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Vol. 41, No. 1, January 2012
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Pox and the City: A Digital Role Playing Game in the History of Medicine

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Lisa Rosner and Laura Zucconi, Stockton College; Ethan Watrall, Michigan State University; College of Physicians of Philadelphia

We are currently embarked on an exciting enterprise, boldly going where no one has gone before: creating a 3rd person, isomorphic digital role playing game (RPG) for the history of medicine. Affectionately known as Pox and the City, and funded with a Digital Start-Up Grant from the Office of Digital Humanities, a division of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the game is set in early 19th century Edinburgh. When completed, it will allow players to adopt one of three roles. The first is a newly-graduated physician, intent on setting up a paying medical practice by using the recent discovery of vaccination for smallpox. The second is an Irish immigrant, just arrived in Edinburgh's West Port and hoping to establish himself in a market stall in the Grassmarket. And the third is a smallpox virus, "intent" on replicating and spreading throughout the city. Each role has a home base in the city, and a distinct set of tasks he/it must perform in order to move to the next level.

If we lived in a world of unlimited resources, we would design an MMO, a massive multiplayer online game, the history of medicine answer to World of Warcraft. But such a game would require millions of dollars, and as our start-up grant is for $50,000, we are designing a single player game with three episodes. During the current development cycle, we will be implementing the first episode, in which players take on the role of the physician. This will give the player the best opportunities to learn about the city, about medical history, and about game mechanics.

As the game opens, the player is introduced to the physician character, Dr. Alexander Robertson, newly graduated from the University of Edinburgh medical school in 1799, having written his thesis on the new technique of smallpox vaccination. He starts off at the Royal Medical Society area, which remains his resource base for the game. His goal is to set up a charity vaccine dispensary in the city, and for that, he has to amass two types of social capital, which will appear as meters in the game. The first comes from persons of rank and fortune, who will donate money to pay for the dispensary, and the second comes from professional contacts, who will help him get patients. His first choice is where to locate the dispensary: either in Edinburgh's Old Town, closer to poor people who will be his patients, but further from the rich who will support him, or in Edinburgh's New Town, with the reverse initial conditions. He has a nefarious rival, another recent Edinburgh graduate, who is an NPC (non-player character). The NPC will take whichever location the player does not choose, and will pop up sporadically with his own, computer-generated metrics. The player wins the game when the Lord Advocate of Scotland awards him a charter from the King to call his institution the Royal Vaccination Dispensary. The game will be played in four areas, The Royal Medical Society, The Grassmarket, the High Street, and the New Town. The designs for these areas are based on over 400 public domain images of 19th century Edinburgh.

Pox and the City

Pox and the City

Pox and the City

Pox and the City will be programmed in Flash to play through a standard computer browser, but will also be compiled to enable it to be played on iPads and iPhones. We are planning for alpha launch in March 2012, and beta in September 2012. Our play testers include a high school Anatomy and Physiology class, history of medicine students at the undergraduate and masters level, library professionals, and game design specialists. Advisory committee members include Joe Amoroso, St. Rose School, Janet Golden, Rutgers University Camden, Russell Maulitz, Drexel University, Stacey Peeples, Pennsylvania Hospital, John Pollack, University of Pennsylvania, and Karie Youngdahl, College of Physicians of Philadelphia. We have begun a complementary project with Hannah Ueno, Stockton College, an artist with expertise in virtual world design.

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For more information and updates, please refer to our website, poxandthecity.blogspot.com

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