Gaming Maimonides
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Gaming Maimonides

Dr. Owen Gottlieb makes fun from the Mishneh Torah

A game of “Lost and Found” in progress.
A game of “Lost and Found” in progress.

Owen Gottlieb is looking to his native New Jersey — he grew up in Park Ridge — to help answer a question: Has he designed a board game that only Maimonides could love?

Or is “Lost and Found” a game that can find a place in both a school curriculum and a family game night?

Now Dr. Gottlieb is bringing “Lost and Found” to a North Jersey high school classroom to test that question.

That Maimonides would have loved “Lost and Found,” had it been around when he ruled on Jewish law in 12th century Cairo, seems pretty sure. The game revolves around how players deal with finding lost objects — do they return them or try to keep them? — based on the details of Jewish law described in Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah. And the game’s central challenge is for players to balance family and community needs — which fits with the Maimonidean principle of the “golden way” of moderation.

“Games are rule-based systems,” Dr. Gottlieb said. “And legal systems also are rule-based systems.” So the question became: “Could we come up with a game that models legal cases as a way to look at rabbinic literature?”

Dr. Owen Gottlieb

If anyone could do that, it would be Dr. Gottlieb. An ordained Reform rabbi, he earned a Ph.D. from New York University in Jewish studies and education, focusing on game design. He now lives in Rochester, New York, where he is a professor of interactive games and media at the Rochester Institute of Technology and leads the initiative in religion, culture, and policy at the school’s MAGIC Center, which is both a research laboratory and a game publishing studio, with its students providing play testing and design talents.

And so far reviewers think Dr. Gottlieb has succeeded. “Lost and Found” won a bronze medal in the International Serious Play Competition, and it is one of 15 games selected to appear at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s annual arcade day this summer, alongside virtual reality games and such video games as “Red Hot Ricochet.”

To be accurate, “Lost and Found” actually is two games. There is the original game, which, like “Settlers of Cataan” or “Tickets to Ride,” makes players decide how to use their resources strategically. But the differences between Dr. Gottlieb’s game and the classics are deeper than collecting dinars and funding synagogues rather than collecting ore and building cities, as players do in “Settlers.” There are events that include the Jewish holidays. There’s the chance to act above and beyond the law, which might earn a bonus, or to transgress the law by using something that belongs to someone else — with the risk of getting caught. Luckily, the game includes a repentance phase.

In its first draft, the game modeled Maimonides so well that it took 24 hours to play. The published version simplifies some details and is designed to take under 90 minutes to play.

And then there is “Lost and Found: Order in the Court,” a party game in which players compete to tell the best story, using the cards in their hand, to go along with a legal ruling from the Mishneh Torah. Think law school students using the cards from “Apples to Apples” or “Cards Against Humanity” as prompts to discuss legal principles.

“It’s two totally different game mechanics for discussing the Mishneh Torah,” Dr. Gottlieb said.

A card from the game.

“One talks about the ideals of the cultural milieu and trade-off decisions. The other, the details of cultural reasoning. The party game came about because we were listening to what people were saying as they were playing the other game.”

Dr. Gottlieb brings an eclectic background to game design.

“As a kid, I was always designing games,” he said, but he didn’t see it as a profession. He started out as a dancer, and worked as a screen and television writer and in the software industry before entering rabbinical school. He started his doctoral program in Jewish education at NYU in 2010, shortly after the rise of a “Games for Change” movement that sought to create a better class of educational board and video games than those many of us remember with little fondness from our school days.

At NYU, “I could bring together my disparate passions in art, technology, Torah learning, and game design,” he said.

What would his younger self have thought about these games? “A young me would say, ‘This is cool. Someone developed this cool piece of media that is about Jewish topics. It’s interesting and exotic and I’m curious.’

Another card from the game.

“Lost and Found,” he said, is for teenagers; “Order in the Court” can start in junior high. But he notes his experience at a key moment in the history of board games. That was in 1993, when he was an undergraduate at Dartmouth. Some his friends were among the first play testers for “Magic: The Gathering,” which became one of the most popular games today. “It was being played across the Dartmouth campus. Within a few years, fifth graders were playing it.”

Which brings us back to Dr. Gottlieb’s question for a North Jersey classroom: How does the game integrate with a curriculum?

As an academic rather than a commercial game developer, this classroom experiment counts as the sort of research that requires approval by an institutional review board to ensure its ethics. Dr. Gottlieb did not seek permission to disclose the name of the school where “Lost and Found” is being tested.

The school is not, as you might expect, a Jewish school.

“I was at a game development conference in San Francisco, talking with a colleague in Hungary who has a game that overlaps with Jewish issues,” he said. “He had a game in competition. I met a teacher who had collaborated on that game. We started talking and he said was doing a section on the 12th century in his class. We hit it off.”

Another card from the game.

The focus of the research in that teacher’s Bergen County classroom will be on “developing an optimal curriculum to use with the games” as the teacher “melds the games into his own curriculum. We’ll apply that data, and then shift the curriculum based on what we learn.”

This whole process will take “three to five years, probably, depending on whether we get funding or not.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Gottlieb and his team at the MAGIC Center are working on an expansion set for the strategy game. This will focus on Islamic rather than Jewish law.

“We know Maimonides was clearly reading the great Arabic jurisprudence like Averroes and Al-Ghazali” Dr. Gottlieb said. “We’ve found sections of the law where Maimonides was making decisions on public health based on antecedents of what he read in Islamic law. It’s interesting to see the cross-pollination.”

The two “Lost and Found” games are not yet sold in stores, but they can be ordered from www.lostandfoundthegame.com.

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