Project Update #1 – Gaming Humoral Medicine

I’ve been continuing to think through how the humoral medicine game I proposed would work, especially how it would teach a historical form of thinking. To do that, I’ve experimented with an online game platform called Twine and looked for an appropriate primary source to shape the gameplay and to provide a concrete historical foundation for the game.

Twine is geared toward creating choose-your-own-adventure-style stories. It seems to text-focused, but I haven’t yet experimented with what it can do graphically. I’ve created a very simple and unwinnable demo that you can try out called “Death and Humors.” Based on what I’ve tried out, I think Twine will work for my humoral medicine game, at least as far as constructing a proof of concept.

I’ve had a harder time identifying an appropriate primary source to build the game around, however. I took a look at John Wesley’s Primitive Physic because it was one of the first books on treating illness targeted at a mass audience. (“Physic” was the traditional term for medicine and is the root of physician.) However, the book is really just a list of treatments for different diseases. It doesn’t include any information on how to diagnose an illness or even any explanations of what the various illnesses are (though some like “Weakness in the Ancles” are pretty self-explanatory). Worse, there’s no explanation of why and how the treatments are supposed to work. Wesley’s choice to present medical treatments this was follows his premise that medicine had once produced useful cures experimentally but that “Men of learning began to set experience aside; to build physic upon hypotheses; to form theories of diseases and their cure, and to substitute these in the place of experiments. . . till at length physic became an abstruse science, quite out of the reach of ordinary men.” However, that also means Primitive Physic won’t teach anyone about the theories that undergirded humoral medicine.

Title page of Wesley’s Primitive Physic, 21st edition (1785) with annotations.
Example of listing of cures from Primitive Physic.

Having struck out with Primitive Physic, I will continue to look through classic examples of historical medical literature for a better primary source to base my game around. I plan to look at works by Thomas Sydenham, the seventeenth-century “English Hippocrates,” but he was known for an experimental approach to medicine and will probably present the same problems as Wesley. I may need to go back to the earliest theorists of humoral medicine, Hippocrates and Galen, (in translation of course) to find a source with enough background explanation and context. For now, the search continues!