Video Games, Game Design, and 21st-Century Jewish Education

November 1, 2011
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Owen Gottlieb

Why are good video games so compelling and why are the answers to that question crucial for Jewish education today?

Good video games model complex systems. They provide immediate feedback, and keep the player just at the edge of her or his competence — neither over challenged nor bored. Players take on roles and special abilities, engaging their imagination. The fun of play is built upon elaborate rule systems. Players are invited to problem solve and strategize based on those rules. Players of good games will work for hours to reach the next challenge, mastering the intricacies of the game system.1 Add the networked, online layer, and now players can team up with friends and make new friends while navigating these compelling problems together. Lest you think games are for boys only (I believe games are one key way to re-engage boys in Jewish learning), it is important to note that more women play web-based games than men2 and games have been used to increase girls’ self-esteem through computer programming.3

Good gaming, like good learning, is exhilarating. James Gee notes that the sweet spots that good games hit are the same sweet spots that we strive for, but all too seldom reach, with education. In the disciplines of digital media and learning (DML) and the learning sciences, researchers explore how media and technology can best improve education. The research often stresses collaborative, project, and inquiry-based learning. Learning-sciences projects often take advantage of networked computers alongside face-to-face teamwork and stress the importance of students learning through designing.

Secular grant-funders such as the MacArthur Foundation have dedicated millions of dollars to expand DML and improve secular education. One example of digital-age education is New York City’s Quest to Learn (, a public school with a curriculum entirely based on games and game design. The Avi Chai Foundation has started to explore DML, recently sending nine Jewish educators, myself included, to the eighth annual Games for Change Festival in New York (

How can DML and the learning sciences inform Jewish education?

Let’s take game design, for example, which I use in the process of teaching Jewish sacred texts. Both analog (board and card) and digital game designers model complex, rule-based systems, often with narrative elements. Rabbinic literature is replete with rule-based systems (halakhah) as well as narrative (aggadah).

When learners in my workshops design or prototype a game, they collaborate to create a model based on the text. They must take into account outcomes, resources, conflicts, probabilities, and more. They must work though a variety of scenarios, tracing the possibilities of play. As the rabbis of the Mishnah and Gemarah performed astoundingly complex scenario planning, so must a game designer think through the consequences of rules and interactions. Games are also fantastic for modeling geography. Imagine playing out scenarios on a map — either a fictive sci-fi environment modeled on the Ancient Near East, or the neighborhood of a Jewish farmer in Mishnaic times. Game boards and screens can allow for visualization of scenarios typically fettered to words on a page. Designers delve deep into material — becoming teachers through their game.

The process of game design can allow for modeling of values in action. I recently led a workshop in which a student “modded” (modified) a Settlers of Catan game board, based on two mishnaic texts. In this young man’s game, the winner not only had to reach ten points through resource management and expansion, but also had to demonstrate care for his competitors. As the rules of Exodus 23:5 teach, you might think you can refrain from helping your enemy raise his donkey. You may not.

Games are by no means a silver bullet for solving the problems of Jewish education, and there is the potential to misuse the genre of games. Note that above, I discuss good games. Simply calling something a game, neither makes it a game, nor makes it good. Bad games are boring, disengaging, and shallow, and they have little re-playability. With the increasing popularity of the game medium, Jewish educators are at risk of using the name “game” to deliver education that goes no further than trivia, rather than delving into deeper inquiry. Educators who wish to use Games for Learning (to promote inquiry, critical thinking, systems thinking, and increased engagement) take on the responsibility of game literacy: learning what makes a game “good”; studying at least the basics of game design (a serious professional and, now, academic discipline); and, yes, actually playing a variety of games.

In addition, balance is critical; video games are not without danger. The case of game addiction in Korea, for example, is serious. Many of today’s compelling games are focused on combat without reflection (though the best games ask players to question assumptions and address the consequences of their actions). We must guide our learners to find a healthy mix of playing great video games, enjoying thoughtful media, and spending time away from games — in nature and the outdoors (our mobile devices now can be used to integrate innovative games and outdoor activity as well). Part of learning game literacy is learning when to turn off the game. The Serious Games and Games for Learning movements look to take advantage of the best that games have to offer and to leverage those attributes to provide effective and compelling learning environments. Just as not all books, films, or paintings are “great,” the same goes for games.

1 See James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

2 Henry Jenkins, “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked”,The Video Game Revolution

3 See the Rapunzel Project at the Games for Learning Institute at New York University. J.L. Plass, R. Goldman, M. Flanagan, and K. Perlin, “Rapunzel: Improving Self-Efficiency and Self-Esteem with an Educational Computer Game,” proceedings of the 17th International Conference on Computers in Education [CDROM] (2009), 682-689

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