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Spiritual Gaming

Spiritual Gaming

In the 1980s, Larry Friedlander had an insight. As an English professor at Stanford, focusing on Shakespeare and the idea of performance, he saw the advent of personal computers as a boon for theater studies.

Instead of seeing these new desktop creatures as counting machines, he sensed that they could provide immersive experiences akin to the feeling of being in a theater.

Working with Apple’s first HyperCard system, and later as a co-founder of the Stanford Learning Lab, Friedlander helped connect pedagogy and technology in ways that are still being felt.

Now 75 and professor emeritus at Stanford, Friedlander is applying his early insights to a new combination of culture and technology: deploying the iPhone to revolutionize how museums and historical/religious sites can be experienced and reimagined.

Speaking at a new technology panel during a conference called “The Future of Jewish Storytelling” at Stanford University, Friedlander presented a new app he co-developed called Roman Forum, part of a new genre of digital experiences called Situated Simulations, or “Sitsim.” Simply put, the app allows you to stand in front of a historical building and activate a historical filter that allows you to see exactly what the place looked like 500 or 2,000 years before. This kind of engagement, he hopes, will allow visitors not only to “help create a theatrical narrative” for their visit, feeling what a resident at that time and place might have felt, but also to allow them to focus their attention in “simple and profound ways” that might even echo the religious culture of those earlier generations.

There is a spiritual undercurrent in the new generation of immersive digital technologies, or at least a more explicit awareness of questions both of omniscience and theology. Discussing the theological implications of video games on the same Stanford panel, scholar Liel Leibovitz argued that these games, like most religious systems, presupposed a “hidden designer” who set out rules we try to understand, and paths we try to follow. The user, hoping to reach the highest levels of knowledge, tries to understand what is preordained and how one can navigate a route toward one’s destiny.

This promotion of users actively co-creating their digital experience is part of Friedlander’s larger cultural goal, both with Roman Forum and with an emerging project which will test the religious and cultural limits of this technology — an app that will allow visitors to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount to switch between views of the temples that have been built on the site over thousands of years.

Friedlander acknowledges the complexities of such a project, and not only because of the emotional and religious subtexts. “Knowledge is never neutral,” he offers. And despite what the Googleverse tells us, “information should never be easy.” But where technology and spiritual life can come together is in the creation of these “simple and profound experiences” that are built on an awareness of the complexities that underlie them.

Friedlander is also approaching these ideas from another angle — by asking video game designers to formally acknowledge the religious nature of video game quests, and to turn more explicitly to a class of stories he is calling “sacred scenarios.”

These scenarios “express in a concrete, embodied form a culture’s deepest intuition about how the world functions, and how humans can connect to the divine,” he writes in a recent essay. “As gamers navigate through these sacred geographies, they can gain a deep feel for the nature and function of religious systems.” In both cases, the point is clear: “We are born into a huge and shadowy world that we do not fully understand nor control. The humbling fact of human limitation and error leads to a set of challenging questions: What is the world? Who governs it? How do I navigate it successfully?’”

Like many, Friedlander worries that a bewildering glut of digital experiences, new modes of visually based storytelling and almost unlimited knowledge will make it harder for us to understand “the crucial contexts that gave meaning to information,” and the larger questions we hope the information will answer.

Although no answer is at hand, Friedlander ended his Stanford talk with a reference to “Tourists,” the famous poem by Yehuda Amichai, in which the poet (in my updated summary) asks a group of tourists to apply a different filter to their metaphorical iPhones.

“I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, / left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

This is the sacred scenario, the simplicity within complexity, that Friedlander is hoping to both digitize and dignify.

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

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