Special Edition - WoW
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I wanted to write a quick edition that you might find fun about a real pandemic in a video game.
When I was in high school, I couldn’t understand why I was still single. My Warcraft guild mates couldn’t figure out why they were single either. If only there was some common thread…
If you don’t know, World of Warcraft (WoW) was a massive-only RPG, one of the best at the time. At its peak there were about 5.5M+ subscribers that played and it spawned one of the best YouTube videos of all time. I was more of a Warcraft 3 person, but I played a little bit of World of Warcraft too.
In 2005-2006 there was a pandemic that was accidentally created in the game that shared a lot of characteristics of an ACTUAL pandemic. It’s rare that you can (ethically) simulate what responses to a pandemic might look like, but this World of Warcraft episode was a real world example. Some researchers wrote a paper on it that I want to talk a little bit about.
So World of Warcraft used to roll out patches that gave you access to new areas, introduced new enemies, etc.
In 2005, a patch was released that introduced a new area meant for high level players and a new enemy called “Hakkar”. This snake, gryphon, praying mantis looking thing (basically combining every animal they think might have started COVID-19).
Hakkar had this very gnarly ability called “Corrupted Blood”, which would not only start draining your health, but the health of everyone you touched. It was extremely contagious, but was supposed to wear off after about 10 seconds or so until someone else with the spell touched you. BUT THE PETS YOU FOUGHT ALONGSIDE WITH COULD GET IT!!! Imagine if dogs could contract and spread COVID-19 - people probably find it harder to not pet a dog than touch their face.
The pets being able to get the disease was the issue. You could dismiss your pet, but the pet kept the highly contagious “Corrupted Blood” spell on them when you re-summoned them. This was step 1 of the f*** up.
Step 2 - in major cities in the game there are lots of non-player characters (NPCs). These are basically AI characters that are things like shopkeepers, people who give you quests, etc. Sometimes you could cast spells on them to do interesting things, but they were invincible to make sure you couldn’t kill them and mess up the structure of the game.
Now you can imagine what happens next. Players would bring their pets back with the “Corrupted Blood” spell, and then one of these NPCs would contract it. Because the NPC did not die but could spread it, they became asymptomatic carriers of the disease. This would kill a lot of players and infect pets, who would then be dismissed and re-summoned somewhere else to start the process all over again.
Now you have a recipe for a real pandemic that spread from an animal to a human in the countryside and into a major metropolitan city. Remember, this spell was designed for higher level players, and now was in the regular city with the lower levels. There was an absolute bloodbath.
Here’s where things get really interesting.
Blizzard, the makers behind World of Warcraft, were not sure why this pandemic was occurring or the best way to actually handle the response.
"Even once we figured out what was going on it made it really, really hard to fix it," [World of Warcraft lead engineer John Cash] adds. "Our choices were either to go through every pet in every server in every country in the entire world and check if it had corrupted blood and get rid of it, or get really hacky code in where every time you summoned a pet it would check and see if it had corrupted blood on it and get rid of it."
While they figured it out, Blizzard employees tried to tell people to quarantine themselves until they figured it out. However, people did not listen. Sounds familiar.
What made this solutions especially hard to handle was purposefully bad actors, who understood this bug and would purposefully go to places to infect people.
While Blizzard was trying to figure out what to do, players were getting tired of waiting and tried to implement their own solutions to address the problems. What ended up happening looked something like this.
- Many lower level players would quarantine themselves in the country side
- Other lower level players would stand guard outside of the infected cities and direct lower level players away
- Higher level players would venture into the cities to try and figure out if there was a way to stop the infection
- Healers would act as first responders and try to health players that were infected
Lessons and Limitations
There’s a lot of parallels to what’s going on today obviously. Lack of clear leadership from the top leading to a decentralization of solutions, people ignoring guidance unless it’s forced, altruists helping to fix the situation, etc.
What I love about this experiment is that it introduced a new variable that epidemiologists hadn’t thought too much about when building models - curious onlookers. These are people that run TOWARDS a pandemic to see what’s happening. In World of Warcraft it was people that wanted to see how crazy the towns had gotten, in the real world it might be something like journalists or coming into town to spend time with their families and make sure they’re safe.
Another interesting but sad observation was the activity of bioterrorists - the people purposefully infecting people. I also call these the “bruh” patients, cause like, what the fuck is wrong with you?
There are actually several real world examples of this - the HIV “Patient Zero” would try to infect as many people as possible, Typhoid Mary who kept working as a cook despite being told to stop, and more recently Patient 31 with COVID-19 in Korea.
…on February 15, doctors at the hospital said they first suggested she be tested for the coronavirus, as she had a high fever. Instead, the woman went to a buffet lunch with a friend at a hotel.
Now, I love these kinds of real world experiments, but we have to acknowledge the limitations of something like this:
- You could die in the game and get resurrected. That’s obviously not possible in the real world and that severely alters the risk-return consequences of getting infected. Either we need to increase the penalties of dying in game, or the NIH needs to invest in more necromancy.
- There was no race to build a cure or vaccine equivalent, which is really what the world is trying to do now to address the situation. Could be interesting if the video games had side quests to build cures during a pandemic with bounties attached.
- The scarce resource in the real-world is hospitals and equipment. You could argue that maybe healers played this function, but when combined with #1 the resource allocation problem is basically non-existent.
- You could SEE when someone was infected in the game - the danger of COVID-19 is asymptomatic carriers are unknown.
- Eventually Blizzard did a hard reset of the entire server and shut it down. Unfortunately we don’t have that option in the real-world. Though maybe the equivalent is martial law for forced quarantine?
- There’s no divide between employer sponsored health insurance and government sponsored health insurance. Real shame, would make World of Warcraft more fun.
We can learn a lot about how humans react at scale in games like this, especially when real money is involved and people feel actual losses. I think it would be interesting to artificially create more models with some of the game publishers to see what happens.
At the very least, it’ll help me justify the amount of my life hours lost to me playing these games. Can’t believe after all this I’m being told to STAY IN and play video games as a mandate smh. Loading up World of Warcraft again is looking real tempting…
That was a special edition of Out of Pocket! If you enjoyed it, tell your friends to join.