Pox and the City: Edinburgh is the digital brainchild of Lisa Rosner, a professor of history, at Richard Stockton College. The game creates an interactive space to learn about the nuanced relationship between disease, patient, and treatment. Funded by the NEH, Rosner put together a collaborative team of historians, digital humanities scholars, and a gifted tech team to bring the vaccination process to life. Pox and the City: Edinburgh demonstrates that collaboration between various fields can produce an innovative lens with which we can view the past through the technological means provided by the present.
Smallpox was once a terrifying and deadly disease that wiped out thousands. There is still no cure once it is contracted; the only way to combat the disease is prevention through vaccination. The word vaccination comes from the Latin word for cow, vacca. Just before 1800, Edward Jenner, an English doctor, discovered that administering a form of cowpox to patients prevented smallpox, hence the name vaccination. Though cowpox caused mild sickness and a few days of bed rest, it was far preferable to smallpox, which was known to wipe out entire families in a matter of weeks. A common misconception surrounding vaccination is that it was immediately accepted and accessible throughout ailing populations. Pox and the City: Edinburgh amends this notion by illustrating the mistrust and controversy surrounding Jenner’s vaccination.
The goal of the game is to convince the population of Edinburgh, both elite and impoverished, that vaccination is safe and efficient. Upon entering the game, you are greeted by charming music that pulls you back in time to an earlier era. The melody varies based on place, charming when you are surrounded by the wealthy Cochrane family, homely when spending time with the impoverished Napiers, and frantic when in the infirmary. It’s a nice touch. You are then introduced to your avatar, Dr. Adam Robertson. There is a brief page of background information, after which you are given the choice to continue based on becoming “A philanthropist” or “An entrepreneur.” From here, you are given further background on your avatar based on your previous choice.
The rest of the game is spent on a variety of quests throughout Edinburgh, which lead you to various sites around the city, introducing you to all types of citizens, from the farmers to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. You learn how to vaccinate, set damaged limbs, and play cards. The historical research done to set the stage for the player’s journey is incredibly detailed, from information about the medical practices of bloodletting and mercury pills to the detailed dinner menus, from both the elite and impoverished, giving the player a look into the everyday lives of citizens at the turn of the 19th century.
There are many fascinating aspects of that create an enjoyable experience for the user; however there are a few small hiccups that could lead to frustration. Players are not given instructions on how to approach citizens of Edinburgh and engage in conversation, and there are certain points in the quest when players are not told where they should go to complete their set task. Though it is fairly simple, you just click on the citizen, and if a response is available, it appears in the comment section at the bottom of the screen, it would be useful, to first time users, to have that aspect emphasized or instructions provided. Another slight concern is the information dump players receive at the beginning of the game. There is a lot of information about Jenner, smallpox, and vaccination that many players may gloss over due to the length and amount. It is important information, but when so much is presented at once, it can get tedious to get through since the user is so excited to begin the game.
Overall the game is educational from a medical, as well as, cultural perspective. Through the course of the game each player gets a chance to convince people of the merits of vaccination, pursue a wife or remain a bachelor, finance their medical practice, practice medicine, and ultimately choose rather to cater to the rich and gain wealth or help the poor, who are more susceptible to sickness. Students could learn a lot through an enjoyable medium in which they have some autonomy for trial and error to explore life in the early 1800s as well as, life as a doctor.
“CDC Smallpox | Smallpox Overview.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed November 8, 2016. https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/smallpox/overview/disease-facts.asp.
Riedel, Stefan. “Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination.” Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center) 18, no. 1 (January 2005): 21–25.