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'Pox and the City' integrates mind with medicinal material

April 4, 2013

By Samah Assad

The use of role-playing video games to enhance the overall education experience was the subject of the latest discussion presented by the Humanities Consortium as part of the Cultural Crossings lecture series on March 26 in SC 313. The audience-interactive talk entitled “Pox and the City: A Digital Role-Playing Game for the History of Medicine,” by Dr. Lisa Rosner, history professor at Richard Stockton College, resonated with today’s interactive media-immersed society.

“Pox and the City,” set in early 19th century Edinburg, Scotland, is a third person role-playing digital game that offers unique angles and perspectives in the history of medicine. The player has the option to choose one of three roles: a physician who, with the recent discovery of a smallpox vaccination, intends to open a medical practice; an Irish immigrant who strives to establish himself in the Grassmarket; and the actual spreading virus itself. The game situates the player to complete specific tasks and progress from level to level by reading and strategizing.

Rosner engaged the audience of around 45 students and staff in by allowing them to play a portion of “Pox and the City” as a group. She presented the game on an overhead projector and asked the crowd to choose a role, as well as the next moves they wanted to take in the first few levels.

The process for creating the game began in 2009, and both students and colleagues were involved in its design. Rosner, who specializes in the history of science and medicine, explained that only a few educational humanities games exist due to the difficulty of establishing an educational game in the market. She also believes that “Pox and the City” may be the first of its kind in its specific context, adding that there weren’t any role-playing games in the history of medicine.

This is what drove her to create one.

“The main thing that made me want to do it is there aren’t many [games like this],” she said. “It is very hard to get an educational game made unless you know you’ll be able to sell it to some number of schools.”

Rosner discussed the difficulties Stockton faced in receiving funding for “Pox and the City.” The project was funded by a Digital Start-Up Grant from the Office of Digital Humanities – a highly competitive organization that funds an average of 13 percent of applicants who apply for grants. Stockton went through a process of getting turned down twice and revising their application to measure up to the high standards of digital innovation and humanities values.

“Stockton College is a very small college – we’re not Harvard, we’re not Yale, we’re not Cleveland State,” Rosner remarked. “We had to really show the Office of Digital Humanities that we can create something. They’re always looking for good content, and they don’t want something that’s been said before.”

“Pox and the City” still has a few bugs that are being fixed through beta testing. Rosner is hopeful that the game will be released in the market as an educational game in the near future. Currently, high school students enrolled in anatomy and physiology, as well as nursing and game design students, are playing the game to provide Rosner with feedback. She designed the game to be used in classrooms for both history and education courses, and hopes to receive more funding in the future to add more elements to the game.

Kate Lawson, who attended the lecture for her Spanish Literature class, was surprised to gain insight from the discussion as someone who does not enjoy playing video games often. The fact that “Pox and the City” offers an educational element intrigued her, and she said she would play the game if she had the chance.

“How [Rosner] brought in the aspect of humanities – I just found that really interesting,” she said. “[The game] is educational, and I like nerdy, educational games.”

Rosner emphasized how people used to think the only way one could present history was through books, paintings and movies. She believes telling history through new formats, such as video games, can improve the ways in which history enhances culture as well as lead to a more compelling, hands-on educational experience.

“I think this is a new genre, and that someday we will look on it and say, wow – this was the moment in which we realized there’s just a whole new way to tell history,” she said. “A whole new logic to it, a whole new structure and set of things we can do.”

For students interested in playing “Pox and the City,” contact Rosner at lisa.rosner@stockton.edu.