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Exploring The Role of Behaviour In Virtual Worlds: Lessons From The Metaverse For Pandemic Response

Metaverse Dec 19, 2022 8:58:47 PM Jamie Bykov-Brett 7 min read

A floating metaverse city.


In 2005, the company behind the video game World of Warcraft (WoW), a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), unintentionally started a plague in their metaverse that eerily mirrored the challenges, impact, and behaviours of real pandemics.

I know what you are thinking, ‘2005, that’s a bit early to be talking about the metaverse isn’t it?’. Well, “metaverse” worlds aren’t actually a new thing. Prior to Meta’s (Facebook) announcement late in 2021, there were already many established online virtual worlds that would meet the criteria of a Metaverse. So, to start, I’m going to explain why World of Warcraft meets the criteria of a metaverse.

A metaverse is a virtual world that serves as a platform for people to interact with each other and with virtual objects and environments in real-time. WoW meets several criteria for a metaverse:

  • Persistence: WoW is a persistent world that continues to exist and evolve even when players are not logged in. Players can return to the same location and find that it has changed or been affected by other players' actions.
  • Social interaction:  WoW is designed to be a social experience, with players able to communicate with each other through in-game chat and participate in group activities such as raiding and player versus player combat.
  • Virtual goods and currency: WoW has a virtual economy in which players can buy, sell, and trade virtual goods and currency. These virtual goods can be used to improve a player's character or to purchase in-game items and services.
  • Immersion:  WoW is designed to be immersive, with a rich, detailed game world and a wide variety of activities and experiences for players to enjoy.

Overall, WoW meets the criteria of a metaverse by providing a persistent, social, and immersive virtual world in which players can interact with each other and with virtual goods and currency.

Hopefully we are in agreement, WoW meets the criteria of a metaverse, now let’s get into how it became the unlikely precursor to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On September 13th 2005, the WoW game developers launched a new playing map with a bit of a twist. In the new area of the game, players were able to infect each other with a virtual disease called "Corrupted Blood." This disease was originally intended to be a minor inconvenience for players, causing them to periodically lose small amounts of health. However, an update to the game accidentally made the disease much more virulent, allowing it to spread easily between players and persist for long periods of time.

As a result, the virtual disease began to spread rapidly throughout the WoW metaverse, causing widespread panic among players. The virus spread in the game was exacerbated by multiple factors:

  • Before they passed away or recovered, stronger players who had caught the virus were able to transmit it to densely populated areas. They became the virtual “super-spreaders”.
  • In-game pets, which could serve as carriers, and non-playable characters, who could not be killed but could still spread the virus.
  • Non-playable characters (NPC’s), such as shopkeepers, also quickly became major spreaders of the virus.

These factors contributed to the rapid spread of the virtual plague, similar to how the bubonic plague spread in the real world.

The situation in WoW demonstrated how a disease can spread rapidly and cause panic, as well as the importance of taking preventative measures to stop the spread of infection.

One aspect of the WoW metaverse pandemic that was particularly interesting was the way in which players reacted to the spread of the disease. Some players took preventative measures to avoid getting infected, such as logging off or avoiding high-traffic areas. Others took more extreme measures, such as purposely infecting other players in order to spread the disease further. This behaviour is similar to what has been observed in real-world pandemics, where some individuals may intentionally spread the disease, predominantly due to a lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions.

The WoW metaverse pandemic also highlights the importance of effective communication and education in the context of a pandemic. When the "Corrupted Blood" disease first started to spread in the game, many players were unaware of how to protect themselves or how to prevent the spread of the disease. This lack of knowledge and understanding contributed to the rapid spread of the disease and the panic that ensued. In the real world, effective communication and education about pandemics is crucial for reducing the spread of disease and minimising panic.

Another aspect of the WoW metaverse pandemic that is worth considering is the role of social media and other forms of online communication in the spread of disease. In the game, players were able to communicate with each other through in-game chat and forums, as well as through external social media platforms. This ability to share information and communicate with others in real-time likely played a role in the rapid spread of the "Corrupted Blood" disease. In the real world, social media and other forms of online communication have been instrumental in the spread of information about COVID-19, both accurate and misinformation. This highlights the importance of fact-checking and verifying information before sharing it online.

