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 2020-21 academic year.

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 the end of the year, 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.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Six O'Clock Shadowpox

CTV News Toronto catches Shadowpox! (If you can't see the video below, try this link.)

To play the game, visit:

Big thanks to CTV health reporter Pauline Chan, and to Anjum Nayyar in York's media relations office, for making this piece possible.

Kudos too to Shadowpox technical director Lalaine Ulit-Destajo for pulling together the behind-the-scenes footage in record time!

Update, April 25:

My York colleague Justin Baillargeon gave Shadowpox: #StayHome Edition a shout-out en français on Radio-Canada this weekend.

He mentions us at the 6-minute mark, alongside Assassin's Creed: Origins, in a discussion of ways to learn through video games:

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Shadowpox: #StayHome Edition

Our new online game is live!

Play Shadowpox: #StayHome Edition here:

Check out the announcement from York University, "Online video game brings to life the impact of staying home during COVID-19 pandemic."

And let the team know what you think!

Monday, February 24, 2020

Sensorium Seminar

Bring your lunch to the Loft! I'll be talking about my research-creation project, Shadowpox, this Wednesday at Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology at York University. Here's the flyer:

Winter Lunchtime Seminar Series

Wednesday, February 26, 2020
The Sensorium Research Loft
4th Floor CFA, Room M333
RSVP to 

Please join us for our next Winter Lunchtime Seminar Series featuring Cinema and Media Arts PhD Candidate and Sensorium Graduate Research Associate, Alison Humphrey!

Alison Humphrey plays with story across drama, digital media, and education. As a Vanier Scholar in Cinema and Media Arts at York University, her research-creation doctoral dissertation explores how a participatory science fiction storyworld, Shadowpox, can help young people build scientific, civic and media literacy by exploring immunization and vaccine hesitancy through a superhero metaphor.

The project’s first phase, full-body videogame, debuted during the 70th World Health Assembly in Geneva, where The Lancet called it “one of the most powerful and playful ways to illustrate both the individual and population-level implications of community immunity.” The second phase is a networked superhero narrative, The Cytokine Storm, co-created with young artists on three continents.

Lazola Nkelenjane (left) and Zanele Melapi experiment with solar-powered visual effects in a 2019 Shadowpox workshop at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre, Masiphumelele, South Africa.

The third phase adapts this narrative into a Scalar-based online platform for a “courseplay”, a hybrid undergraduate seminar that weaves academic study with dramatic composition and digital production. Science & Fiction: Imagining Immunity in an Immersive Storyworld (which will be offered in York's department of Cinema and Media Arts in the coming academic year) takes a new approach to the concept of experiential education: action refraction, where students use metaphoric world-building and digitally augmented role-play to explore one of the thorniest political dilemmas of public health: voluntary participation in the collective good.

For more, please see and

Sunday, September 15, 2019

How "Citizen Science Fiction" Can Boost Immunity

Life Sciences Building, York University (NXL Architects) 
I'll be presenting a talk on Shadowpox as part of the York Circle Lecture and Lunch on Saturday, September 28 in the Life Sciences Building on York University's Keele Campus. The event is free – you can RSVP on the York Circle website.

Here's the précis:
Shadowpox: How "Citizen Science Fiction" Can Boost Immunity
Alison Humphrey will discuss how her research-creation project, Shadowpox, a participatory storyworld exploring immunization through a superhero metaphor, can help young people build scientific, civic and media literacy. A full-body Shadowpox videogame debuted during the 70th World Health Assembly in Geneva, where The Lancet called it “one of the most powerful and playful ways to illustrate both the individual and population-level implications of community immunity."
The other three presentations sound fascinating:
Your Brain in Action
Denise Henriques - Professor, School of Kinesiology & Health Science 
Humans surpass all other animals and robots when it comes to the diversity and malleability of movements produced — we are the world’s most versatile movers. Dr. Denise Henriques explains how the brain’s remarkable control systems make this possible. 
Transgender Studies: What You Should Know & Why It Matters
Sheila L. Cavanagh - Associate Professor of Sociology 
This presentation will introduce you to the burgeoning field of transgender studies. Transgender studies is based on the experiences of those who identify as transgender. Transgender is an umbrella term that includes everyone who is, in some way, gender diverse or gender non-conforming including, but not limited to, transsexuals, bi-genders, non-genders, Two-Spirits, etc. Transgender studies is not only concerned with the study of transphobia (discrimination against people who are differently gendered), but with questions relating to sex and gender embodiment. 
And this one is especially timely the morning after Toronto's #FridaysForFuture Climate Strike. I only wish I weren't speaking at the same time!
Is a 100% Renewable Energy Future Possible? Advances for Community Participation in a Low-Carbon Energy Transition
Dr. Christina Hoicka - Assistant Professor, Faculty of Environmental Studies 
Over 80 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are energy related and Canadians are among the highest per capita energy users and GHG emitters. Under the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming by 2°C, Canada committed to a 30 percent reduction below 2005 levels of GHG emissions by 2030. However, scientists now caution there are clear benefits to keeping warming to 1.5°C, requiring an acceleration of carbon mitigation activities. This talk discusses the important factors to acceleration of a low-carbon energy transition, such as the innovation-diffusion of low-carbon energy innovations for communities, made up of individuals, households and organizations, to adopt, as well as diversity and inclusion in the energy and innovation sectors.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Biology of Story

