A bioterror attack in World of Warcraft

Dig this: An Ebola-like epidemic is raging in World of Warcraft, the enormously popular online game — and it’s killing players left and right. The trouble began when Blizzard, the company that runs World of Warcraft, introduced a new opponent called Hakkar, the “god of blood”. When you fight him, as a defense he infects you with something called “Corrupted Blood”, which shaves off your hit points so rapidly that your character dies very quickly. Problem is, the Blood is infectious — get close enough to another player and you’ll pass on the disease. As one player reports from inside the game:

The amazing thing is SOME PLAYERS have brought this disease (and it is a disease) back to the towns, outside of the instance. It starts spreading amongst the genral population including npcs, who can out generate the damage. Some servers have gotten so bad that you can’t go into the major cities without getting the plague (and anyone less than like level 50 nearly immediately die).

GM’s even tried quarantining players in certain areas, but the players kept escaping the quarentine and infect other players.

Over at the superb game-theory blog Terra Nova, one player notes that the disaster has taken on Katrina-like proportions, complete with a fumbling bureaucracy. Some players feel Blizzard’s executives didn’t read up on their network-theory carefully enough to predict how badly things would rage out of control:

Deaths on Suramar numbered in the hundreds, I personally have screenshots of skeletons piled waist high in parts of the auction house. The biggest disappointment wasn’t that it happened, but that Blizzard was so incapable when it came to dealing with it.

And the living shall envy the dead. Of course, this digital pandemic isn’t all that awful, insofar as when you die in World of Warcraft you can just reanimate yourself. But the stories from witnesses to the in-game carnage are pretty amazing, and it makes me wonder: Maybe we should be using online games to study the effects of a real-world bioterror attack? Maybe FEMA and the government should hire Blizzard to build them an online world, and populate it with players by offering it for free. They researchers can test the effects of a contagious bioterror attack such as smallpox — by releasing a virtual version of it, and seeing how players react.

(Thanks to Jacob for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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