World of Warcraft Shines Light on Terror TacticsVirtual terrorists blowing themselves up and spreading disease inside World of Warcraft could provide counterterrorists with a window into real-world plots.
Such activities in the massively multiplayer online game bear an eerie resemblance to actual terrorism, and analyzing terror tactics in Warcraft could prove more enlightening than current computer simulations used by counterterrorists.
“People got really smart about figuring out how to cause the most damage to the largest number of people,” said Robert Allen, a level-60 mage and self-admitted virtual bioterrorist who purposely spread an in-game contagion to kill other players.
Scientists have already noted World of Warcraft’s usefulness in studying how diseases spread. The game’s network of 10 million players — each capable of making decisions, either logical or illogical, rational or irrational — gives scientists a ready-made virtual world to scrutinize that’s not based on computer models or artificial intelligence. The game could be an invaluable tool not only for counterterrorists and epidemiologists but also sociologists and economists.
Charles Blair, deputy director of the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies, said he thinks the game could provide a powerful new way to study how terrorist cells form and operate. His organization already uses computer models to study terrorists’ tactical decision-making, but World of Warcraft’s army of players adds a realistic dimension that might prove more enlightening than even the best baked-in artificial intelligence.
“The main strength is that [Warcraft] involves ‘real’ people making real decisions in a world with some kind of [controllable] bounds,” said Blair, who said studying players’ actions could prove useful to military intelligence analysts. “To put it academically, you have both dependent and independent variables.”
Warcraft has a history of in-game terrorist activity. Early on, players found a curse in a high-level dungeon that would turn them into living bombs. They would then teleport to major cities and detonate themselves, killing nearby players. These suicide bombers gradually began to target areas where large number of players gathered, usually at auction houses or banks. Eventually, attacks occurred with enough frequency that some players simply avoided dangerous cities.
Virtual bioterrorist Allen and his guild, domus fulminata, used a similar teleportation technique to spread an epidemic throughout in-game cities. Using a contagious curse called Corrupted Blood that could kill most players in seconds, Allen and his guild purposely infected other players and created a semi-permanent well of disease in cities’ non-player characters. Allen and his group found the chaos caused by their actions humorous.
“It’s just funny to watch people run away screaming,” he said.
Such actions bear telltale signs of terrorism. Allen’s small group blended in with the general population and waited for a weakness in the system to attack.
Just as in real life, such tactics can be effective in Warcraft.
“The advantage goes to the asymmetric actors who can operate under the radar,” said Yale University terrorism expert Stuart Gottlieb.
Like the Department of Homeland Security, World of Warcraft operator Blizzard Entertainment tries to foresee vulnerabilities and address them as they become apparent. After the company’s initial attempt to end the Corrupted Blood attacks, players found ways to circumvent new security measures by using in-game pets as vectors for disease.
Yet Blizzard is uncomfortable calling Warcraft players terrorists.
“As we have always stated, World of Warcraft is first and foremost a game,” said Blizzard representative Shon Damron. “It’s never been designed to mirror reality or anything in the real world.”
Whether the game’s operators want to admit it or not, Warcraft does mirror reality to some extent. Perhaps the game’s biggest weakness as a model for studying terror tactics is that death in World of Warcraft is a nuisance at most.
Because the stakes for both terrorists and civilians are lower than they are in the real world, Yale’s Gottlieb said he remains skeptical that the game could shed much light on the deeply complex social, political and cultural causes of terrorism.
“This is very interesting and relevant to the times,” he said, “though I wouldn’t base a new counterterrorism strategy on the nuances of a videogame.”