World of Warcraft. (Blizzard/Activision)

A "large number" of cheating World of Warcraft players were banned from the popular game for six months for using "bots" that allow players to automate some of their play, the popular game's maker announced this week.

Although Blizzard Entertainment's statement on the ban didn't include an exact figure, it's possible that more than 100,000 players are on an involuntary vacation from World of Warcraft. That number comes from a conversation between one player and a Game Master, an in-game employee of Blizzard. A Blizzard spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation.

What is clear from Blizzard's statement, however, is that many of the banned users were using the World of Warcraft equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs: "bots."

"We've recently taken action against a large number of World of Warcraft accounts that were found to be using third-party programs that automate gameplay, known as 'bots,'" the statement reads. "We’re committed to providing an equal and fair playing field for everyone in World of Warcraft, and will continue to take action against those found in violation of our Terms of Use. Cheating of any form will not be tolerated."

The statement also encourages people who spot other players using a "bot, exploit, or cheat" in violation with the game's terms of service to report them to Blizzard.

World of Warcraft —  a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG) — has more than 7 million active subscribers, according to Activision, which owns Blizzard.  

The company has previously punished users who violate their terms of use — and has even taken bot-makers to court in the past. But the mass ban came as many of the game's users were becoming fed up with the increasing presence of automated players, particularly those using a piece of software called "Honorbuddy" to fight their battles for them.

Bots, essentially, allow players to have software automatically play parts of the game for them. Although it might sound like a bot ruins the point of even bothering to open an account for a game — why pay to play if you don't actually want to play? — there are some elements of World of Warcraft that make automation tempting for dedicated players who want to progress to higher, more interesting levels of play.

If you've ever played an online multi-player game, you've probably heard the term "grinding." Essentially, "grinding" means the same thing here as it does in the workplace, unless your workplace is a secret revival of MTV's "The Grind," in which case it does not mean the same thing at all.

In gaming, a "grind" is a repetitive task. Players can grind by killing the same monsters over and over again in order to gain experience and progress to a higher level in the game. In World of Warcraft, players might grind a crafting skill like mining in order to progress to the point where they can make cooler items. You might also hear the term "farming" to refer to similar repetitive tasks that are aimed at acquiring specific, usually rare items that sometimes drop from certain enemies in the game. "Farming" is about as action-packed as an actual day of vegetable farming.

If this all sounds kind of boring well, yes. It certainly can be. Which is why some players will use a third-party bot do the work for them.

But bots don't just stick to those seemingly victim-less grinding tasks. As Kotaku explained, bots have been showing up more and more in the player vs. player "Battlegrounds," where players gain "Honor."

If you get enough Honor, you can buy really cool gear that helps you win battles against other players. Cool gear takes a lot of Honor, though, so some players have found bots that automate their Battleground fighting for them. The thing is, bot-controlled Battleground "players" basically ruin the experience for everyone else.

Reddit user Ardailic summed up the effect of battleground bots this way:

"The vast majority of players in the battleground are not real people. The characters are being piloted by a bot program called Honorbuddy, which is basically designed to play your character in Battlegrounds for you. The reason why the bots are moving back and forth between two points is to dodge the AFK kick system that is in place to stop people from sitting AFK in Battle Grounds."

AFK means "Away from Keyboard,"* otherwise known as idle.

In a battleground context, a player who is "AFK" could potentially do nothing for the entire battle, but still gain Honor from just showing up. Players avoid removal from the game for being idle for too long by moving around in a set pattern, controlled by the bot. When enough bots using the same third-party program, like Honorbuddy, end up in one game, the "battle" can turn into packs of players running back and forth across the battleground or arena, eventually fighting each other in nearly identical formations.

One player recorded a battle in which he's pretty sure he was the only real player. It's here, but be warned that it contains language unsuitable for The Washington Post dot com.

In a statement posted to its forums, Honorbuddy apologized to those who temporarily lost their accounts in the ban. "With Honorbuddy you thought that we are unbeateable [sic], we never thought that, we've succeeded since 2010 - Honorbuddy had not a single software detection. It seems there is one now."

"It’s not unplayable, but it’s very annoying," Kotaku wrote of the recent onslaught of bot-dominated battles. Many "Battleground"-loving players are hoping the mass bans will help to make player vs. player more enjoyable again.

*You might already know that, but I have been told that the acronym is not in the average non-gamer's Internet lexicon, even though it is a useful thing for a blogger to say to her editor.