An Opening, an Introduction, and an Invitation

a few sharp deals

Philadelphia, 1802.

A smallpox outbreak is threatening the lives of the Quaker City’s residents. You’re an ambitious young physician, new to town and eager to use your skills to help prevent disaster (and maybe earn yourself a good living besides). Where do you start?

Why not with the arms of your patients? You’ve learned about the success of Edward Jenner’s technique of infecting patients by puncturing their arms with matter from cowpox pustules as a means of preventing a more deadly infection from smallpox. Bringing this “vaccination” to a city facing an epidemic would certainly make your name. But convincing the people of early national Philadelphia to let you try this new method on them and their children, and to pay you for the privilege… that’s not going to be a simple matter.

For one, you’ll have competition. Entering a busy medical marketplace where ill people could choose from a wide array of practitioners for healing services – including bleeders, surgeon-barbers, apothecaries and bone-setters, as well as elite MDs – well, you’ll need more than your education, supply of cowpox matter, and your trusty lancet to build a practice. You’ve got to convince people that your treatment is better than others, including the better known, but riskier, process of inoculation with smallpox. A touch of social grace and salesmanship would be a big help, and a detailed understanding of the city’s social geography (and some allies) is non-negotiable – and so you set off with a letter of introduction in your pocket, to start meeting the men and women of Philadelphia, and to try to keep them healthy enough to afford your services …


Players of Pox Hunter, an NEH-funded digital game currently under development, will step into the shoes of this young doctor, and experience the history of medicine through strategic gameplay in an interactive environment. Led by Lisa Rosner, the project’s principal investigator and a Distinguished Professor of Historical Studies at Stockton University, the Pox Hunter project is bringing together a team of scholars, educators, and programmers to build a working experiential model of historical interpretation embedded in game interaction.

The project improves upon lessons learned from an earlier prototype, Pox and the City, which explored vaccination in Edinburgh. Choosing a novel setting, Philadelphia, and a more advanced suite of features and mechanics, the team behind Pox Hunter seeks to engage new audiences interested in scientific innovation and medical history by producing an improved game prototype that merges engaging play with a richly contextualized humanities narrative. Pox Hunter will debut at the Philadelphia Science Festival in April 2016.

The bones of Pox Hunter’s ludic challenges are drawn from the scholarship on medical history. Medical beliefs, practices, and treatments, the game posits, are shaped by the interaction of the healer, the patient, and the disease entity. To be properly understood, events like the spread of the practice of smallpox vaccination must be contextualized within specific social and environmental frameworks. By placing players in the role of a physician in a particular place and time, the game challenges them to not only interact with a disease, but to create and manage relationships with a diverse set of potential patients and patrons, drawn from a wide array of economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds – with different orientations towards the disease, and medical knowledge, to match. To succeed, the player must not only immerse themselves in Philadelphia’s history as a political, intellectual, and commercial center, but also operationalize information about the state of scientific knowledge and contemporary cultural values that motivated and constrained historical actors’ choices.

To play and win at Pox Hunter, you have to do more than understand smallpox vaccination in the abstract; you have to understand how the people of early 19th-century Philadelphia might have encountered and interacted with it.


Much like our imaginary young doctor friend’s new Philadelphia practice, the Pox Hunter project is an enterprising experiment. This blog, The Pox Hunter’s Lancet, aims to be one, too – though in a particular way. It will serve as an accompaniment to the project’s larger intellectual work by exploring how the practice of building and playing games can inform historical thinking, and vice versa. To press on our titular metaphor a bit too hard, the work of the The Pox Hunter’s Lancet is to help cut through some barriers to introduce some productive new matter into the existing corpus of academic discussion on historical games.

In this, it will differ from some of the other writing on games, history, and their interactions that is currently on offer. While this blog will touch on the process of the Pox Hunter’s development, it won’t be a developer diary, chronicling the process of the game’s creation; and while it will consider questions of the game’s design, it won’t be a running analysis of the choices the Pox Hunter team is making about the final product, the focus of much of scholarly game criticism. Instead, over the coming nine months, this blog will attempt to think about how games – specifically Pox Hunter, but others as well – can serve as tools in the intellectual and theoretical work of historical researchers and educators. 

In this space I will try to explore the ways in which we might think with or through games, and not just about them. The payoff, we’re wagering, will be some new conversations, and possibly even some new tools, for thinking about what the building and playing of games can mean for the practice and positioning of history. 


So stay tuned! Each month, I’ll be adding to the conversation in with a post on a new topic or question. Some of the things to come include: how scholars have approached historical games and game-playing to date; how games media can help build models of historical causality and contingency; the archival work of historical game-making; the pedagogy of role-playing in a live classroom versus that in a digital game; the links between subversive play and historiographical understanding; and much, much more. (And suggestions are welcome!). In the spring, when the new Pox Hunter prototype will be unveiled at the Philadelphia Science Festival, we’ll wrap up with a consideration of what the team learned from building the prototype.

If you’ve got thoughts about vaccination, history, gaming, and the mix of all the above, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach out in the comments below, on Twitter @poxhunter (or @daelnorwood), or the old fashioned way through e-mail at And if you’d like to know more about the project (or your humble author), please check out the About page, on the sidebar.

Finally, on the docket for next month is a simple question, with a (hopefully) surprising bunch of answers: Why Play at History?

If you’ve got answers of your own, don’t be shy – share with us in the comments, or on social media!


Header image: “List of Suitable Vaccinating Instruments,” in Eastern Dispensary of the City of New York, Vaccine: Information Upon the Subject of the Prevention of Small-Pox by Vaccination (New York: James Egbert, Printer to the Institution, 1859).


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