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What’s in a Game?: A Survey of Digital Game Opportunities for Medical Historians
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What’s in a Game?
A Survey of Digital Game Opportunities for Medical Historians

What’s in a game? And, what’s in games for medical historians?

I wrote that first line, and then paused. I am not a gamer, nor am I a theorist of games.1 I became involved with games because I teach primarily undergraduate courses in the history of medicine, and I am always on the lookout for types of materials around which I can build research, writing, and discussion. We’ve juxtaposed literature with film, for example, the description of quarantine measures in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year with similar scenes from Wolfgang Petersen’s film Outbreak. We’ve compared accurate historical accounts of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch with both William Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur and contemporary newspaper articles on New Jersey youngsters who went to Paris to be vaccinated by the great Pasteur. We’ve taken field trips to the Mütter Museum and heard from Civil War reenactors about nineteenth-century military surgery. My students have created databases and YouTube videos.

And so it did not seem much of a reach when I first considered using digital games. Surely it would be a logical extension of the way I teach with films? We could play one or more history of medicine games, in class or at home. We could discuss the ways history of medicine content was portrayed, using concepts like [End Page 324] historical accuracy and attitude toward medical institutions (for example, are they depicted positively or negatively?). And although there is no current equivalent of iMovie for making games, surely I could still assign my students the task of creating a short, pen-and-paper game based on historical research.

What I found served as a reminder that there is nothing “sure” about any new approach to teaching. First, there was the question of history of medicine content. We are now close to having one hundred years of films relating to medicine, more than enough for historians to pick and choose based on the needs of a specific syllabus. But history of medicine games? There were so few of them that several colleagues and I decided to create one of our own. The result was Pox and the City, a digital role-playing game prototype.2 Funded through an NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant, Pox and the City harnesses the technological power of adventure-quest games to present the early history of vaccines. The game is set in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1800, shortly after the introduction of Edward Jenner’s vaccine for the prevention of smallpox. The player takes on the role of Dr. Adam Robertson, a young physician eager to use the new medical technique to develop his practice. In order to successfully compete in Edinburgh’s competitive medical marketplace, the player must attract patients, diagnose and treat their ailments, and prove his scientific credentials to his medical colleagues—all while dealing with a smallpox outbreak, investigating a murder, and courting an eligible young lady.

An important purpose of the start-up grant was for us to gain experience, positive and negative, and one of our key takeaways was a clearer understanding of what might be accomplished by the emerging genre of medical history games. We learned that it is possible to incorporate accurate and socially responsible medical history content into a game, to build on primary sources, and to produce entertaining medical stories and quests. We learned that game mechanics are a complex and ever-evolving field, that game dialogue is incredibly hard to write, and that playtesting is an essential, not optional, part of game design. We remain exhilarated by the possibility of medical historians assuming responsibility for game development and design—and we realize that in order to do so, we must take responsibility for defining the pedagogical purposes of medical history games. What are some learning goals that might justify the time spent creating innovative medical history games or incorporating existing games into history of medicine syllabi?3 [End Page 325]

The most obvious goal is helping students learn the history of medicine course content. This...