The game's capital cities, which were also its main social and economic hubs, became extremely difficult to live in. The game's economy saw some major disturbances.

The "Corrupted Blood" pandemic in WoW ended up being a valuable lesson in disease management and prevention, and it provided researchers with valuable insights into how diseases spread and how people react to them. These insights could potentially help inform future efforts to combat real-world pandemics.

“Traditionally when we do computer-based simulations we know everything about the world,” says Eric Lofgren who is an epidemiologist and who published a 2007 paper on the “Corrupted Blood” outbreak with colleague Nina Hefferman. “The people in those simulations only act the way we tell them to act. Here we get the full view of human irrationality.”

This is really important because many of the models that scientists use to attempt and anticipate how a disease like Covid-19 would spread are based on expectations of how individuals will act.

The way the coronavirus travelled from rural to urban areas and some of the behaviour we're observing in the worst-affected nations have echoes the WoW metaverse pandemic. Powerful characters simply went about their regular business because the illness didn't bother them any more than a cold would. However, by spreading the disease to other places, it quickly transmitted the virus to more vulnerable players who were impacted much more significantly.

We've seen parallels to this with healthcare workers getting sick due to a combination of the coronavirus and general exhaustion. Some attempted to be "first responders," according to Lofgren, travelling to the epicentre of the epidemic and trying to heal players who were infected. However, this frequently meant contracting the disease themselves and then spreading it.

Externalities also had a role in the WoW metaverse pandemic. The developers made a deliberate effort to attempt and stop the outbreak's progress in response to it. Some gamers effectively isolated themselves by sticking to secluded sections of the game. Some players continued to evade the quarantine, which was repeated in the hasty exodus from safe zones prior to a lockdown. There was also an attempt to ask infected users to "tag" themselves as such in order to warn others to stay their distance.

The WoW metaverse pandemic highlights the potential for online games & metaverses to serve as a useful tool for simulating and studying how we, as people, respond to different situations and conditions and the effectiveness of various interventions in a controlled and realistic setting.

The WoW metaverse pandemic isn’t the only example of how the metaverse, online games, virtual worlds and online communities can teach us about real world challenges, in the past, researchers have used online games to study a variety of topics, including human behaviour, social dynamics, and economic decision-making. Here are some ways in which our “URL” interactions can teach us about “IRL” behaviour:

  • Social interaction: The metaverse allows us to observe how people interact with each other in virtual environments. This can provide insights into how people communicate, form relationships, and resolve conflicts in online settings.
  • Identity construction: The metaverse allows people to create and present different versions of themselves, or avatars, to the world. This can reveal how people present and perform their identities online and how they are perceived by others.
  • Community formation: The metaverse allows people to join communities based on shared interests, values, or goals. This can provide insights into how communities form and how they function, as well as the role of social norms and group dynamics in shaping behaviour.
  • Cultural differences: The metaverse allows people from different cultural backgrounds to interact and engage with one another. This can provide insights into cultural differences in communication styles, social norms, and values.
  • Human-computer interaction: The metaverse allows people to interact with computer-generated characters and environments in a more immersive way than traditional forms of media. This can provide insights into how people perceive and interact with artificial intelligence and how it can be used to support or augment human abilities.

So, I don’t want to leave you hanging as I know you want to know how the WoW pandemic came to an end. Well, radical, coordinated, global action was the only way World of Warcraft's creators could stop the spread of “Corrupted Blood”.

They restarted server.

It is worth remembering that, unlike a metaverse which can be ‘turned on and off’ again, real life doesn’t come with a “restart button” and there are real world consequences. We are living in a time where many people, particularly the most vulnerable in our society are reeling from long-term social, economic and political consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the effects of which are exponentially greater than cautionary footnote for future metaverse architects. Perhaps our observations in the metaverse might provide greater insights into how to limit the harmful impact of the future challenges we will face.

Jamie Bykov-Brett

Listed as one of Engatica's World's Top 200 Business & Technology Innovators Jamie is a Social Entrepreneur, Digital Innovation Specialist, Metaverse & Web3 Advisor, Workshop Facilitator & Futurist Educator. His niche is developing people, implementing innovative technology solutions and the fundamental intersection where that expertise meets.