A User-Friendly Computer Virus

Epidemiologists study online gamers in hopes of preventing a pandemic

| Mar.-Apr. 2008

  • Computer Virus

    image by Richard Borge

  • Computer Virus

Skeletons paved the cobblestone streets. Thousands 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 raged on.

Within days, World of Warcraft, a hugely popular online adventure game, was devastated.

Although death in 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. “Early on, it wasn’t clear how it spread or what was going on,” says Lofgren, who at the time was an epidemiology student at Tufts University in Boston. Some players tried to heal others, not realizing they would spread the plague. “There was a lot of confusion.”

It took Blizzard Entertainment, the Irvine, California, company behind the game, nearly a week to stop the virtual plague. At that time the online Tolkienesque world of swords and sorcery boasted 4 million subscribers (it now has more than 9 million). The company’s programmers had created Hakkar the Soulflayer—a monster so strong that players would have to band together to kill it—to enrich the game. They expected his blood curse to remain localized. But they hadn’t accounted for human behavior.

Afflicted players teleported to towns. Soon, their virtual pets became infected. Both humans and beasts spread the disease to densely populated areas. Game-controlled characters such as shopkeepers became infected but didn’t die, acting as silent carriers—virtual Typhoid Marys.

When Lofgren told his then-adviser, Nina Fefferman, about the virtual chaos, she called Blizzard. Enticed by parallels between the virtual and actual outbreaks, Fefferman, a specialist in computer modeling of infectious diseases, asked the company to preserve the plague data. “They said, ‘This is a bug, we’re worried about fixing it, we’re not worried about logging data for you.’ ”

4/21/2009 4:53:39 AM

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