September 19, 2021
Social Experiments In Video Games

The Stanford Prison and Milgram Obedience experiments have always fascinated me. Even before I started working as a digital marketer, I’ve always been interested in how the human mind works and why people act the way they do. That’s probably why I enjoy my job so much; after all, the biggest part of attracting attention to my clients’ products and services is figuring out how to get their target audience to do what they want them to (subscribe, purchase a product/service, connect through social media, etc).

The experiments I mentioned were conducted offline and with a relatively small group of people, though. What about online social experiments? Two infamous events stick out in my mind in particular: The “Corrupted Blood Incident” in World of Warcraft in 2005 and, most recently, the “Twitch Plays Pokemon” game stream that started about a week ago.

Now before I begin, let me note that the “Corrupted Blood Incident” hadn’t been an intentional experiment — it was merely a glitch in the game that grew into an online epidemic throughout Blizzard’s servers back in 2005. Regardless, the event was so infamous that it was used in several models of disease origin and control case studies.

So what exactly happened during the “Corrupted Blood Incident?” I’ll keep the terms simple for the non-gamers out there:

Blizzard, the game’s developers, introduced a new dungeon for players to fight their way through, as well as a boss at the end of that dungeon that cast a spell called “Corrupted Blood.” Corrupted Blood was a spell that would cause major damage to the player’s life points over time, and could be passed on to nearby players if they got too close to someone who was infected. The spell would eventually wear off over time, or disappear once the player was killed. Simple textbook spell, right?

Unfortunately, there was a bug in the programming that allowed player’s pets and smaller enemies out into the area beyond the dungeon. This disease continued to spread until it even reached the non-player characters that occupied the towns; these NPCs couldn’t be killed by the disease, but they would spread them to any player that walked by.

Normal gameplay was disrupted for the 2 million players of WoW at the time. Some players offered healing services to those infected, while others without such abilities directed people to uninfected areas. Then, of course, there were the idiots who purposely tried to spread the disease, too. And then there were the players who simply logged off until the glitch was fixed, although I don’t believe they were the majority.

I find it very interesting that people stayed online at all, knowing full well that this virtual world was only that — something online, something not really “real.” But the psychology behind maintaining an emotional connection to a virtual world and how it affects emotionally can be saved for another blog and another day.

The second online social experiment doesn’t show examples of positive interactions as much as the previous one did, however.

The streaming website,, is a place where one can stream live footage of a video game they are playing at the time. People are able to watch this stream and talk with each other via the integrated chat on the side of the screen.

So, as you can guess, “Twitch Plays Pokemon” is a simple concept. A programmer made it so that certain words typed in the chat such as “up” “left” “down” “right” would control the action’s input to the game being streamed — in this case, the classic Gameboy hit, Pokemon Red.

To describe this phenomenon clearly, one would only need to use one word: Chaos.

The stream’s audience count has not dropped below 10,000 people since its conception. The chat is a stream of UP DOWN B A LEFT RIGHT START commands and the occasional expletive, and it’s very rare that any of them attempt to work together. I’ve sat and stared at the screen for a good 10 minutes, just watching the text fly by at lightning speed while the poor digital avatar runs itself into a wall. It’s probably the most frustrating thing I’ve ever seen — and I didn’t even participate!

And yet, every day I check back in on it, the game has somehow managed to somehow progress further in the game. It’s astounding.

This might be due to the cleverness of the program’s creator, though. He recently implemented a feature called “Anarchy” vs “Democracy”, where players spam either word in order to get one of two functions to run: At “Anarchy”, the program runs as it normally did. It follows every command given to it as per usual. “Democracy”, however, takes the most suggested commands and follows those. (I.e. 50 people shouting Left and one shouting Down will let the character move left, as opposed to going Left 46 times, going down once, and then continuing left 4 more times.)

Now the simplest way to resolve this issue would be for everyone to work together, right? Logically it makes sense to discuss where they want to go and what they want to do, and then execute the plan. But anyone who attempts to do such a thing is immediately drowned out, and just like in the Corrupted Blood Incident, there are plenty of people who shout the wrong commands solely for the satisfaction of frustrating others (this is the definition of “Trolling” by the way).

But why do we act this way? Why did people in the Stanford Prison experiments torment their prisoners for no reason? Why did the Milgram Obedience people keep hitting the button to electrocute somebody? Why do some people try to help others in a virtual world, while others get a thrill out of making someone else’s online life a living hell?

I don’t know if we’ll ever have solid answers to these questions, but I love learning about them and applying what I know to my work. Do you have any social experiments, online or otherwise, that fascinate you?

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