a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

Pox and the City: Challenges in Writing a Digital History Game (2012 revision)

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Real event or plausible scenario? First-person shooter or third-person isometric perspective? These are some of the questions we confronted as we began the collaborative digital history project, Pox and the City,1 a role-playing game funded by a start-up grant from the Office of Digital Humanities.2 How do we adapt the content into a playable scenario that retains educational and research value? What restrictions do pedagogical concerns place on the actual programming? And how are these concepts visually represented in a digital world?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 When completed, Pox and the City will allow students to explore the interplay of disease, patient, healers, and social institutions in medical history. Set in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, Scotland, the game is designed to allow players to adopt one of three roles: a newly-graduated physician, intent on setting up a paying medical practice by using the recent discovery of vaccination for smallpox; an Irish immigrant, just arrived in Edinburgh’s immigrant district and hoping to establish himself in a market stall in the city’s central district; and 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.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The game is a collaboration among scholars with different specialties and different approaches to writing history. Lisa Rosner, a historian of medicine with a long-standing interest in web design as a digital humanities tool, is the content specialist for Edinburgh medicine and for visual representations of the city. Laura Zucconi is both historian of medicine and avid gamer, with a previous incarnation as programmer. Both are based at Stockton College, New Jersey. Ethan Watrall is an anthropologist and Serious Games designer from Michigan State, who will be overseeing the design team, Adventure Club, also based in East Lansing. Hannah Ueno, also from Stockton, is a visual artist and 3D graphic designer who is creating a Virtual World of 1800s Edinburgh as a complement to the game. The project is also a collaboration between the project designers and the staff of the Historical Collections of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, who provide many of the primary sources on which the game is based. Each of the many partners brings a specific area of expertise to the project, but what may appear as a simple decision in one area suddenly becomes problematic when it intersects with another area. For the authors of this essay, working on Pox and the City has transformed the writing of history from a process designed and carried out by a single individual, firmly in control, to an exhilarating, surprising, but above all collaborative effort, akin to completing a giant jigsaw puzzle when we’re not sure who has all the pieces.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The best way to illustrate the “jigsaw” analogy is to follow the way our collaboration evolved. This project began with Rosner, as the content specialist, firmly in control of the narrative, and debating the issue of where to situate the game in time and space. One option was to recreate an actual historical event, Edward Jenner’s 1798 research establishing that vaccinating a patient with cowpox matter resulted in his/her immunity to the deadly disease, smallpox.3 Another option was to create a plausible historical scenario, situated in early nineteenth-century Edinburgh, based on Rosner’s expertise on the medical history of the city. Since the former is based on historical fact, while the latter would be a kind of historical fiction, Rosner’s choice at first seemed clear: we should develop a role-playing game based on Jenner’s actual medical research. Such a game would appear best to support a key facet of history pedagogy, teaching students to make inferences about the past based on historical evidence.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Once Rosner and Zucconi began to collaborate on gamifying the content, though, this choice appeared less clear-cut. We investigated the precise pedagogical purpose served by a role-playing activity, digital or otherwise, and what kinds of assumptions might be embedded within the choice of specific topics to enact. One common purpose is to convey a “you are there” sense of a specific historical moment, to allow students to recreate an event or series of events. Common scenarios used for this are the 1787 debates over the Constitution, or the set of alliances leading to the outbreak of World War I. This type of scenario can be easily paired with another pedagogical imperative, getting students to read primary sources. The underlying assumption is that the more students read the sources, the more they will recreate the actual historical events, and the better they will understand how those events took place.4

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This assumption is deeply ingrained in history of science pedagogy. Many high school and college science courses recreate classic experiments, such as Robert Millikan’s oil drop experiment, in student labs.5 The goal is not just to teach the scientific facts, but also to serve as examples of analytical reasoning and scientific creativity. James Conant’s seminal work, Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science,6 explicitly incorporated this goal into the teaching of the history of science. Like the Harvard Business School case histories, specific episodes in the history of science were to serve as exemplars, negative and positive, of rational inquiry, innovation, problem solving. This view of the history of science privileged major scientists, and has made a very successful transition to new media, such as Public Broadcasting’s Nova.7

