Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Virtual Pandemic (or, The Wrath of Hakkar)

In my classes lately, we are reading articles and writing essays on the broad theme of "Technology and Communication."  Most of the articles focus specifically on the internet, social media, and how these technologies are affecting and changing the way people and societies interact.  Today, we read a fascinating excerpt from a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks--How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do by scholars Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler.  In a chapter entitled "Hyperconnected," the authors discuss a "glitch" that happened back in 2005 in the massive online game realm known as World of Warcraft.  For those of you who live under a rock, World of Warcraft (or WOW) is an online game with a user population larger than many countries, in which users create virtual characters and inhabit a virtual world of magic, battles, beasts, and stuff.  It's super complex.

Anyhow, back in 2005, the programmers created a special "realm" within the game where advancd players could team up to battle a dragon named Hakkar the Soulflayer.  This flying serpent carried a virus called "corrupted blood," which could infect characters and kill them.  This disease was supposed to be limited to this special realm of the game.  However, contrary to the programmers' expectations, infected charters (and their pets) started "teleporting" to the general realm of the game, infecting other characters.  Very quickly, there was a worldwide global pandemic of "corrupted blood."  Hundreds of thousands of people died.

Hakkar the Soulflayer, origin of the "Corrupted Blood" Plague

People responded in a variety of interesting ways.  Some used their "healing" powers to try to help infected characters.  Others deliberately infected themselves and ran into massive population centers. Quarantine zones were created, but were largely ineffective.  How can you control the behavior of millions of users?  The Hakkar epidemic was totally unexpected and unprecedented.  The programmers' ultimate solution was to pull the plug on the whole world, and reboot the system.  This worked.

This phenomenon of a "virtual pandemic" caught the interest of academics and health care officials, because it raised interesting questions about how people might respond to a real-world global disease pandemic.  In class, we discussed questions like: What insights does the Hakkar epidemic offer about people, about social media, and about the different worlds we now inhabit in this new digital age.

It was a time of plague.

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