In 2005, the remote region of Zul’Gurub became the epicentre of an unexpectedly virulent disease. As initial quarantine measures failed, the affliction travelled further and further afield, transmitted to the residents of crowded urban centres by human and animal hosts, as well as by asymptomatic Typhoid Mary-like carriers (Ziebart 2011). The ensuing pandemic killed the most vulnerable quickly, yet, after a period of wasting, many healthy people also succumbed. Entire cities became infected, streets littered with bones and soaked in blood (Ziebart 2011). Their cities rendered uninhabitable, residents fled to unpopulated areas — forests, jungles, and empty countryside — where they hunkered down, avoided contact with other people, and hoped for an end to the contagion. Unable to contain the infection through voluntary quarantine, administrators resorted to extreme measures: they staged rolling reboots of all the affected servers (Ward 2005).
Yes, servers — neither Zul’Gurub nor the contagion, Corrupted Blood, exist outside the construct that is World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) that currently claims 9.6 million subscribers worldwide (Stickney 2013). Intended as a challenge to high-level players in a self-contained space, Corrupted Blood swept out into the broader WoW world due to a series of programming glitches. Although the deaths were not final — players have various means to resurrect themselves — the pandemic completely disrupted normal game plan. Players were rankled for several days while game administrators struggled vainly to bring the catastrophe under control.
Malaby (2007) contests that games, like everyday experience, are processual: while they might appear to be stable, trundling along following the same set of rules and conventions, the potential for an innovation — accidental or intentional — that generates new meanings or practices is ever-present. Moreover, “game contexts and other arenas of human experience [are] ontologically on par with each other” (109). In particular, both are characterised by contingency, “that which could have been otherwise” (107). Malby (2007) proposes that it is this correspondance between games and life that makes well-designed examples of the former so engaging. Many role-playing gamers form an affective attachment to their characters, while others become so consumed by the gameplay that its importance usurps their family and work commitments, a technological addiction. Such engagement means that they are unlikely to take greater risks just because the environment in which they are and the consequences they face are ‘only’ virtual.
It is for these reasons that some epidemiologists turned to the Corrupted Blood incident as a potential research scenario given its close resemblance to the outbreak of real-world epidemics. Typically, epidemiologists are restricted to studying the spread of disease using complex computer simulations informed by data from past outbreaks, as well as people’s conjectures on how they’d act during a hypothetical one (Blue 2007). Though sophisticated, these simulations are unable to predict human behaviour during a pandemic, and some researchers felt that data from this virtual contagion could shed light on the variability of human response.
I agree that games like WoW could effectively bridge the gap between these mathematical models and real-world epidemics since the social repercussions of the contagion result from actual, rather than assumed, human decisions. In the case of the Corrupted Blood pandemic, characters variously ran for the hills, travelled to help heal the sick, visited infected locations just to see what was happening , or teleported from one location to another, spreading the disease like virtual bio-terrorists (Blue 2007; Ziebert 2011). While I expect that much individual decision-making determined which of these practices characters undertook, I also suspect that mimetic response also came into play, spreading panic (and disease) throughout the virtual world, much like a yawn travelling a lecture hall.
‘Serious’ games currently benefit the medical sciences by fulfilling therapeutic and educational purposes; consider Wii Fit games integrated into a physical therapy regime, or Contagion, a web-based game that communicates knowledge about maintaining well-being in the face of infectious disease (de Castell, Jenson & Taylor 2007). The Corrupted Blood incident suggests that gaming can also provide a field site in which to study certain societal outcomes that would be unethical to study in real-world environments — after all, a scientist can’t just go releasing pathogens into an urban centre to see what happens. Considered in concert with results from computer simulations and records of past epidemics, information derived from the virtual world could provide epidemiologists with a more nuanced portrait of the spread of contagious disease. It’s an approach founded on iconoclash: rather than dismantling one theoretical approach to install another ‘better’ one, these three approaches could build on one another instead.
Is this good science? Though I see risk, recalcitrance, and interest in this proposal, I can’t say for certain. Certainly medicine and gaming have the capacity to affect and be affected by each other: epidemiologists have studied subsequent plagues in WoW, while WoW programmers have attempted to make these plagues more realistic . However, when bodies — tangible and virtual — encounter one another they become “figures” (Haraway 2007:4), entanglements of symbolic meanings, human and non-human entities, and events spanning time and space. To see whether the articulations created by using video games as models of real-world behaviour are good or bad, it’s paramount to unpack the assumptions, relationships, and histories bundled into each of the elements in this particular figure: mathematical model, epidemiological studies, medical approaches to health care, video game, the contagion itself.
Reciprocity between the military and producers of pop culture — what communications studies expert Roger Stahl labels militainment — has turned war (real, virtual, and fictive) into an entertainment spectacle that remasculates American culture and invites the average citizen to play ‘arm chair’ soldier. Articulations between medicine and gaming can not have a comparably insidious effect on power, affect, and capital if we are to consider them good.
 Epidemiologists were quite surprised by this finding. While they acknowledged that it simulates the way in which journalists travel into a crisis area to cover a story and then leave, they felt the phenomenon actually pointed to curious onlookers who, naively considering themselves impervious to the disease, put themselves at risk just to see its effects on others. One researcher referred to this as ‘the stupidity vector.’
 In October 2008, WoW game administrators introduced a week-long zombie plague to the game, modelling it after smallpox. Unlike the Corrupt Blood contagion, this was a planned event designed to promote the launch of a new expansion. Again, while some players enjoyed the plague, others vehemently expressed their discontent at the disruption to normal gameplay.
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de Castell, Suzanne, Jennifer Jenson & Nicholas Taylor
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Haraway, Donna J.
2007 When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Malaby, Thomas M.
2007 Beyond Play: A New Approach to Games. Games and Culture 2(2):95–113.
2013 World of Warcraft down to 9.6 million subscribers. WoW Insider, February 7. Last accessed 19 March 2013.
2005 Deadly plague hits Warcraft world. Technology, BBC News, September 22. Last accessed 24 March 2013.
2011 WoW Archivist: The Corrupted Blood plague. WoW Insider, July 26. Last accessed 24 March 2013.