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 But the best-laid plans go as oft awry in role-playing activities as elsewhere. The group dynamics of role playing in the classroom are complicated: particularly charismatic or present-minded students may skew the results, so that the Founding Fathers end up abolishing slavery in 1787, or Italy succeeds in negotiating a peace settlement that heads off World War I. Within the history of science, the complexities of recreating even a single individual’s process of discovery in the classroom is time-consuming and requires a level of engagement with primary source materials – including lab apparatus – difficult to achieve in a standard semester-length course. St. John’s College Laboratory program,8 which does use texts based directly on classic works in the sciences, like Isaac Newton’s Principia, requires a full three years of intensive immersion.9 And in the history of medicine, any kind of hands-on re-creation of historical events – for example, Jenner’s inoculation practice – is out of the question.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 As our research into Serious Games told us, adding the game component to role-playing activities creates even more problems. A historical simulation, or case study, is not the same as a game. How can students play at being Edward Jenner? Would they be rewarded – earn points, let’s say, or collect digital tokens – for reading about his life and work, and choosing correctly among a set of online scenarios? What would make this a game, rather than an online test, perhaps (but only perhaps) more appealing than a traditional written test? Unlike Nova episodes, games do not lend themselves to recreation of the lives and ideas of specific, well-known individuals, because then players are constrained, not empowered, by their knowledge of real historical events. Instead, games work best when they are open-ended, allowing players a set of choices without pre-determined outcomes.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Games also work best when they are visually interesting. One of the appeals of historical games, like the Caesar series,10 is the opportunity to move through a world that no longer exists. This is also an important pedagogical point: not only can students learn about the history of, for example, architecture, or urban conditions, but also they can learn to “read” visual as well as text-based historical sources. But this was also a complicating factor if we made Edward Jenner the focus of the game. We know very little about Jenner’s physical environment: what his house looked like, where he performed his vaccinations, how his village was situated in the landscape. It might be possible to re-create it, using contemporary images, but such images would only be approximations. They would be, in effect, a kind of historical fiction rather than historical fact.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 And so we returned again to historical pedagogy to look for alternatives to the traditional role-playing re-enactment of a specific historical event. An obvious model is the use of films to teach history. Few historians would argue that films, even based on real events, are entirely accurate, but they can be ideal media for conveying an understanding of the past, and their use is supported by a growing body of scholarly  literature.11 Games, like films, can be based on serious scholarly research, and are as well suited to visual as textual sources. Moreover, the scholarly literature continues to expand through both print and born-digital publications.12

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 We redesigned our jigsaw puzzle: instead of starting with the content, and then somehow forcing it into a game, we started with the structure of the game, and asked ourselves, what kind of content would best serve its purposes? We wanted to create a dynamic and engaging game in a role-playing multi-user format that allowed an exploration of the social history of medicine rather than just a recapitulation of accepted theories. In this environment, students could more freely explore the medical culture of the nineteenth century by asking themselves questions. When presented with problems, such as how does a doctor convince a wealthy patron to be vaccinated? And would he act the same way towards a patient from the laboring class? The student must figure out on his/her own which documents to access in the archive and how to synthesize that data with the game mechanics. This question and discovery process makes for a greater impact in terms of active learning.13

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 For the high school or undergraduate student, the plausible scenario helps them learn how to do research. For graduate students and other researchers, the plausible scenario approach can aid them in what to look for when working in the archives. A recreation of a nineteenth-century Edinburgh that permits free form movement of the players allows them to interact in ways our current models of historical narrative may not address.14 As players try to solve game problems, such as where to get money to set up a medical practice, they may devise a novel solution. The task would then become combing the archives to see if pertinent economic data relevant to their theory had been overlooked by previous histories. Even if such data can not be found, the researcher would, at the very least, develop a better understanding of nineteenth-century economic values, avoiding the pitfall of accidentally imparting anachronistic perceptions.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Yet, a plausible scenario format comes with the difficulties of character creation and developing quests that highlight historically important data. There is also the danger of losing the historical narrative as players create a new environment through their actions. We resolved the issue of what types of characters to create as Player-Characters (PCs) and Non-Player-Characters (NPCs) by returning to the content, in this case, a central concept for the history of medicine: the interaction of disease, patient, and healer. Thus, the PCs would be the doctor, an immigrant laborer, and the smallpox virus itself. This choice of PCs would work well with either a research or pedagogical approach to the game. NPCs then would account for any other people that would normally interact with our three standard PCs such as a wealthy patron for the doctor.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 After settling on the basic ideas of both research and pedagogy played in a plausible scenario format, we then turned to the look of the game in consultation with the Serious Games designer Ethan Watrall. Watrall added a new set of pieces for our jigsaw puzzle, and once again, we had to shake some out and start rebuilding. Our initial conception of the game was a first-person “shooter” style made popular by games such as Castle Wolfenstein and Doom.15 We felt that this would give the player the best feel for nineteenth-century Edinburgh as they move through various scenes of closes, markets, and buildings based on contemporary maps, etchings, and watercolors. Such immersive environments have proven well in simulation based training games for pilots and military personnel.16

