Players fly around the virtual planet, using realistic cockpit controls. Recent versions rely on Bing Maps for navigation. This is usually realistic because Bing Maps is designed to help real-world navigation. But the 2020 iteration of Flight Simulator had one amazing detail.
There is a gigantic skyscraper in the middle of a Melbourne suburb where every real-life building is at best no more than two storeys tall. This happened due to a typo. Like many digital maps, Bing features can be tagged on Open Street Maps and that data is used in the game.
When somebody was tagging this building, instead of typing in “2 storeys” for height, the coder typed in “221 storeys”. That resulted in a needle visible hundreds of kilometres away. While the error has been corrected on real-world Bing Maps, it still exists in the game. As a result, thousands of people have “flown” to Melbourne during the pandemic, to see the monolith that isn’t there.
There have been other coding
errors that have resulted in delighted gamers. Perhaps the most famous was the coding error in Civilization that led to Mahatma Gandhi becoming the most aggressive leader in that fictional universe.
Civilization has been around since the early 1990s. The player has to pick a civilisation to guide over the course of several millennia, by tweaking policy related to urban development, exploration, government, trade, research, foreign affairs, military actions, etcetera. The player decides on the forms of government, exploration and colonisation, sets tax rates, and so on, for the chosen civilisation.
The human-led civilisation competes with other civilisations, controlled by the computer. Diplomatic relationships are possible. So is war. Computer-controlled civilisations are led by a simulation of a famous individual — Alexander, Napoleon, Catherine the Great, George Washington. The computer’s decisions are predictable since it is programmed to respond with decisions in line with what we know of famous historical personalities.
One of those personalities is Gandhi, and this is where a coding error has led to much hilarity down the decades. Gandhi is programmed to be peaceful and non-violent, and indeed, he has the least aggressive rating in the game. However, when he does go to war, he doesn’t mess around. His initial aggressive action is to launch nuclear missiles at rival civilisations!
The bug occurred this way. The aggression rating for individuals was set on a scale from 1 (most peaceful) to 255 (most aggressive). Note the lack of a zero. If a civilisation is democratic, the leader’s aggression rating automatically drops. Only, due to the lack of zero, Gandhi’s rating cycled around from 1 to 255. Hence, the nukes. This wild mood swing has proved so popular that it’s a feature. Gandhi, in the game, continues to be peaceful most of the time in later iterations but watch out when he loses his cool.
Other bugs have become features because gamers liked them. One of the most egregious coding errors was the vital statistics of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (1996). Her figure was intended to be a lot less pneumatic but there was a typo. The developer offered to swap out the initial version and give her a more normal body, but gamers preferred to stick with the original figure.
The World of Warcraft had real world lessons for epidemiologists. In a 2005 iteration of WoW, there was an unintended “Corrupted Blood” incident. One character could spray a poison, which killed targets within 10 seconds. But if somebody else was near the target during those 10 seconds, they too got infected and died of corrupted blood, which was an unintended effect. The infection patterns proved useful as a mathematical model.
Computer coding errors also have real-world consequences. In real life, one of the biggest market crashes of all time occurred due to algorithmic issues. On October 19/20, 1987, Wall Street was stunned when the computers started selling and continued selling, hammering the US market down 20 per cent within a couple of hours — an event that came to be called Black Monday. Later, “flash crashes” — a very rapid, deep, and volatile fall in security prices occurring within a very brief time period — have also occurred.