NOTE: This article is a sidebar to a larger article on games in Jewish education.
A huge challenge of developing Jewish games, especially computerized ones, is that ones with enough bells and whistles to compete with mainstream games for children’s attention are labor-intensive to create and, as a result, expensive.
David Behrman, president and owner of Behrman House, said his company has been “exploring games, both alternate reality and massive, multi-player games” and has “developed a couple outlines and one prototype.”
However, he said, “We haven’t figured out the business model that lets us be able to develop them affordably. It can be hugely expensive, because it has to be fun and engaging, and also teach. That’s a tall order.”
Deborah Salomon, the founder of Hebrew Wizards, invested more than $100,000 of her own money to create app games using her curriculum. The apps enable users to scroll around her school’s “Wizard Boards” — attractive posters/fact sheets about specific topics, such as the Ten Commandments or Shabbat — and then quiz themselves on the subject matter.
Although relatively simple, they were still “very costly,” she said.
EcoCampus, a virtual world and social networking site that teaches about Jewish environmentalism and enables diaspora Jewish day school students to communicate with peers in Israel, had the good fortune of starting with seed money from a Microsoft Israel contest.
However, with that funding dried up, the site has had difficulty attracting the resources necessary to add new features and games. Currently EcoCampus has only a handful of relatively simple games and activities, like designing an avatar, measuring one’s ecological footprint and collecting plants and gadgets for a virtual garden.
“For some reason, people are hesitant to put money into kids playing games,” said Carmi Wisemon, executive director of Sviva Israel, the environmental education organization that developed EcoCampus.
Money and startup costs are not the only issue, however.
When Compedia, an Israel-based company that markets educational games in over 40 countries, developed JLand, a relatively sophisticated Jewish educational virtual world two years ago, it was able to keep costs relatively low by using a similar platform developed for a non-Jewish game it produced called “Wonder Islands.”
The company rolled out the game in North America in partnership with Keren Hayesod (and arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel) as a philanthropic venture, not a for-profit one.
Despite these advantages, JLand has failed to attract a sizeable number of American users — perhaps because it was marketed to Jewish federations, which Compedia hoped would pay for the program, rather than to schools, synagogues or end users.
“I think they assumed it would work on its own and didn’t do enough teacher training to get teachers onboard to get the kids to use it,” said EcoCampus’ Wisemon.
The English-language version of JLand is no longer being maintained or updated, and Compedia and Keren Hayesod are instead, for now at least, focusing on getting a Spanish version, called KH Junior, into Jewish communities in Latin America.
“In North America we had to sell it separately to each federation which made it almost impossible,” said Gil Ilutowich, the CEO of Compedia, in an e-mail interview.
“The rollout In Latin America is more comprehensive than it was in North America,” he added, noting that this time Compedia has created teacher guides and hired local people to help implement the program.