seemed rather innocent helped the virus spread further. We expect others to be rational. Sadly, in the face of danger, we often panic and being rational is rarely our “go-to” choice. 

The reports often mention that the curious players were the virtual representation of real-life journalists, who venture into the danger zones and end up infected themselves. However, I would be careful not to undermine the work of the reporters and risks they take as part of their job. A player who wants to see a pandemic is not the same as a reporter who risks his or her life, so that others may stay informed.

Griefers (or, simply, douchebags)

They go by different names, they do different things, but they have one goal – to ruin your game. The guys who find the pandemic hilarious would do whatever they could to spread the virus. It wasn’t against the rules of the game, so you can’t punish them for that.  Some saw this as a great opportunity to have some fun – at the expense of others.

Medics

The characters with the ability to heal and cure diseases quickly offered their help. They did their best, dedicating their play time to help others and stop the pandemic. Soon it became apparent, that the healers were outnumbered. You can only cure one infected at a time, whereas the infection spread to everyone nearby instantly. It was obvious that greater measures were necessary.

Refugees

Another group worth mentioning is the people who tried to stay away from the cities. By sticking to the isolated areas, they hoped to avoid the virus and enjoy the game. But it got them too. The virus spread everywhere, and there was nowhere to run. It won. 

Dealing with the pandemic – the developers

The plague began to spread between the 13th and 16th of September. By the end of that time span, the developers announced that they were aware of the issue and that they were planning a reset to fix it. On the following day, another announcement was made, stating that their remedy “had not yielded the desired results”. It was then they had realised that it was not only the player characters that carried the virus, but also their pets.

The devs also attempted to quarantine infected players, but apparently the players did not like that solution. Before we criticize the irresponsible players, who did not want to quarantine themselves, let’s keep in mind that these people pay to play the game. If you pay and you’re told that you cannot play the game you paid for, but you have to sit in isolation, your immediate reaction may be: “But it ain’t my fault! You should be able to fix it without punishing me for your own mistakes!” . Enough of playing the devil’s advocate, back to the pandemic.

The developers are basically the Gods of World of Warcraft. No one has more power and control than them. That’s exactly what makes this situation truly scary. Even with all the available control, it was still not possible to immediately get rid of the disease.  

Why can’t you just stop it?!

Take it out on the devs…

Solving the problem is easy, provided you know what the issue is. Blizzard thought they had solved the issue by just curing the player characters. But players were not the only hosts. NPCs and player’s pets were also carriers of the disease and they spread it even better than the players.

In WoW, pets can be summoned and dismissed at will. While they are dismissed, all the effects are paused. A pet dismissed during the battle, carrying the virus, would be summoned later in the city, and spread it to other characters.

NPCs, on the other hand, would not die from the disease and neither would they show signs of having it. They would just spread it. They were asymptomatic carriers. You walk up to a shopkeeper to vendor your loot, and you leave the shop with the virus. Not the best deal you made, if you ask me…

You may think that these guys were dumb, allowing those obvious mistakes to take place. Sure, now we all know what the problem was, and we’re all masters of epidemiology. Back then, people were faced with a crisis and had to react fast. A puzzle is no longer a mystery, once you have all the pieces and someone is explaining it to you.  And then there’s these guys…

Virtual terrorism?

Some people just want to see the world burn. These people clearly played WoW back then and they contributed however they could. There’s still footage of people summoning their pets and running around spreading it to as many people as they can, healing themselves to last a bit longer. After all, it’s just a game, isn’t it? “Thou shalt not spread the disease to you allies” is not a rule in the game. Or at least it wasn’t. We can’t help the fact that some people get their kicks at the expense of other players. The so called griefers are present in every online game out there and they’re impossible to weed out. While some behaviour can be reported and a player should be banned for it, there are also cases like this one, where it isn’t clear if the player is breaking the rules or not. Now they may even claim that we have this amazing disease-model thanks to their evil efforts. How do you counter that argument?

Real life vs. virtual pandemic

The WoW pandemic has been studied and analysed thoroughly before. The incident was met with great interest by epidemiologists and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was used as a “disease-model”, which added host behaviour to the simulations – something that would be rather unethical to test in a real-life study.

But one thing may have been constantly nagging you, so let me voice your concerns.

The virtual pandemic is not the same as a real-life pandemic. The virtual characters don’t actually die, the developers are literal gods who can reshape the world overnight, and still, this is a game we’re talking about. So, let’s look at these three arguments and why things are actually pretty scary.

The characters in WoW never “die”. You can erease their existance by deleting them. Well, even then you’re able to restore a deleted character, but let’s stick to the point. When a character dies in WoW, they become a ghost. You have to run back to your body or be resurrected at the graveyard. Apart from it being an inconvenience, there is no penalty for death.

First of all, even if you’re an omnipotent god, finding out what should be done is not that easy. Second of all, after death, the player no longer had the virus, but that still didn’t stop the pandemic. So, getting rid of the virus, even with the literal gods present, and with the ability to cure yourself, was still a challenge. Imagine not having these two factors.

That leaves us with the last argument. Namely, this is just a game, after all. The real world doesn’t work like that, right? Yes and no. Let’s look at it from another angle. Each player saw whether they’re infected or not. That’s not always true in the real world. The in-game spreading therefore must be more intentional, and the real-world spreading is more prone to being done unintentionally and even unconsciously. In WoW, you know you have it and then you can act to stop it. In real-life, you may think you don’t have it. You’ll go visit your grandma. You’ll get on a bus home. You’ll open grandma’s jar of jam and spread it on a pancake, but that ain’t the only thing you’re spreading mate…

The game accidentally created an amazing model. It illustrated how a virus spreads from very few carriers that come from an isolated region, and in no time infects the entire world. Also, the human element is something that was unique to this model. Researchers had an opportunity to observe how actual humans act in the face of a pandemic. Sadly, “reasonable” was not the answer in the picture. The virus spreads exponentially. It takes one person to infect many. Griefers, ignorants (covidiots?), or asymptomatic carriers. Everything about this situation just screams: Do not underestimate the danger!

Lesson learnt

This all took place in 2005. It’s 2020 now, and we’ve travelled back in time to relive the events of the past, or at least some of us have. I don’t mean the real world (although that’s also eventful), but in the game. Last year, the original (aka Vanilla) version of the game was launched. Since then, players have a choice of which world they want to enter. Do they want to play Retail WoW, which is the game that has been developed over more than 15 years? Or do they want to play the game in its original state, Classic WoW? Now, through over these 15 years, many changes were introduced to the game. The game itself is progressive. Zul’Gurub, the instance that was introduced a few months after the release, and also brought the pandemic with it, is now being introduced to Classic WoW. The “virus” is coming back, but this time the devs are prepared and ensured that no pandemic erupts.

Oddly enough, some people want to relive the pandemic. Some say that it would be an interesting experience, some say that this time people would be smarter, and the virus wouldn’t spread (a scenario that I highly doubt); and some say that one pandemic was enough. There’s as many opinions as there are people, or perhaps even more. It’s impossible to please everyone.

We now see that the developers, being able to travel back in time, learned their lessons and kept everyone safe. Not only did they provide us with a great model to study the pandemic, but also showed us that we should be learning from the past.