Solving an epidemic with computer games

When confined to our homes due to the Corona virus, the only escape we have left is the internet. And we are flocking to the internet in droves to connect virtually and for our entertainment. Online services like Instagram, TikTok, Skype and Zoom see an increase in usage ranging from 25% to 75%. But the absolute winner is the online game industry. Most gaming platforms see an increase of at least 75%, and downloads of game apps have increased tenfold.

Although gaming was once frowned upon, it now is a welcome escape. Even the British Cooper Gallery offers virtual jigsaw puzzles as a novel way to spend the time and get to know the collection at the same time. Gaming is not only fun and even therapeutic, we can actually learn how to deal with a global pandemic from online gaming.

How to deal with a pandemic

In 2005 we saw a massive outbreak of a highly contagious and massive epidemic. Thousands were killed by the virus and within no-time streets were littered with corpses. How come this alarming news wasn’t making headlines? Because it happened in World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft is an online roleplaying game. In 2005 Blizzard, the creators of World of Warcraft, introduced a new territory with new challenges in the game. This particular challenge featured the Blood God Hakkar The Soul-flayer. The serpent-like Blood God casted a spell that drained blood from its victims. The spell was highly contagious. Other players in the vicinity would be immediately infected by the blood spell, similar to how a virus would spread. The spell drained hit points from the affected player, points you accumulate when you progress through the game: When you’re injured, you lose hit points. Because the challenge was designed for advanced players, the blood spell was only meant to be a hindrance to during the fight. Advanced players should have enough hit points to survive the fight. And after the Blood God was defeated or when the player was killed, the spell would be broken.

The corrupted Blood Incident

But unfortunately the game developers had overlooked a few small issues. For one, they hadn’t foreseen that players would panic or otherwise find reasons to abort the challenge and teleport out of the dungeon, still afflicted by the spell. When they reappeared in another part of the game world, they immediately infected everyone around them. Players teleporting from one part of the game world to another rapidly spread the disease.

Another overlooked fact was that the players in-game pets could also contract the disease. In World of Warcraft, players can have animals or other creatures that accompany them and help them during their adventures. But if such a creature would not have many hit points, a player would be inclined to send it away. But if the animal was summoned again elsewhere, it could be carrying the disease and thus spread the virus.

And the third overlooked fact was that non-player characters (characters that appear in the game but are controlled by the game and not by a player) like shopkeepers and guards could also contract the disease. These non-player characters are well-equipped with hit points to prevent murderous players from killing them and ruining the game play. These non-player characters acted like asymptomatic carriers of the virus and kept spreading the disease unnoticeably. Within no-time World of Warcraft had a full-blown epidemic on their hands, which was later called the ‘Corrupted Blood’ incident.

Learning how we behave during a pandemic

Although there is some knowledge about the biological behaviour of viruses, little is known about how we humans in an epidemic. To some extend computer models can calculate mass behaviour of humans, like for instance the role international air traffic played in the spread the Corona Virus. But apart from these big behavioural patterns computer models fail to predict the behaviour of the very unpredictable humans. And we have little options: In real life it is impossible and morally unacceptable to empirically study an epidemics outbreak by intently infecting groups of people, that is until the mayor of Las Vegas, Carolyn Goodman, offered her citizens as control group

In roleplaying games you create or choose a virtual character that represents you in the game world. Because players invest financially and emotionally in their game characters, they reacted surprisingly similar to how humans behave in real life epidemics when the blood curse epidemic rampaged through their game world.

Similarities between the game world and a real epidemic

Some players with healing properties sped to the epicentre of the outbreak and tried to help the afflicted. Some fled to remote areas of the game space hoping to avoid infection, or chose to stay offline to save their characters. There were sensation seekers who went to the epicentre to witness the outbreak for themselves, and there were also players who tried to gain from the epidemic or even intently contracted the curse to infect other players.

In this behaviour we see parallels with the first responders fighting to save lives, people fleeing to less densely populated areas or locking themselves indoors to avoid catching the virus. The thrill seekers could be compared to journalists who willingly venture into the epicentre of the outbreak to report on the situation and we even have the equivalent of the players who intently infect others in the form of individuals licking elevator buttons or spitting in other people’s faces.