I'm thrilled to be joining Amnon Buchbinder's rich and profound course The Biology of Story as a teaching assistant this autumn.

Check out the first lecture clip below, then head over to the course website and the innovative, interactive Biology of Story documentary for more:
"What if there was magic? A mysterious power, hidden in plain sight, all around us, touching us, touched by us – daily. Wouldn't we want to learn how this magic works? How to work with it, consciously and effectively. How to ensure that it works for the benefit of ourselves, our communities, our world. How to use this magic to cast good spells – and to break the bad ones. 
Well, that magic, that mysterious power, does exist. Its name is Story."

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Communications, Transformations, Futures

I'm heading to the University of British Columbia on Unceded Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓ əm) Territory this week for the 2019 Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory conference.

HASTAC is "an interdisciplinary community of humanists, artists, social scientists, scientists, and technologists changing the way we teach and learn." This year's conference theme is "Decolonizing Technologies, Reprogramming Education," and there are some inspiring plenary speakers lined up, including Leanne Betasamosake SimpsonKaryn Recollet, and Elizabeth LaPensée.

I'll be part of a panel titled Communications, Transformations, Futures, presenting a talk on "Building Co-Immunity in Wiikwemkoong and Masiphumelele: Participatory Science Fiction to Inoculate the Civic Imagination." If you're in Vancouver on Friday, come say hi!

Friday, March 15, 2019

On location at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre

Photographer and communications consultant Jenn Warren joined our Shadowpox group recently at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, and took some beautiful shots. Pictured: Sibulele Bontshi, Abongile Maputhuma, Buhle Mavi, Zanele Melapi, Lazola Nkelenjane, Asiphe Ntshongontshi and Aphiwe Zabezolo.

Click on images to enlarge (and check out more behind-the-scenes photos here).

Bongo Mavi, with Alison pretending to be his cell phone
Zanele Melapi 
Lazola Nkelenjane
Abongile Maputhuma
Alison, Abongile, Zanele and Lazola in the "EduZone" computer lab
Discussing the next scene...

Monday, March 4, 2019

Superhero Cellphone Cinema

As a warm-up to our Shadowpox video workshop, participants including the Youth Interns of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, wrote, directed, shot and assembled their own superhero storyboards using Comic Life. Huge thanks to Plasq for generously donating the software to the Youth Centre's EduZone computer lab!

Created by and starring: Sibulele Bontshi, Abongile Maputhuma, Buhle (Bongo) Mavi, Zanele Melapi, Lazola Nkelenjane, Asiphe Ntshongontshi and Aphiwe Zabezolo.

Click on images to enlarge (and check out more behind-the-scenes here).

Aphiwe Zabezolo (in character) arriving at the DTHF Youth Centre

Asiphe Ntshongontshi casting a solar-powered shadowpox effect on Zanele

Lazola, Sibulele, Asiphe, Zanele and Bongo

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Building Black Panther

For last week's Cellphone Cinema workshop at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre, I put together a collection of links and videos on the making of the film Black Panther.

Early storyboards for the ancestral plane sequence by artist Simeon Wilkins:

(click image above to enlarge)

An animatic is a video showing how the panels from a storyboard would look as a sequence of shots. Here are a few from Simeon Wilkins, starting with the ancestral plane sequence above:

(Click below for more...)

Monday, February 11, 2019

Brainstorm profiles Shadowpox

Brainstorm is a monthly newsletter published by the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation at York University. Megan Mueller, senior manager of research communications, wrote a wonderful profile on Shadowpox:

Interactive video game highlights the impact of vaccine decision-making

The piece also included a new video with Steven J. Hoffman, the scientific director of Shadowpox: The Antibody Politic (among his many other titles):