Friday, June 3, 2011

Game ON for JewishEd Digital Games

Game On: The Time is Now for Jewish Game-based Learning

Back in 2001, Marc Prensky argued the changing nature of how children’s brains are being hardwired in the digital age demands a embrace of Digital Game-based Learning.  Ten years later the debate of game based learning rages on.  Even then, Prensky refrained:

Of course many criticize today’s learning games, and there is much to criticize. But if some of these games don’t produce learning it is not because they are games, or because the concept of “games-based learning” is faulty. It’s because those particular games are badly designed. There is a great deal of evidence that children’s learning games that are well designed to produce learning, and lots of it-by and while engaging kids.

Digital games offer considerable access point for learning. As students ever more increasingly engage in games with ever complexity, learning games utilize a familiar and comfortable medium to generate learning growth. Digital games occupy a culturally relevant tool that students identify as fun, while utilizing educational design element. The report, “Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health,” concludes that:

Digital games offer a promising and untapped opportunity to leverage children’s enthusiasm and to help transform learning in America.

The report found that digital games need to be tapped into as a vital medium and resource to promote meaningful learning, for they “have the potential to teach children rich content, critical academic skills for literacy and math learning, and the kinds of creative thinking and processes needed for later success” (Edweek, June 23, 2009). Utilizing games in a learning environment greatly improve the motivation for learning, along with 21st century skills, such as  time management, leadership, teamwork and creative problem solving (How Social Media and Game Mechanics Can Motivate Students).

While reaching and motivating student and developing critical 21st century skills is essential for 21st Century Jewish education, great challenges remain for utilizing this platform to enhance Jewish learning.  The most obvious being the costs for developing games, producing games of quality that will live up to the standard students are used to and securing game designers familiar with Judaism and Jewish education.  While much of the fervor for education games evolves out of a demand for being STEM learning, Rabbi Owen Gottleib argues that Jewish philanthropy needs to support the research, development and usage of video games to promote Jewish education, Jewish identity and Jewish community. 

Games provide a unique means of cultivate a social identity in an engaging and designed learning environment.  According to James Paul Gee, a leading writer and research games-based learning, Digital games are, at their heart, problem solving spaces that use continual learning and provide pathways to mastery through entertainment and pleasure. In his research article Learning and Games, Gee describes how games design operates with modern learning theory in the “Situated Learning Matrix”, where games place the player into a simulated, learning environment: a goal-driven problem space.  The Situated Learning Matrix includes: Identity, Goals and Norms, Tools and Technologies, Context as Problem Space, Content.

Gee develops a model that includes Games (social context) and games (software) but states that both are important for learning. In games where players utilize a first person avatar (Halo, World of Warcraft), they take on a specific identity, in terms of goals and norms stemming for their character’s social group. Gee defines learning as situated in experience, specifically driven by goals and identity-focused experience. These games stress the modeling of world with specific characteristics, in contrast to games played from a top-down view (The Sims, Command and Conquer). By providing a situated learning matrix with a modeled environment and a player’s micro-control over elements in the games system create a complex system of empathy and situated meaning.  Within a community of gamers, the players enters into to Game in order to collaborate with others, gain membership and build on prior knowledge through interaction and relationships with others.

Understanding how modern learning theory applies to elements of digital games, provides a clear picture of how Jewish education could benefit from games and Gaming.  Jewish education uniquely operates in a situated learning matrix design model in which identity development functions to full a goals-driven learning experience through tools, a problem solving space interacting with content new to the learning.  Utilizing games would not only support Jewish education’s vision for a learning experience, but also refine the model.

Jewish education needs to invest resources (designers, time, research, funding and experimentation) into developing the software (games) and social context (Games) for engaging Jewish learners in Jewish education.  Utilizing first person, strategy games and other video game models to develop key skills, relation to content and identity driven goals will offer Jewish educators a refined to that will engage learners, while developing key skills.

To do so will require great investment, patience and high standards for quality.  Yet imagine a first person video game that immerses a Jewish student in Jewish history to solve distinct problems, such as the Chanukkah narrative, Bar Kochba revolt or story of David. Open-ended video games provide a unique model for personal creative experience, in which students could build their own Jewish community, within different historical settings, while collaborating with others, and learning to study Jewish texts of different periods in order to best ascertain appropriate modeling for the game environment. 

Ravsak’s Moot Beit Din in the past, serves as a great offline model for a situated learning matrix engaging students in goals-driven study of text in order to engage in a community of learners in creating a specific content output.  Why not create a Moot Beit Din video game to create both a social context and design elements to develop student’s skills within a community of learning in a fun model.   

The tuly the possibilities are endless. What we need is inspired educators, gamers and funders to invest in gaming NOW. Games are not just another tool to superficially invest in, but in many ways the critical answer to creating cost-effective, dynamic and high engaging Jewish learning opportunities. Through gaming, Jewish educators can break down the walls of distinction between schooling locales, and immerse students at different levels in experience that customize to their game play.  For all the investments our institutions make it curriculum, programming and infrastructure, we need to direct ample amounts of resources to Research and development.   How will engaging in case studies based on Jewish texts impact students once they are immersed a world in which Jewish texts, values and living matter by design?  Through this, Jewish modeling would truly matter in the lives of Jewish youth.

Until now, we have only addressed how games-based learning can impact the players, but what about the gifted students who can be taught and mentored in games based design to become the leaders in this educational transformation? Why not a Jewish summer camp for designing games for Jewish learning? If kindergarteners can do it, why can't any Jewish kid?

If we close our eyes, and go beyond the cultural hubris we feel towards video games, are they not just a well designed form of Experiential Learning? If we can finally embrace in the 21st century experiential learning as a critical form of Jewish education, why not gaming?


  1. yhoffman - let's connect. You can reach me through Rabbi Owen Gottlieb

  2. We are heading towards digital world. Gaming takes a top position in it. Learning the game coding has been difficult for me in the initial stages of my learning. Later joined a game development courses institute which made my learning process very easy and now am able to design very innovative games.

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