Another interesting parallel was how the World of Warcraft population responded to safety measures. Quarantine measures were taken to protect the weaker players from dying and to bring the infection to a halt, both by players and Blizzard. But it didn’t work because not everyone took the safety measures seriously. 

Not responding to safety measures

Players also tried tagging themselves to state they were healthy, much like how we use apps in the real world to show we haven’t been in contact with the virus, but that only made the players targets for others who intentionally spread the disease. In the end most players tagged themselves as infected to keep themselves save. And the players who sought refuge in remote areas were soon either discovered by miscreants or overwhelmed by a mass of refugees.

All these parallels in behaviour during  the ‘Corrupted Blood’ incident gave epidemiologists a bizarre opportunity to analyse human behaviour during the outbreak of an epidemic. Of course, a game is intended for entertainment, and the risks in the game are not comparable to the consequences of a real infection, but nevertheless there are valuable insights to be learned from a mere computergame. 

Avid gamer and epidemiologist Eric Lofgren thought so as well when he noticed the similarities. Together with his colleague Nina Fefferman he published a paper on the topic which helped to adjust the computer models that calculate the spread of epidemics and make them more realistic. Not only the behaviour the players displayed as a direct response were insightful. What also helped to understand how behaviour is shaped were the real time discussions between players during gameplay. The conversations, the advise and the warnings that were exchanged, just as the praise and judgement of fellow players affected their behaviour.

Gaming is a mirror for human behaviour

It is obvious that gaming is a mirror, albeit a bit rose tinted, for human behaviour. Therefor researchers are keen on releasing another online virus like the blood spell in a massive game environment to further study human behaviour, but game developers aren’t that keen on offering their game as a lab or their players as guinea pigs. According to Blizzard, World of Warcraft is first and foremost a game, and was never meant to mirror reality or anything in the real world.

Even with all our knowledge about the spread of viruses, the importance of humans as carriers of the virus and their behaviour as most important factor for the spread of the disease is still not fully appreciated. Viruses need carriers or a host to spread. In the case of the corona virus, after the virus jumped from a bat to a pangolin, it found a perfect host in humans. Our density on the planet and our widespread movements make us the ideal host for a virus ready to conquer the world. 

Our social behaviour is determining the scope of the outbreak. Whether or not we comply with safety measures, our ability to exercise self-restraint and patience, our capability for empathy, and our trust in government, science, the news and each other are all playing a part in the spread of the virus. But just like during the corrupted blood incident, not everyone is taking the safety measures like social distancing and avoiding physical contact seriously.

Games can have a negative and a positive influence on our behaviour

It is hard to convince people of something they can’t see, or to get them to understand that this is a time that social behaviour should prevail over self interest. In that sense, gaming offers other possibilities for learning, because we can not only learn from, but also learn through gaming. 

Play is a simulation of reality. According to an article on Psychologytoday, games can have a negative but also a positive influence on behaviour. On the one hand games that promote amoral violence can lead to riskier and aggressive behaviour because this behaviour is continually practiced during gameplay and becomes ingrained. On the other hand if the game has a moral message, for instance to help others, the result is more helpful behaviour, whether or not violence was necessary to achieve this. Instead of using an existing game world to test behaviour, maybe we can create new games about viral outbreaks in which the player has to save humanity by staying at home, wash their hands and taking care of each other.

The story of the corrupted blood incident is a beautiful illustration  how innovation is often sparked by combining two unlikely elements, in this case epidemiology and computer games. Although the corrupted blood incident did give the scientists a better model to predict the spread of a pandemic and showed the possibilities of using game environments to study human behaviour, the way the epidemic in World of Warcraft was solved didn’t offer much innovative ideas. In the end the corrupted blood incident was resolved in a typical game fashion. Blizzard rebooted the affected servers and wrote an update in which they disabled the spread via teleportation, pets and non-player characters, which ended the spread of the virus. Unfortunately in real life we cannot reboot society or start again after we’ve died.

Gaming is not just escapism

But who knows what else we might still discover by playing computer games. Maybe we will learn how to master the epidemic or how to find a cure. So let’s game on, safe in the knowledge that it’s not just a way to escape from the drab reality, but that we’re actually are doing something useful.

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