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AccessMyLibrary    Browse    S    Science News    OCT-07    Virtual worlds, real science: epidemiologists, social scientists flock to online world.(plague in the World of Warcraft)

Virtual worlds, real science: epidemiologists, social scientists flock to online world.(plague in the World of Warcraft)

Publication: Science News

Publication Date: 27-OCT-07

Author: Vastag, Brian
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Skeletons paved the cobblestone streets. Thousands had succumbed to the blood plague quickly, but others lingered--only to infect everyone they met. No one was safe. Warriors, mages, and healers all fell. Word spread, urging everyone to flee, but still the plague ripped through the world, creating a holocaust.

A hulking, serpentine blood god, Hakkar the Soulflayer, had sparked the epidemic. Attacked in his dungeon, the monster unleashed his final defense--a curse called corrupted blood. The curse infected the attackers and quickly spread to their companions like an ultra-virulent airborne virus. As adventurers fled the dungeon, they carried the illness back to their towns. Soon the plague even crossed into animals. Within days, the World of Warcraft--a hugely popular online adventure game--was devastated.

Although the death of a character in the World of Warcraft is a mere annoyance--the character disappears for a minute or two and then rematerializes--the plague proved unstoppable. Eric Lofgren was playing the game during the virtual outbreak in September 2005. "It was a big deal," says Lofgren, who at the time was an epidemiology student at Tufts University in Boston. "Early on, it wasn't clear how it spread or what was going on. Players attempted to heal other players ... not knowing that they were taking damage and indeed spreading the plague. There was a lot of confusion. A lot of people abandoned [the game] until it got sorted out."

It took Blizzard Entertainment, the Irvine, Calif., company behind World of Warcraft, nearly a week to stop the virtual plague. At that time the online Tolkeinesque world of swords and sorcery boasted 4 million subscribers (it now has 9 million). To enrich the game, the company's programmers had created Hakkar and made the monster so strong that players would have to band together to kill it. The programmers...

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