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Replicating Medical Epidemics in Virtual Worlds

Are MMO worlds really a place where epidemics can be implemented? Infections leaping from player to player, some succumbing, some becoming carriers? It seems amazing, and farfetched - no player would stand for that, surely. Yet, this has already happened in at least one persistent virtual world.

October, 2005. Blizzard, makers of the MMO gameworld World of Warcraft, introduced patch 1.7 to their world. As with all previous patches, 1.7 opened up new areas of the world, introduced new races, civilisations, plants, and objects.

Patch 1.7 also introduced something else, purely by chance. It included in one of the expansion areas, an evil god; was Hakkar, the God of Blood. Now, Hakkar was a supremely powerful entity, after all he was a god. Never the less, he was not omnipotent, and could be killed, if a large enough group of powerful characters worked together to defeat him. Hakkar fell to such a group. Howeve4r, something went wrong. Scripted in as part of his death moves, Hakkar released releases a single last-ditch attack, intended to take his killer down with him.

The area-attack cloud, which billowed out, was called Corrupted Blood. It modified the player character's stats to show they had been infected, then dealt a single, massive damage blow to them, enough to kill practically every character instantly - the infection stat removed after death.

The problem was, at least one person survived the initial infection. Their character took the massive health blow, and survived. Over time, their injuries healed, but they were still infected. As a carrier of corrupted blood, they soon found the area-attack cloud was still with them. Anyone who came near an infected player, -player or non-player character- contracted Corrupted Blood.

A disease was born

Most characters, including all low level ones, died immediately from the massive amount of damage Corrupted Blood dealt. They respawned elsewhere, minus experience, items, and clothes. However, not everyone died. Just as with patient zero, some survived the massive damage, and remained infected. They too, carried the disease to everyone they encountered.

A Plague was born

The plague spread like wildfire, from NPC to NPC, from NPC to Player and from Player to NPC, no matter gender, race, class, level or Faction. In short, it was a full-blown epidemic.

It got worse. The common-sense cure would seem to be to kill all the carriers. This did not work. As the Corrupted Blood stat change was only removed when the character died of corrupted blood damage, those who were infected, but had survived the initial damage, could not be re-infected, and so killing them had a nasty result.

Infected carriers started appearing at the respawning grounds, wiping out newly resurrected characters with Corrupted Blood.

By November 2005, more than half the Warcraft servers were overrun with Corrupted Blood. Travel from an infected server to an unaffected server was banned - quarantines were put into effect. There was no apparent way for Blizzard to remove Corrupted Blood from the infected servers, as it had just infected too many accounts. Removing it would mean deleting thousands of player accounts.

Blizzard tried to control the plague by staging rolling re-starts of all the servers supporting the Warcraft realms and applying quick fixes.

However, this did not fully control the problem, and isolated pockets of plague started to break out again, after restart. In short, plague continued.

Other Plagues

The MMO UrbanDead, also uses plague. It's entire reason for existence is that a plague has swept through the city of Malton, killing residents and turning the corpses into zombies. Survivors huddle in barricaded buildings, mobile generators running on limited fuel supplies, powering the mains - just like in every zombie movie.

In UrbanDead, they have a cure, it's hard to manufacture - a necrotech revivification syringe - and can only cure one zombie at a time, whilst the zombies can infect/reinfect survivors simply by lowering their hit points to zero, thus turning them into a zombie. No one can leave the city, although they can stop playing. This has effectively created a stable 'loop' of disease, with a plague running rampant through an urban setting, but the victims not dying, just having their view of the world, and purpose in life radically altered. It creates a fascinating study on the effects of plague on the mind, as revivified players continue to act "for the zombies" with survivor skills and newly created zombies bite other zombies.

In Closing

An epidemic or pandemic can actually work, as an experience inside a virtual world. It can be an unintended side effect, such as with World of Warcraft, or an entire MMO as in the case of UrbanDead. It could thusly, likely function quite happily as something in between the two - a disease in a world that is neither the focus, nor easy to cure.

However it is implemented, the fact that the spread of a disease or contagious condition in the virtual so precisely mirrors the spread in the physical makes this a worthy subject for scientific visualisation.

In fact, watching trends of virtual epidemics could very well highlight strategies to use to combat the physical ones.

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