Gaming Maimonides At HUC


As gaming culture continues to proliferate and innovations are constantly being made in the field, Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, an assistant professor of interactive games and media at the Rochester Institute of Technology, found a unique purpose for his latest project: teaching Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah through gaming.

During the second day of the two-day conference this week organized by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on “Crafting Jewish Life in a Complex Religious Landscape,” Gottlieb hosted a session exploring the implication of contemporary and near-future digital and analog technologies for the rediscovery, transformation and extension of various pathways for Jewish learning.

Gottlieb, who is considered a “visionary Jewish educator, bringing cutting-edge technologies to bear on classrooms, retreats and teachers’ workshops” by Isa Aron, a professor of Jewish education at HUC, spent his two-hour long session on Monday afternoon exploring the relationship between games and religion, focusing on “Playing With Judaism in the Digital Age.”

With an audience of about 40 people, Gottlieb began his discussion by explaining that there is a lot to learn from digital technology in terms of affordances, or things that games offer players. In particular, games are good at providing rich contexts, complex systems, problem solving and role-playing, which are all skills that Gottlieb promoted in a game that he created, called Jewish Time Jump: New York, which was nominated for Most Innovative Game by the 10th Annual Games for Change Festival in 2013.

Gottlieb’s mobile augmented reality game is an interactive story in the form of a situated documentary that takes the player back to Greenwich Village in the early 1900s. The player works as a reporter for the Jewish Time Jump Gazette, where they learn through primary sources based on their GPS coordinates about historical events concerning Jews, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Gottlieb’s current research approaches teaching Judaism in a different way — by teaching medieval religious legal codes through gaming.

According to Gottlieb, both games and legal systems are role based, and one day gaming may be able to change the discourse about religious legal systems.

“Lost and Found,” Gottlieb and his team’s latest game, teaches Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. The game is set in North Africa in the 12th century, and players assume the roles of villagers. As villagers, the players must balance their needs with their family’s needs and their community’s needs, all while navigating the law. While maintaining historical accuracy, the game also highlights some of religion’s pro-social aspects, such as collaboration and cooperation when resources are scarce.

In the future, Gottlieb plans to bring Muslim law into focus in the game, since Maimonides and Muslim scholars learned from one another at the time.

Regardless of the religion being discussed, Gottlieb seeks to use games to shift people’s black and white thinking to a more nuanced approach to legality.

“There are two types of fun,” Gottlieb said. “Joyful is one. But we really want fun to be engaging.”