Monday, April 20, 2020

Shadowpox in the Time of Coronavirus

Three years ago, the full-body videogame Shadowpox: The Antibody Politic debuted as part of the exhibition <Immune Nations>, opening at the 2017 Conference on Global Health and Vaccination Research in Trondheim, Norway, then touring to Geneva, Switzerland during the 70th Assembly of the World Health Organization. (We came full circle submitting the Covid-19 reboot, Shadowpox: #StayHome Edition, to the WHO's Global Call Out To Creatives last week.)

Here's a video from the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Canada, where the game was part of Public Notice, a prescient 2018 exhibition looking at the ways "fear and disease go hand in hand." (Click here to watch the video in full resolution on Facebook.)



The Shadowpox game was created with a simple goal: to help players imagine the effects their seemingly private vaccination choices had on the friends, family, strangers, colleagues and neighbours around them. 

Actually, that wasn't originally the goal. It was only in the process of developing the game that I realized my design mindset was blind to one of the major reasons vaccines work: herd immunity, a concept that has jumped to the forefront of debates about public health policy responses to Covid-19. 

The middle section of this 2018 talk (from 4:55 to 12:10) explains how the game's design evolved as my understanding did:

 


I'm half design geek, half drama nerd, so it was even more exciting when the storyworld expanded into its second, participatory-storytelling phase.

This 2019 video from York University's Office for Research and Innovation sets the game in the context of the wider research-creation project:
"In a world plagued by a deadly new disease composed of viral shadows, young, healthy volunteers across the globe step forward to test a breakthrough vaccine.  
"Shadowpox is an immersive science-fiction storyworld that imagines community immunity both as a public health phenomenon, and as a metaphor for any voluntary collective effort."



As the coronavirus pandemic turns all eyes to the development and testing of new vaccines, the third and final phase of the Shadowpox project will be an unusual new undergraduate course I'm developing to teach at York's School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design in the fall of 2020.

Science & Fiction (FILM 3841, Digital Culture) takes a mixed-reality approach to experiential education, blending academic study with dramatic composition and digital production.

In addition to more traditional ways of learning about the biology and sociology of immunization, students will create videos in which they play volunteers in the Phase I trial of a vaccine against the shadowpox virus.

Designing a networked sci-fi narrative to build scientific, civic and media literacy, Shadowpox invites participants to grapple with one of the thorniest political dilemmas of public health: voluntary participation in the collective good.

Shadowpox workshops at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (photo: LaLaine Ulit-Destajo), Debajehmujig Storytellers (photo: Lynda Trudeau), and the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre (photo: Jenn Warren)
In the spirit of international collaboration that marks the Covid-19 research effort (as well as Shadowpox research-creation in the UKCanada and South Africa), I'm working with York's Immersive Storytelling Lab on an open online complement to the course – one that will invite teachers and learners anywhere to explore the concepts and conflicts around vaccination through this co-created work of “citizen science fiction.”

It's hard right now to visualize what our world will look like by September, but I also can't picture anything I'd rather be doing than collaborating with young people to imagine and build a future of co-immunity.