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Watrall pointed out several technical problems, though, with this popular style of game perspective. The first is that we expect students to play the game on a standard computer using a mouse and keyboard, rather than a joystick or game pad. The first-person perspective simply does not work well with a mouse interface. The second had to do with the design decision, prevalent in the Serious Games genre, to program in Flash. Knowledge of Flash is common among game designers and allows comparatively rapid game development. Since students can be competent Flash designers, it helps keep design costs within the grant budget. In addition, because Adobe Flash is both ubiquitous and cross platform, there are very few issues with compatibility or accessibility. Although Flash-based applications do not work on Apple devices like the iPad and iPhone, that is not a drawback for Pox and the City, because we expect students to play it through a web browser on a standard computer. However, Flash programming does not lend itself well to games played in a browser in first-person perspective, because of the variation in download rates.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Watrall suggested the game design use a third-person isometric perspective with the “camera shot” above and at an angle to the Player-Character. This perspective plays well with a browser deployment. He also pointed out that recent research indicates that a third-person perspective allows for greater immersion in a role-playing game because the player can see his character within the environment.17 Additionally, this perspective permits a wider view of the environment, thus richer detail to be built into the game and absorbed by the player. The following illustrations, of an Edinburgh map adapted for game play, and of a virus moving through the city in third-person perspective, can demonstrate these points.

Figure 1: Map of Edinburgh showing locations of game play in Pox and the City.
Figure 2: Third-person perspective, moving the virus around the city.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The issue of immersion is not limited to just resolving a player’s perspective. As our fourth collaborator, Hannah Ueno, pointed out, the style of graphics equally affects how well a player feels connected and interacts with the visual features of the game. A photorealistic quality to the graphics is the ideal environment but if this is not done well it will actually detract from player interaction and negatively impact the overall learning outcomes.18 Studies have shown that a more stylized art approach that is illustrative or “cartoony” creates a certain level of suspended disbelief that allows the player to feel more connected to the game. At the time of writing, we have yet to fit in all the jigsaw pieces associated with a particular art style but we are leaning towards a graphic look that imitates nineteenth-century watercolors and line drawings depicting Edinburgh’s Old Town. From the 1860s through the 1920s, Edinburgh undertook a series of urban construction projects that eventually eliminated the unhygienic alleys and courtyards of previous centuries. Local artists, concerned to record their rich architectural heritage, went street by street through the city, creating a wealth of visual imagery.19 They were not, of course, merely recording what they saw, but rather, interpreting it as a record of a bygone era, a vanished past, once great, now fallen into decay. We expect these illustrations to work very well in evoking an era and drawing players into the game. The fact that many of the streets can be located on historical and contemporary maps, available online at the National Library of Scotland,20 adds another layer to the pedagogical goal of the game.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Pox and the City is still in its initial stages, with much work to do even in developing the basic design for the game, let alone working out art assets or detailed scenarios. It is fair to say that our ideas of writing as an isolated process, carried out by an individual in a book-lined study, have been permanently transformed. We hope the game, once completed, will prove to be a similar vehicle for transformation for our students and colleagues.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 About the authors: Laura Zucconi is Associate Professor of History at Stockton College, New Jersey. She has authored a book on medicine and religion in the Ancient Near East in addition to articles on medicine and archaeology and she has received an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Ethan Watrall is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Associate Director of Matrix: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters & Social Sciences Online (matrix.msu.edu) at Michigan State University. In addition, Ethan is Director of the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative and the Cultural Heritage Informatics Fieldschool at Michigan State University (chi.matrix.msu.edu). Ethan’s research interests fall in the domain of cultural heritage informatics, with particular (though hardly exclusive) focus on digital archaeology and Serious Games for cultural heritage learning, outreach and engagement. Hannah Ueno holds an MFA in Graphic Design from Washington State University and a BFA in Visual Communications from Nihon University College of Arts, Tokyo, Japan. She teaches interactive media design, 3D computer graphics, image and typography and package design courses at Stockton College. Lisa Rosner is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Stockton College, New Jersey. She is the author of books and articles on the history of medicine and science, and she has received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

