Rabbi Owen Gottlieb believes that the future of Jewish education is in games — both video and analog, like card and board games. Gottlieb, 38, is a doctoral candidate in education and Jewish studies at New York University and is the director and founder of ConverJent, which designs and develops games for Jewish learning and is incubated at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, based in New York City.
Rabbi Gottlieb spoke to the Forward about why video games are great educational tools, what they have in common with rabbinic literature and why no topic should be off-limits for games.
Why should we be moving toward more gaming in education?
The secular world is putting a tremendous amount of investment in games. The MacArthur Foundation, for example, has dedicated millions of dollars to expand digital media and learning in the U.S. to improve secular education.
Well-designed games are complex learning systems that provide the player feedback, are oriented toward problem-solving, often require collaboration and place learners in a “flow” state, where they are neither bored nor overly challenged. Learning games are now being developed and researched by game scholars and designers for subjects including science, technology, engineering, art and math. They are also used to teach history, civics and language acquisition. Video games allow researchers to gather a great deal of data on how learning is taking place and how changes in design relate to changes in learning.
How did you get interested in the intersection of Jewish education and gaming?
I have an eclectic background. I worked in Internet software development for clients like Disney and also worked as a screen and television writer for studios in Los Angeles. This was before I decided to pursue rabbinical studies. In 2004, I left Los Angeles for Israel, spending a year in the Negev Desert teaching modern dance and hip-hop, and then another year in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College.
Also, games creation was an important part of my childhood. I would devise games at home with friends, and at summer camp with friends. During college, my peer group included passionate gamers, computer scientists, artists and engineers. So, my work on Jewish games is really everything coming together — media, technology, Torah learning, art and design.
What are the benefits of gaming in a Jewish context?
I usually concentrate on the connection between rabbinic literature and games. And there is a lot of overlap. In rabbinic literature, two strands are: halachic, or legal literature, or rule-based systems, and aggadic literature, our Jewish stories. Video games and all games are built on rule-based systems. Many games also involve a narrative or story.
Halachic debates, such as those in the Talmud, consider multiple hypothetical scenarios. Game systems are excellent for visualizing and sometimes (in the case of board and card games) making these hypotheticals tangible. A game, as a modeled system, allows a player to consider various situations and outcomes. The “play” of Talmud study can be designed into games.