Testing a Smallpox Digital Game

Pox in the City, courtesy Lisa RosnerOn Wednesday I spent some time working with students from nearby Science Learning Academy. We were testing a version of a medical history game in development by Lisa Rosner, PhD, and her colleagues at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey.

It’s a bit of a challenge to transport 10th grade urban high school students to 19th century Edinburgh where the game is set. But the students were willing to make the leap, and they spent about an hour in the role of a young doctor who must build a practice, court wealthy patrons, gain entry to a medical society, and protect his patients from disease.

The students initially didn’t know much about smallpox (though I did show them this illustration of the course of the disease in a young man in the 1880s). But they soon came to see the threat the disease posed: if they didn’t act quickly to vaccinate the other children in a family after one child became ill with smallpox, all the children died.

Most surprising to the students was the range of unfamiliar medicines they had to treat the other diseases that popped up during game play. Venesection? Emetics? Beer? Vitriol and sea onion? They asked me if any of the treatments worked, displaying an appropriate level of skepticism about earlier medical practices.

In the end, most of the students succeeded at protecting Edinburgh from smallpox, nurturing a romance between the good doctor and a young women from a local family, and convincing the medical establishment that vaccination was a safer alternative to either contracting the disease or being variolated for it.

Rosner’s project was funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities grant. She worked with colleagues at Stockton College and later with game design students at Rochester Institute of Technology to build out the game.  Robert Hicks and I, here at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, have been advising on the project. The granting period completed, Rosner is now looking at options to continue developing the game. Sam Keane wrote about Rosner’s project in Humanities, the NEH magazine, in February this year.

We had a great time playing Pox in the City, and I and the kids are looking forward to playing a future iteration of the game. Be on the lookout for update to Rosner’s project at her blog. In the meantime, don’t forget that you can play our own game Illsville – but be quick with the quarantine button!

Thanks to the SLA students for helping out with testing!