  1. 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0
  2. “Three Cheers for Pox and the City!” Arts and Humanities Grants and News, South Jersey Center for Digital Humanities, Stockton College, http://intraweb.stockton.edu/eyos/page.cfm?siteID=69&pageID=246.
  3. “NEH Announces 22 New Start-Up Grants,” Office of Digital Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, April 2011, http://www.neh.gov/ODH/ODHHome/tabid/36/EntryId/161/NEH-Announces-22-New-Digital-Humanities-Start-Up-Grants-April-2011.aspx.
  4. Edward Jenner, An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae (London, 1798), http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=ucm.5325107182.
  5. A recent example is discussed in Lauren Kientz Anderson, “Exciting New Pedagogy Based in History of Ideas,” U.S. Intellectual History, January 12, 2010, http://us-intellectual-history.blogspot.com/2010/01/exciting-new-pedagogy-based-in-history.html.
  6. For one of many examples, see Ryan McAlister, “The Millikan Oil Drop Experiment,” Fall 2003, http://ffden-2.phys.uaf.edu/212_fall2003.web.dir/ryan_mcallister/slide3.htm.
  7. James Conant, Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957).
  8. See, for example, “Galileo’s Battle for the Heavens,” PBS Nova, 2002, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/galileo/.
  9. “Academic Program: Laboratory,” St. John’s College, 2008, http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/academic/laboratory.shtml.
  10. Dana Densmore and William H. Donahue, Newton’s Principia: The Central Argument (Santa Fe: Green Lion Press, 2003).
  11. Jason Ocampo, “Caesar IV Review,” Gamespot, October 5, 2006, http://www.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/caesar4/review.html?tag=summary%3Bread-review.
  12. An excellent teaching resource is  Mark C. Carnes, ed., Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (New York: Henry Holt, 1996); see also Robert Brent Toplin, “The Historian and Film: Challenges Ahead,” AHA Perspectives 34:4 (April 1996), http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/1996/9604/9604FIL.CFM; the Internet Modern History Sourcebook maintained by Fordham University includes a section “Modern History in the Movies,” http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbookmovies.asp.
  13. Much of the current discussion highlights the use of commercial games in teaching, but that can be expected to change as the field of Serious Games expands. Russell Francis, “Towards a Theory of a Games Based Pedagogy,” Paper presented at Innovating E-Learning 2006: Transforming Learning Experiences, http://gu-se.academia.edu/RussellFrancis/Papers/409557/Towards_a_Theory_of_a_Games-Based_Pedagogy; see also Ethan Watrall, “Interactive Entertainment as Public Archaeology,” Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Record 2:2 (2002): 37-9, http://www.saa.org/Portals/0/SAA/Publications/thesaaarchrec/mar02.pdf; B. Winn et al., “What Should Higher Education Learn from Games?” NLLI, New Learning Ecologies Conference, San Diego, CA, 2004.
  14. David Gijbels et al, “Effects of Problem-Based Learning: A Meta-Analysis from the Angle of Assessment,” Review of Educational Research 75:1 (Spring 2005), 27-61.
  15. In 2008, Edward Castronova of Indiana University designed a version of the Neverwinter Nights multi-user game called “Arden: The World of Shakespeare” for experimental economics, as he described in “A Test of the Law of Demand in a Virtual World: Exploring the Petri Dish Approach to Social Science,” CESifo Working Paper Series No. 2355,  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1173642.
  16. Planet Wolfenstein, http://www.planetwolfenstein.com; Doom, http://www.silvergames.com/doom.
  17. J.D. Fletcher, “Education and Training Technology in the Military,” Science 323:5910 (January 2009), 72-75.
  18. S. Bangay and L. Preston, “An Investigation into Factors Influencing Immersion in Interactive Virtual Reality Environments” in Virtual Environments in Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience, G. Riva, B.K. Wiederhold and E. Molinary, eds. (Amsterdam: Ios Press, 1998); Charlene Jennet et al, “Measuring and Defining the Experience of Immersion in Games,” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 66:9 (September 2008), 641-661.
  19. R. Wages, S.M. Grunvogel and B. Grutzmacher, “How Realistic is Realism? Considerations on the Aesthetics of Computer Games” Lecture Notes in Computer Science 3166 (2004), 83-92; J. Seyama and R.S. Nagayama, “The Uncanny Valley: The Effect of Realism on the Impression of Artificial Human Faces,” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 16:4 (August 2007), 337-351; Babak Kaveh, “A Fresh Look at the Concept of Immersion,” Game Design Ideas, March 10, 2010, http://www.gamedesignideas.com/video-games/a-fresh-look-at-the-concept-of-immersion.html.
  20. Thomas Shepherd, Modern Athens, Displayed in a Series of Views (London: Jones and Co, 1830); James Drummond, Old Edinburgh (Edinburgh: G. Waterston Sons and Stewart, 1879); Bruce Home, Old Houses in Edinburgh (Edinburgh: Hay and Bagster, 1905).
  21. Maps of Scotland, National Library of Scotland, http://maps.nls.uk/
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Source: https://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evidence/zucconi-etal-2012-spring/