Smallpox: The Video Game

Smallpox.  No disease in history has taken more lives.  Sam Kean, writing at Humanities, describes its devastating influence on the history of the world and the vaccine that triumphed over its deadly power.  He also informs us of a group of humanists, led by historian Lisa Rosner at Stockton College (NJ), who are working with a grant from the National Endowment of Humanities to create a video game, “Pox in the City.” The role-playing game will bring the 18th and 19th-century wars over the use of the smallpox vaccine to general audiences.

Here is a taste:

The game immerses players in early 1800s Edinburgh,a prestigious medical center and a major front in winning acceptance for vaccines. It offers the chance to play one of three roles: a doctor trying to open a vaccine clinic; an immigrant worker trying to avoid smallpox; or, unusually, a smallpox virus trying to infect the masses. To recreate classic Edinburgh neighborhoods, Rosner ’s team will draw on contemporary images from the archives of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia and from visits to Edinburgh. She hopes that players can someday even, say, duck into an eating hall and hear people singing Robert Burns’s poems. For now, her team is concentrating on building the basic levels for the character of Doctor Alexander Robertson.

The real Alexander Robertson wrote an outstanding thesis on vaccine science in 1799, says Rosner. After that, he disappears from the historical record, but “he’s absolutely the kind of young physician who would have taken up vaccination in an entrepreneurial way,” she adds, therefore making him an appropriate character. Rosner drew on diaries of Edinburgh doctors and other primary sources to flesh out the milieu in which a Robertson would have worked.

At its most basic level, the game requires Robertson to persuade people to try vaccines, and he has to tailor his pitch to whomever he encounters. With a young Irish washerwoman, Robertson might do well to drop her priest’s name. For a striving merchant, Robertson could establish his scientific credentials, or mention that vaccination is all the rage in London. Other aspects of game play are more like quests, with multiple goals and subgoals along the way. For instance, one proposed subplot involving a corrupt doctor might require wheedling information from a drunken bar patron, haggling with journalists, and sneaking into the crooked doctor ’s office to gather evidence.

Check out the “Pox in the City” blog to see how the development of the game is progressing.