Playing Games With Jewish Education

Playing Games With Jewish Education

You can’t avoid it anymore.

Computer-based games like Farmville or Angry Birds or Grand Theft Auto, available on laptops and phones and game consoles, have become almost as ubiquitous as social media sites like Facebook.

Whether you are a teacher or principal, a parent or grandparent, a marketer or consumer, a smartphone user or a paperback-reading commuter, you can’t help but notice how these games fill the downtime minutes of millions of people, and increasingly are the first thing they connect to when they boot up their machines.

I recently spent a week with a dozen other Jewish professionals and educators and Jewish professionals studying the mechanics, essence and value of games, with a focus on their connection to the digital and social media worlds. Organized by the Covenant Foundation, and held in the offices of Global Kids in Manhattan, we went deep into this dynamic and evolving world. What we discovered was that games have the potential to be urgently needed new tools for both education and community engagement in the Jewish arena.

Many of us have a deep bias against online or video-based games as being isolating, a waste of time, even anti-social. Why would we want to encourage this among students?

Jane McGonigal tackles this view head-on in “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World,” acknowledging that this bias “is part of our culture, part of our language,” and is “even woven into the way we use ‘game’ and ‘player’ in everyday conversation.”

Ultimately, Jane McGonigal argues passionately that the sense of meaning and the community of purpose found among game players are antidotes to the isolation many people feel today. Having designed games for use by organizations like the World Bank, McGonigal has seen firsthand how games — in part because of the competition and immersiveness of their experience — can motivate and inspire people to empathize, learn and act in the real world.

To put a Jewish gloss on this, her descriptions sound like the kind of intensive, immersive experiences we try to create with our Jewish schools and community institutions, where people could feel part of an epic enterprise that includes, but also transcends them.

A new field of study is quickly emerging about the sociology of online gaming, bringing with it a change of language suggestive of its value for education and social good: Games for Learning; Games for Change; Serious Games. And the Jewish community is responding. Games and technology have been popular subjects at numerous national Jewish conferences; funders like the Covenant and Avi Chai Foundations have begun to invest in teaching educators about gaming from the inside out.

Among the important findings in the growing field of education game research is that digital or online games, far from being passive experiences, have the potential to prompt the most active kind of learning. Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, who brings together game designers and Jewish educators through his organization ConverJent, argues that more Jewish educational websites should become “media remix laboratories.”

In a widely-read essay on, “A Call for Jewish Education through Gaming and Game Design,” he imagines a Jewish digital ecosystem in which learners “develop and hone their affinities, teach themselves, and mentor their virtual peers.” The more actively students can learn, collaborate and teach, the better the results.

New digital tools make it increasingly easy for students to participate in the creation of their educational experience, responding to texts and questions by creating immersive and shareable multi-media moments. Just as students have begun creating and sharing Youtube videos of themselves acting out the weekly Torah portions (inspired by digital innovations like, they can now create online quizzes, scavenger hunts or adventure games.

The Covenant educators played out this active, game-making thesis for a week, working together to design a game that explores food policy through a Jewish lens. We divided into groups, learned and shared information, argued over moral values, then put our new technical skills to work to create a game that would actually function, with cogent rules, goals, and rewards. Fear of failure was a constant companion as we tweaked our game and presented it to a blue-ribbon panel of designers.

The game we built may never be played. The more important lesson: in an increasingly technological, multimedia world, the ability of educators to improvise, remix, beta-test and iterate may be the key to future Jewish pedagogical success.

Daniel Schifrin is writer in residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

read more: