Have you heard of the new cell phone game that lets you sacrifice animals in the name of religion? Just boot up your iPhone, head to the app store, download the program “Leviticus!,” and, voila, you will be chopping off heads like a regular shohet in no time.
If that’s not your speed, perhaps you can be interested in a noir-like murder mystery game called “The Shivah.” You play Russell Stone, a Lower East Side rabbi who mysteriously ends up with a boatload of money when one of the members of his congregation is killed.
There’s also an upcoming game called “Imagination is the Only Escape,’ which takes place during the Holocaust; a satirical game, “Angry Jew,” which has you playing a Jewish character who fights back against old stereotypes; and “Let’s Bake Challah,” a game that let’s you sit down and make your own tasty and braided (digital) loaf of bread.
Video games aren’t usually considered faith-based affairs, at least not for the Jewish people. While Christianity has found its place in lesser-known programs like “King of King’s” and “Noah’s Ark” (the game, not the Bible story), Judaism has played second fiddle, with its identity and traditions relatively non-existent on touch-screen.
However, in the last few years, there has been a greater production of games involving some aspect of the Jewish people that, unique in both story and structure, are all indebted to a Jewish event or tradition.
Overall, these games can be split into two categories: some are more religious and education-based, while others focus more on events in which Judaism plays a part in the storyline, but doesn’t act as the specific anchor of the game as a whole.
To find out what’s behind this recent trend — and to get a closer look at these products — The Times of Israel spoke to several designers and experts in the field.
Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, a PhD Candidate in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU specializing in Digital Media and Games for Learning, says he’s been predicting a movement like this for several years.
‘There is a playfulness of rabbinic literature and a history of our culture tied with games and simulation’
“There’s definitely something happening in the soil. I started talking about this in 2010…and now things are starting to, I think, take off,” he says. “There is a playfulness of rabbinic literature and a history of our culture tied with games and simulation, and that’s a really important part of my work. So there’s something going on, definitely.”
Gottlieb is the founder of ConverJent, an organization that uses analog and digital games to teach Judaism (the organization is incubated at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership). After launching, he went on to design and write a mobile game called “Jewish Time Jump: New York,” which let’s you play a reporter who travels back in time to Greenwich Village in the 1900s. Using your smartphone, you are tasked with walking around the neighborhood to gather clues for your story. Thanks to your phone’s GPS, when you hit certain geographical points, historical events that occurred in that location will pop up on screen.
Another game that fits under the games-for-learning movement is Sarah Lefton’s “Leviticus!” The source material is the Book of Leviticus, specifically Chapters 1 and 2 of Vayirka. Through the Fruit Ninja-like method of using your finger to chop off the heads of healthy animals, thereby offering sacrifice, the game gives you a more entertaining (and addictive) way to connect with religious material.
No surprise that “Leviticus!” has been a big hit with teens, who may be more inclined to goof off than sit down and study an ancient text.
To Lefton, the founder of G-dcast — which produces “Leviticus!” and ‘Let’s Bake Challah,” among others — doing a game based on the Bible was always a no-brainer.
“I was sitting and reading [the Book of Leviticus] a couple years ago. I was just kind of diagramming it and I was like, ‘Man, this is just a game.’ It’s just rules and rewards and punishment,” says Lefton.
Video games as educational vehicle represents a new Jewish phenomenon, one that could bring in a younger generation whose lives are commanded by smartphones and other digital mediums.
“There’s a flowering of interest in games right now because of the whole app market phenomenon. It’s finally broken through to people that casual games are perhaps a better way to entertain than big-budget console games,” Lefton explains.
However, not all of the current and future video games steeped in Jewish identity are based on history or take place on a phone. Some only use Judaism as a vehicle for telling the overall story, like Dave Gilbert did with his 2006 title “The Shivah.”
Unlike Gottlieb’s and Lefton’s games, “The Shivah” is less about religion than it is about using Jewish traditions to help advance the overall plot.
‘Even though it’s about a rabbi, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a religious game’
“I am not particularly religious, but I was sort of inspired to write something a little on the Jewish side to reconnect with that side of myself,” says Gilbert, who is currently in the process of remaking “The Shivah” for cell phones. “Even though it’s about a rabbi, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a religious game. It’s not trying to teach or preach or convert anybody. But it’s definitely something unique to the New York Jewish experience, which is something I tried to get across in making it.”
While the response to “Leviticus!,” “Jewish Time Jump,” and “The Shivah” have all been mostly positive, that hasn’t been the case for every game in this trend. One of them, “Imagination is the Only Escape,” lets you see the Holocaust through the eyes of a child.
For creator Luc Bernard, he wanted to capture not only how horrible the Holocaust was for the Jewish people, but for humanity overall. Nevertheless, finding investors for the game was difficult.
‘Any time you mention interactive media and doing the Holocaust everybody goes “Oh my God, I can’t touch that”‘
“Imagination” was originally being considered as a potential Nintendo DS title, but was eventually passed over due to lack of funding (Bernard is now funding it himself and hopes to release it next year). That didn’t come as much of a surprise to Bernard, who knew he was treading controversial waters with a game of this nature.
“Nobody wants to touch this subject, because any time you mention interactive media and doing the Holocaust everybody goes ‘Oh my God, I can’t touch that,’” he says.
“Some people are really offended by it, some people are for it. I just think that organizations that would want to help out with more education about the Holocaust don’t really know what my medium is. They probably don’t understand video games,” says Bernard .
A similar dilemma has faced Kira Resari. The 26-year-old German game designer is currently making a game that’s arguably more controversial than Bernard’s. Not only does it deal with the Holocaust, it deals specifically with the life of Anne Frank. The game, which takes place in the secret annex, lets you play as Frank and make decisions as her.
“I was asked often if it was really right to do something like that or whether this played down the importance of the life of Anne Frank. But I can say it’s quite the opposite,” he says.
“It’s not like you’re too distant from what’s happening, because you’re actively participating in the life of Anne Frank and you’re putting effort into it.”