Jewish Gaming – Why are we doing this?

This is part of excerpt written for the Lookstein center’s Jewish Educational Leadership journal:

Education is not a game, nor is being Jewish in the 21st Century. The foundation of our ennobling religion demands that we make every effort to make our texts and traditions relevant to a generation saturated with media mediocrity and ephemeral triviality. Our mission as Jewish educators is to elevate and inspire our children, to give them the tools to access our wisdom filled repositories, and to absorb and integrate our spiritual wealth into their lives.

At first glance the notion of a frivolous game may be anathema to the very notion of a deep and enriching encounter with Jewish texts, one of our most sacred of missions. Yet the very impact of games – absorption, commitment, motivation, challenge, participation and failure, may help us towards our broader goal of creating knowledgeable and skillful learners. The elements of gaming could prove to be a useful tool. Many have experienced that when the review takes the form of Jeopardy that students are more keen to share their knowledge, and to take risks. At the end of my last semester when I borrowed the quiz bowl buzzers the classroom was ablaze with Jewish learning (and buzzing). If an enduring model that can encapsulate and elongate that excitement, and produce a deep and richer Jewish x`learning experience, then it behooves us to use it.

To this end our school experimented with what this model could look like. With a generous grant last year we began exploring the interplay of gaming and the learning of Rabbinical texts – a term that we call tradigitalism. Unlike most entertainment games that have no enduring knowledge goals, a Rabbinics game would be grounded in the curricula needs of the schools and help to enhance, deepen and enrich the learning goals. Minimally, if the positive elements of gaming can be harnessed to improve the learning outcomes then we will have a useful tool in our digital tool-kit. Maximally we could start to re-imagine what a learning environment in the 21st century would look like. (Schools such as Quest to Learn in NY, and GameMaker in LA are starting to do this).

Why would a school be based around the principles of gaming. One powerful idea is explained by the Institute of Play (who created the Quest to Learn school):

There are other attributes of games that facilitate learning. One of these is the state of being known as play. Much of the activity of play consists in failing to reach the goal established by a game’s rules. And yet players rarely experience this failure as an obstacle to trying again and again, as they work toward mastery. There is something in play that gives players permission to take risks considered outlandish or impossible in “real life.” There is something in play that activates the tenacity and persistence required for effective learning.

A student who can engage with text, play with text, and not feel like they are failing when they get the translation wrong, or misremember facts and figures. A well constructed game would give them the space to explore, interpret and create, and feel ownership of their own accomplishments.

 

Blended Gaming

The pedagogy that we are using to describe how a game, and gaming mechanics may be used in class, is called blended gaming. Blended gaming has students learning both through the game, and in a class. The teacher can use various parts, elements, and dialogues in the game as a springboard for further learning of the text itself, ideas in the text, and bigger themes and values. The game allows for many such connections and enables teachers in different classes and different schools to adapt and modify the learning to focus on the areas and issues relevant to them. The learning will become more generative, based in Jewish text and tradition, but being able to bridge from the ancient world to the modern world in a compelling way. With a skilled teacher the students will not only experience playing a story based game, but actually see themselves in the continuum of the unfolding Jewish story.

In blended gaming the game is not a stand alone tool. Key to its success is the teacher being aware of how to integrate the game effectively into the classroom. We need to develop the nexus between traditional curricula materials and gaming – this is a new paradigm.

What would such a game look like?

Our pilot game is called Sparks of Eternity that to enhances the learning of the opening unit of our Rabbinics I course that focusses on the Oral Torah. The course surveys the six different orders/sections of the Mishnah looking at small pieces of text from each. The first unit and text studied in depth is the very opening of the Mishnah that deals with the Shema prayer. When thinking about how to integrate the text into a game, we looked towards our tradition to find a suitable meaningful story to situate the game. The time of the Mishnaic (tannaitic) period, around 0-220ce, is the major time of transformation from a temple based, to a non temple based religion.

Please take the time to play the game, see if you think it can enhance curricula, and let us know what you think.

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