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April 24. 2011 8:50PM

Pox: Play the game, save the people


The Rev. Bryan Schaefer, left, and Mehta Punjasthitkul play a game of Pox, a new board game that allows players to fight dastardly diseases. 

HANOVER – WHILE WISHING A POX on someone's house may be rude, bringing Pox in someone's house might make you fun to have at a party.

Particularly if the Pox is the board game developed by Dartmouth's Mary Flanagan, the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities. Created in collaboration with the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative, "POX: Save the People," is a game that has players band together to fight disease. It also subtly gives people a better understanding of how vaccines work to prevent the spread of infectious disease.



"At my lab we do a lot of games that have a purpose, an educational purpose or a social purpose -- such as including human values in a game," Flanagan said. "We prototype games about malaria prevention and HIV. ... (MVHI) contacted us to talk about wanting to do more immunization outreach because of the downturn in the numbers of people being immunized and the kind of dangers that can pose to community health."

But don't think Pox is preachy. Flanagan is quick to point out the game takes no stance on whether vaccinations are good or bad, it simply explains how diseases are transmitted and allows the players to fight them.

She may be quick to make that point given all the controversy over vaccines and the, turns out erroneous, link between the vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella and autism. A recent British Medical Journal article uncovered fraudulent data was the to blame for this belief and pretty much debunked the idea.

"The game let's you come to your own conclusion," she said. "People can make their own choices, but you end up seeing how the system works."

To play the game, players work together "" or one player works against the game "" to stop the disease and death in the population.

"Players really experience how things get out of control very quickly with an unvaccinated population," she said.

And a game is a particularly good vehicle to do just that, she said.

"One of the things that games do really well is to help you have an experience," Flanagan said. "They aren't really just about showing you something or telling you something, but you get to experience what it's like. But you can also try to subvert games and be a really bad player and you can test the limits of things. And in that way any game can be a kind of a simulation, in the sense that you're experimenting with your own choices."

Martin Downs, the director of public health programs for MVHI in Canaan, and Edward Ihejirika, the group's program coordinator, helped test the game and advised on its educational components, Dartmouth officials said.

Downs had worked on another fun Tiltfactor favorite "In the Village," a malaria control game.

"A game seemed to me an ideal way to demonstrate how herd immunity works," said Downs, meaning the idea of protecting a community by vaccinating a high percentage of a community's population. "There is a lot of pernicious misinformation out there about the safety and benefits of vaccines that's hard to counter just by saying it's false. This game shows players plainly how getting vaccinated is not merely a personal choice but a choice that affects everyone else as well."

The health initiative has plans to distribute Pox to middle and high schools in the Upper Valley for use in science and health classes. Flanagan said so far, many schools have already purchased the game through Tiltfactor's website. The game is designed for grades 6 through 12 and includes a teacher's guide for classroom use.

Soon an online version will be available and "print and play" versions of Pox and other Tiltfactor games are available in downloadable PDF form on the lab's website.


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