People of the Game: Jewish Heritage and Gaming

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Courtesy of Rachel Funk

Rachel Funk
Staff Writer

On Oct. 23, the Department of Religious Studies, Jewish Studies Program and the College of Arts and Sciences at UNCG, hosted an event in the Alexander Room in the EUC, called, “People of the Game: Jewish Heritage, Learning and Cultures of Play.” The event featured ordained Rabbi, Owen Gottlieb, Ph.D., who is an Assistant Professor of Interactive Games and Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and the founder of ConverJent Jewish Games for Learning and the RIT MAGIC (Media Arts Games Interaction and Creativity) Center’s Initiative in Religion, Culture and Policy.


Gottlieb came to UNCG to talk about how Jewish people are often seen as “People of the Book,” but Gottlieb disrupted this idea, showing a history of oral tradition later encoded in books and how technology such as the printing press created shifts in Jewish tradition. He suggested that the tabletop and video game are just the latest innovations in form for continuous and new Jewish tradition.


Games and Jewish tradition relate in ways many would not consider. To Gottlieb, there are at least three kinds of Jewish play in longstanding Jewish tradition: “simulation and ritual, word play in rabbinic literature, and hevruta (pairs study).” In Gottlieb’s words, “Jewish holidays are a simulation,” just like video games. Passover, he said, is a reenactment or role-play of the liberation of Jewish people from slavery and their Exodus from Egypt, Hanukkah is a reenactment of the survival of the Jewish people from persecution and Yom Kippur is a simulation of death through fasting.

Word play is interesting in Jewish tradition. The Hebrew letters in the word סְנֶה, or “seneh,” (meaning “bush,” in reference to the burning bush in Exodus) can be changed slightly to spell סִינָי, or “Sinai.” Of this, Gottlieb said, “I was taught by one of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Norman Cohen, about the notion of the burning bush being a kind of a portal. So, the burning bush, if you shift the letters around a little bit, ‘Sinai,’ ‘seneh,’ then it becomes a portal to Mount Sinai. Through the experience of the burning bush, there’s a transformation to Mount Sinai.”

As for hevruta, a method of studying Jewish texts in pairs, Gottlieb described it as a “game within a game” as people are “pushing and pulling, trying to gain greater understanding.” In hevruta, people talk about a text, arguing and struggling to find a greater meaning, or machloket l’shem shamayim, which means, “an argument for the sake of Heaven.”
Gottlieb then discussed his game system Lost & Found, and the way he believes systems of law and gaming are connected.

“Games are rule-based systems, and legal systems are rule-based systems,” said Gottlieb. He sees a connection between Judaism and play, and through his team’s’ games, he shares his knowledge of Judaism through interactive gameplay.

Lost & Found, Gottlieb said, deals with collaboration, cooperation and competing interests between players. Based in North Africa in the 12th century and a medieval religious legal code called Mishneh Torah written by Moses Maimonides, Lost & Found, a strategy game, allows players to model a village, balance family life and help neighbors to make sure they survive. According to thegamecrafter.com, the website where his game is sold, “if anyone goes destitute, everyone loses.”

The second game in the series, also for sale at thegamecrafter.com, is Lost & Found – Order in the Court – the Party game. Gottlieb’s team is currently working on an Islamic law expansion of the original Lost & Found. The digital mobile prototype of Lost & Found, the strategy game was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and featured in their 50th Anniversary arcade.

Even though the topic may have seemed focused on a specific group—people who either are Jewish, have an interest in Judaism or are taking a class about or related to Judaism—there were a variety of different people in attendance.

Of course, many professors from the Religious Studies Department at UNCG attended Gottlieb’s discussion. One of these professors was Dr. Ellen Haskell, the Director of Jewish Studies, who said that a varied audience is what she expected and hoped for.

“We are a program that is very, very small, with a very small Jewish population on campus,” Haskell said, “so it’s always interesting to figure out where Jewish studies intersects with other interests, like media or gaming.” Of what she found interesting about the talk, Haskell said, “The way he made Jewish law exciting and fun. I really like that the technology, play and religious studies and social networking are all coming together.”
One of the attendants, who is a student in Professor Erik Dreff’s Intro to Judaism course, was MaKayla Yables, a senior at UNCG. Yables said she enjoyed, “The connection between the religion and the game. It connects history to the game and it makes learning more fun.”

Caitlyn Sutree, a freshman who hasn’t taken any classes related to Judaism, also shared her thoughts on the talk, “He’s definitely passionate about what he talks about. I like how they turned it into a game. It’s cool how accurate it is and how much research goes into it.”

Others, like Saylor Rains, a freshman in a Non-Western Religion class that includes Judaism, came to the event for an extra credit assignment, and because she has an interest in religious studies. “I go to these things all the time,” said Rains, “I think they’re interesting.” Other students interviewed echoed similar sentiments.

For those interested in similar topics, UNCG will be hosting the event, “Abraham’s Discovery of God in Islamic and Jewish Narratives,” in the Claxton room of the EUC, on Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.



Categories: Features, Human Interest

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