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“Smallpox: Keep out of This House” (1910) (image via National Library of Medicine)

A 19th-century Philadelphia smallpox epidemic and Henry David Thoreau’s transcendental retreat into the woods are the subjects of two video games awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) this Monday.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, the $200,000 in grants came through the NEH’s new Digital Projects for the Public initiative, launched this year and aimed at games, websites, apps, and virtual environments that “significantly contribute to the public’s engagement with humanities ideas.” Split between Pox in the City, in development at New Jersey’s Richard Stockton College, and Waldenat the USC Game Innovation Lab, the funding is a significant show of federal support for the use of gaming in the humanities. Along with the games is funding for a digital application for the AIDS Memorial Quilt from the New School, a “Slavery in the North” website from Historic Hudson Valley, a website for Civil Rights Movement radio broadcasts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and online and on-site exhibitions on the environmental history of the Americas from Brown University.

Screenshot of a walkthrough of the “Walden” game from USC’s Game Innovation Lab (screenshot via YouTube) (click to enlarge)

Both of the 19th-century American history games are structured to transport users into the often unpleasant past, one where you’re a doctor combatting a deadly epidemic, the other where you step into the shoes of Thoreau where survival is as much a concern as contemplation. Pox in the City follows a web-based game released by Richard Stockton College last year, that centered on a smallpox epidemic in Edinburgh, which also got NEH fundingWalden also got early support through the NEA, and has had some prototypes of strolling the replicated topography of Walden Pond, while keeping yourself alive (here’s a video walkthrough of the most recent version).

Now, a digital recreation of the secluded forest life of Thoreau — who wrote in Walden, “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” —might not sound like the most riveting gameplay. Likewise, watching smallpox feverishly spread its scarring blisters as you try to decide who to treat, and how, is rather grim. However, USC Game Innovation Lab has already demonstrated the potential for meditative gaming with previous projects like The Night Journey incorporating visuals from Bill Viola and a narrative of seeking enlightenment. And with medical history involving so much trial and error, video games seem a promising medium for it. Just this month, the Wellcome Collection released Mindcraft, an interactive digital story using their archives on mental health and the use of mind control. Maybe stopping the horrifying progression of a gruesome disease and living through the seasons in nature alone can likewise make these historic moments into personal gaming experiences.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

One reply on “Video Games on Smallpox and Thoreau’s Walden Get Government Funding”

  1. The Walden game looks interesting and I’m glad to see these sorts of things being made. However, I just watched a presentation done by the game author. How can someone make a game about Thoreau’s work and yet not know how to pronounce his name?

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