An Agenda For Jewish Games For Learning
Tue, 01/08/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Owen Gottlieb
Rabbi Owen Gottlieb

Games, and video games in particular, are the medium of the 21st century. They are our primary entertainment medium and are quickly becoming a key medium for education.

At the opening of the 2012 Games, Learning, and Society Conference, now in its eighth year, the keynote speaker, Parsons School of Design professor Colleen Macklin, pointed out that games for learning, and video games in general, have become utterly establishment. Macklin raised two cases to illustrate her point.

First, she discussed The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where games-for-learning scholar Constance Steinkuehler is a senior policy analyst. Second, Macklin pointed to the Smithsonian, which in 2012 features the exhibit “The Art of Video Games.” One might add to these establishment credentials that in 2011, former Vice President Al Gore was the keynote speaker at the 8th Annual Games for Change Festival in New York, and in 2010, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who uses video games to teach civics, was the keynote speaker at Games for Change.

There are scholars all over the country and world studying, designing and building learning games in fields ranging from science, technology, engineering, art and math to history and language acquisition. Research is now so plentiful that it is challenging to keep up even in the Learning Sciences subfield of games for learning.

Secular foundations have invested millions of dollars in funding digital media and games for learning initiatives. These foundations include the MacArthur Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the AMD Foundation.
Since 2006, the MacArthur Foundation alone has awarded grants totaling more than $85 million in digital media and learning. However, the Jewish institutional world had not entered the conversation, despite the obvious benefit of employing digital games in teaching Jewish history, language and rabbinic literature.

In January of 2012, The Covenant Foundation awarded a signature grant to ConverJent,the research-based games nonprofit that I run. The grant funded the building of a mobile GPS game/simulation for teaching Jewish history.
Covenant, which has a history of using cutting-edge media and technology for innovative approaches to Jewish learning, and which has been in dialogue in recent years with secular Global Kids on the use of digital media and technology, also awarded an ignition grant to Not-A-Box Media Lab to build a digital AlephBet mobile app game (just launched last month).

With these first two investments, perhaps the world of Jewish games for learning is opening up. Beyond admittedly fun trivia-based games like the Jewish version of Apples to Apples, I argue that games have the opportunity to teach more challenging and substantive Jewish content.

Arizona State University professor James Paul Gee’s pioneering work in learning with video games revealed that good games model complex systems and provide supported learning for players. They hold learners’ interest, provide immediate feedback and reward effort without punishing failure. Consider, for example, the commercial and smash hit game Portal 2, a complex and compelling puzzle game now used to teach physics. Game design as a mode of learning is just as important as challenging game play. In fact, if we carefully support our learners, play will hopefully lead to learner-driven design.  Portal 2 now offers players the ability to build their own puzzle levels.

Given that we are at the beginning of what I believe will be a new frontier of Jewish learning and pedagogy, in which we use the affordances of technology and media to rethink pedagogy, what might a research and design agenda look like for the coming years of Jewish games for learning? How might we both rethink pedagogy and also revisit lessons from John Dewey and others, now made even more practical through technology? Through design-based research, it is possible to use current research and theory to inform game designs and game-design studio curricula. Then researchers can gather quantitative and qualitative data in order to iterate further. Iteration allows for the improvement of the design of the game environments and improvements to the design studios where learners mod (modify) and create games.

While STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is at the forefront of concern for the U.S. government and major secular foundations, what shall be the agenda for Jewish games for learning? What would it mean to use games to provide access to the treasure trove of Jewish wisdom, to give a taste of the delight of studying Torah while challenging students with complex problems and ethical dilemmas? Game players thrive on challenge.  One critical aspect of games is that they are built on rule-based systems. Halacha, or Jewish law, comprises just such systems. Similarly, many games involve narratives; we have yet to tap into our aggadot, or legends, for games. We can expand our expectations of Jewish literacy for our learners and invite and challenge them. We can give an engrossing experience inside of Talmudic rhetoric and reason, with its structures of argumentation that are often intricately woven and similar to, but not the same as, complex logic puzzles. We can use games to place learners into simulated ethical dilemmas, informed by Jewish principles.

Games can allow us not only to teach Hebrew letter and vowel recognition, but also to move into second-language acquisition. The laws of the Torah can be used as the basis for a game’s community systems. What happens when the yovel, or jubilee year, arrives? Just how is society affected, and how would you prepare? Your neighbor has lost his belongings. What are your responsibilities?

Computer systems will allow us to model ancient Jewish villages; the laws in our rabbinic literature will provide the rules to animate the systems. The point here is not ultra-expensive 3-D modeling, but a simple system that provides feedback. Rather than immersive virtual environments, we should be working in simple simulations, casual games and strategy games. This way, learners can deepen their knowledge and face challenges without the need for the educational community to compete with commercial software. In fact, currently available biblical software can be used to create games for Jewish learning: Jewish educators and designers can build practicum-like challenges around already available software in order to lowers learners’ barriers to entry in Hebrew and biblical scholarship. Just as some have used computer games and simulations to teach young learners about engineering and other disciplines (see David Williamson Shaffer’s 2008 book “How Computer Games Help Children Learn”) we can use games and simulations to unlock Torah usually held in the hands of Torah scholars.

Jewish learning and the teaching of rabbinical literature can flourish in the digital age. The key will be whether we decide to use technology and media to enhance pedagogy based on digital media’s unique attributes such as those found in games, or whether we consider digital networks and shared media simply the next telephone system. The rules are changing.

Games and game design show us that learning in the 21st century is centered around problem-solving. Are we willing to take on the challenge? And if not now, when?

Reprinted with permission from Contact, The Journal of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.

Editor's Note: The initial version of this article on the website, and in The Jewish Week print edition, was shortened and edited. This is the full version.

Rabbi Owen Gottlieb is a Ph.D. candidate in education and Jewish studies at New York University, where he specializes in digital media and games for learning. He is the founder and director of ConverJent: Seriously Fun Games for Jewish Learning (www.converjent.org), incubated at Clal — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.