Game Design: Seeding a Multidimensional Model

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February 1, 2013
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Owen Gottlieb

What kind of game models might allow us to play with David Moss’s ideas and art? His print (see cover page and page 2 for essay) depicts a maze-like structure with nested, grouped, and concentric circles. Likewise, the purple flame on the left is layered like an onion. The key questions Moss presents in his conceptual framework and model are: What is behind me? What surrounds me? What is deep within me? What is above me? Whom do I face? What is ahead of me? I read “The Multi-Dimensional Jew” as a poetic approach to Judaism realized through a series of nested circles and spheres of time, space, and faith.

The essence of a game is usually found in its “mechanics,” those actions or series of actions that players take repeatedly to achieve their game goals. These actions can be literal: Roll dice, chase a player on the field, negotiate a deal in Cosmic Encounter, and collaborate as a team in Pandemic. They can also be symbolic, such as when a player gathers “resources” and designs and builds a “house” in Minecraft or trades resource cards in Settlers of Catan. Game mechanics map to learning in the following ways: In Cosmic Encounter, players learn to negotiate; in the game tag, players learn to chase and evade; in Minecraft, players learn to gather resources and design; in Settlers, players learn to manage and trade resources.

What Jewish actions and skills resonate with David Moss’s “The Multi-Dimensional Jew”? I am reminded of a song we sing in Jewish camping today, a song of nested spiritual circles from individual to familial to communal to universal:

Where there is light in the soul, there will be beauty in the person. Where there is beauty in the person, there will be harmony in the home.
Where there is harmony in the home, there will be honor in the nation. Where there is honor in the nation, there will be peace in the world.

The song, “Chinese Proverb,” was set to music arranged and composed by Sharon Durant, and popularized and by the group, Sweet Honey in the Rock.1

The song resonates with many of our own teachings: The Baal Shem Tov taught, “From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven” (The Golden Mountain, Meyer Levin, 1932) and we often cite Genesis 1:26, which teaches that we are created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. Our connection between “harmony in the home” and the “nation” is found in the prioritization of shalom bayit. In Avot de Rebbe Natan 28, Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel teaches, “If one brings peace into his home… it is as though he had brought peace to everyone in Israel; but if one brings envy and contention into his home, it as though he had brought envy and contention into Israel…” (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Judah Goldin, 1955) And, finally, globalizing the Jewish hope for world peace is succinctly described in the aspiration to be a “light unto the nations,” an “or l’goyim.” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3)

Planting a Design Seedling

Games are designed over time, sometimes years, through many iterations of “play-testing,” a process of play, feedback, and design. The game shifts, changes, and grows through the process. But a design must begin with an early stage, and so a first step, or seedling, is necessary.

Here is how I would imagine a strategic game that explores some of the questions Moss suggests. I use his mandala image as inspiration for the game board. The various nested circle and ellipse groups could represent: “individuals” (the multi-colored flower petals on the left), “family” (purple on the left), “nation” (yellow and green in the center), and “world” (blue, to the right).

Suppose, in this game, three to five players strive to balance harmony in the home (shalom bayit) with action in the wider community; all have limited time and resources. Players not only collaborate with other players, but also find themselves in conflict with other players and alliances. They will have to balance resources, negotiate, manage randomly generated events (drawn from the card deck), and carefully strategize in order to win.

Four Ways to Win the Game

1) Maintain family harmony for ten turns by using resources (money, skills, relationships) to support health in the home (physical, mental, spiritual).

Why this is a challenge: Players will run out of resources and need to work outside the home circle in order to gather resources from neighbors in the nation ring.

2) Achieve “honorable nation” by negotiating successfully three treaties.

Why this is a challenge: Treaties require negotiation with at least two other players.

3) Achieve shalom, peace in the world, by bringing all players into the peace circle for a simultaneous win.

Why this is a challenge: Players will have different motivations and will not always wish to enter alliances and peace accords.

4) Reach the furthest teshuvah/turning/repentance by repairing a damaged action you made earlier in the game.

Why this is a challenge: This action requires a sacrifice of position on the board with a more uncertain chance of winning.

More than one player can win if wins are simultaneous.

Take the seedling, or your own, and grow your own variant or iterations. On your dining room table, spread a game board, cards, and tokens; design and play with friends and family; rehearse negotiation, teshuvah, collaboration, and peacemaking. Share your game playtests and designs with us at ConverJent at info@converjent.org.

1 I want to thank Pesach Stadlin for teaching me this song and Laura Bellows for pointing me to the song’s name, source, and composer/lyricist.

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Rabbi Owen Gottlieb is a Jim Joseph Fellow and a doctoral candidate in education and Jewish studies at New York University, specializing in digital media and games for learning. Gottlieb is the founder and director of ConverJent: Seriously Fun Games for Jewish Learning (converjent.org), which is incubated at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in Manhattan. ConverJent’s new digital mobile history game/simulation, Jewish Time Jump: New York, is funded by a Signature Grant from the Covenant Foundation.

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