Meaningful play is all fun and games for Elizabeth Goins

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A. Sue Weisler

Elizabeth Goins often partners with students like Jason Ferreira to create games and interactive media embedded with the historical details needed to make the games accurate and believable. Here, Goins and Ferreira closely examine images to get an 
idea of what a certain part of the “Pox and the City” game might look like.

Life in 18th century Edinburgh, Scotland was rough, particularly with the onset of a smallpox outbreak that threatened to wipe out the city’s inhabitants. Place yourself in the shoes of the now-legendary urban physician Edward Jenner, whose mission was to persuade Edinburgh’s rural inhabitants to allow him to vaccinate their children to prevent further illness. 

Elizabeth Goins, assistant professor of fine arts and the museum studies program in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, is lead principle investigator and creator of one of the first-ever immersive games—called “Pox and the City”—to address the history of medical practice and the use of vaccinations for public health. The project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed in collaboration with Lisa Rosner, a professor with Stockton College, is being developed for the archival library at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. 

Goins is part of a small group of new experts from around the world who are experimenting with “meaningful play” to turn didactic experiences into playful engagements in role-playing games that are based on fully submersing users into otherwise inaccessible worlds.

“Role-playing games allow players to step inside a world where they can virtually handle materials and make mistakes without harming anyone or anything,” Goins explains. “While role-playing games have been popular in disaster and military training, this technology has not been widely used in the traditional humanities, art history or in museum preservation and conservation fields.”

Goins’ interest in role-playing games began 10 years ago when she worked at RIT’s Image Permanence Institute. She knew that she wanted to develop software and educational games for cultural institutions, although these projects often require large teams. Today, she works with co-op students from the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, and often partners with faculty peers to create games and interactive media embedded with the historical details needed to make the games accurate and believable. On her “pox” project, Goins is working with Jason Ferreira, a student from Interactive Media and Games, and Lisa Hermsen, associate professor and 
chair of RIT’s English department.

The process is nothing short of extraordinary. Goins and her teams painstakingly study every aspect of the museum or subject that is the focus of the game. This includes, but is not limited to, reading thousands of pages of text on the subject, studying photos of the museum space in order to accurately design the game and interviewing curators and museum educators to find out what aspects of the exhibit they believe are crucial to the user experience. Goins and her team proceed to imagine what it would be like to navigate through the space, write 
creative content for a range of audiences and develop the game that makes it all come alive. 

“My job is to get users or museum visitors excited about learning and create a situation where they can become more than just a visitor by virtually interacting with objects—learning from them and seeing them from different perspectives,” Goins adds. 

“Immersive environments have so much potential in museum spaces as well as in universities to transform scholarly communication, digital storytelling and research methods,” she adds. “This process of connecting traditional humanities like history, art and literature with new technologies has emerged into an area of inquiry referred to as digital humanities. At RIT, we have a great advantage in that our experts are ready to move us forward in creating the next wave of humanities learning, and a far-ranging vision, for our students.”