Gaming’s most memorable epidemics

Initially, the spell was meant to be contained within Zul'Gurub, but players quickly found a way to release it into the greater world. NPCs caught the bug, and while they didn’t receive any damage, they were contagious and aided the rapid spread of the disease.

Above: A Corrupted Blood graveyard

Surprisingly, players acted relatively in line with what you’d expect from a non-virtual human population. Some ran from population centers, others offered help, and others used the disease as a weapon, infecting other players intentionally. The curious ran toward the source of the infection, which has been noted as being similar to journalists converging on disasters. This, of course, only helped the infection take hold. Eventually Blizzard had to reset the servers, but the outbreak lasted long enough to provide some interesting insight.

Above: PLUGSH! PLUGSH! PLUGSH! That’s the sound of death

Multiple researches have suggested that similar (more intentional) in-game outbreaks could help us better understand how people react to epidemics. Epidemologist Nina H. Fefferman, Ph.D joked thatshe could use gamers as “her guinea pigs.”

In a sense, virtual worlds are already grand sociological experiments. We’ve already tested diseases, economies, society building, teamwork and gender roles. With a bit more care in isolating variables, MMO research could help us cut off the spread of infectious diseases, teach us new ways to structure our government, and give us other new and exciting insights on the human condition…that, or they could just be games about orcs and stuff.

May 6, 2009

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Associate Editor, Digital at PC Gamer