March 12, 2021
The widespread infection of roughly four million virtual characters all started with a giant snake demon. In 2005, the massively multiplayer online video game World Of Warcraft introduced a special event raid, where groups of players could team up to fight a giant snake demon named Hakkar the Soulflayer. Hakkar would cast a spell called “Corrupted Blood” on players, which would slowly whittle down their health.
The effect of the spell was only supposed to last inside the raid arena—when players returned to the main world of the game, the spell would dissipate. But thanks to a software glitch, that wasn’t the case if the player had a pet companion. When the pets returned to the main world, they started infecting players and non-playable characters with the Corrupted Blood spell. If the player wasn’t powerful enough to heal themselves, they would die and erupt in a fountain of blood before turning into a skeleton.
What followed was a virtual pandemic that startlingly resembled today’s COVID-19 pandemic, from the spread, human behavior, and cultural response. Blizzard, the developer of the game, wanted players to social distance. Some players listened, others flouted the rules, traveling freely and spreading the disease with them. Conspiracy theories formed about how the virus was engineered by Blizzard on purpose, and others placed blame on players with pets as the cause of the outbreak, mirroring the racist anti-Asian attacks and rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 today.
Coincidentally, two epidemiologists, Nina Fefferman and Eric Lofgren, were there to witness the World Of Warcraft outbreak unfold. They studied and used the incident to model human behavior in response to a pandemic. Their findings were published in The Lancet in 2007. Many of their observations came to pass in 2020 when COVID-19 appeared.
SciFri producer Daniel Peterschmidt sat down with Eric Molinsky, host of the podcast Imaginary Worlds, who reported this story for his show. He talks about the epidemiologists who studied the outbreak and how it prepared them for public responses to COVID-19.
Children have a natural talent for imagination. Even in moments of boredom, their imagination can take them away into daydreams that help pass the time in a flash. But for many adults, falling into a daydream is hard, especially when our minds are filled with worries about tomorrow’s obligations, finances, and a global pandemic.
Turns out those who feel this way are not alone. New research shows that adults report getting to a daydreaming state is harder than experiencing their unguided thoughts. Adults often require a prompt to think about something pleasant, and tend to ruminate on unpleasant things.
Daydreaming can be an antidote to boredom, and researcher Erin Westgate of the University of Florida says that’s important. Her previous research shows that boredom can cause sadistic behavior in people. Westgate joins guest host John Dankosky and Manoush Zomorodi, host of the TED Radio Hour and author of the book “Bored and Brilliant,” who argues leaning into boredom can unlock our most creative selves.
Humans have always altered their landscapes—from simple agriculture used to cultivate specific crops to huge projects like damming rivers to change the flow of entire ecosystems. And many of these human interventions have unintended consequences and have led to major environmental disasters.
In her book Under A White Sky: The Nature Of The Future, author Elizabeth Kolbert talks to scientists and people working on geoengineering projects and technology to mitigate and avert damage caused by humans in the natural world like climate change. The projects range from electrifying rivers to turning CO2 emissions into rocks. Kolbert discusses if we can solve these natural problems with the tools that created the problems in the first place, and at what cost?