Informing Digital Designs with Jewish Practice

Jessica Hammer's picture

Recently, I spent three days showing my work at the game festival IndieCade. As a scholar who strives to unify game research and design, having one of my pieces selected for exhibition was an honor, and reminded me that bridging two worlds can enrich both. As a player and colleague, the festival was less successful. More than a hundred designers, both in academia and outside it, brought their best work. There were virtual reality games, controllers made from inflatable toys, and photographic experiences. Every single game pushed forward the field of game design – and I could play very few.

What most of the games at the festival had in common was digital technology: laptops, phones, microcontrollers, and more. Even the non-digital games often incorporated writing or drawing. What these elements have in common is that they are forbidden on Shabbat and the major Jewish holidays. I am an observant Jew, guiding my life by the ancient laws of halacha. I spent the first two days of Sukkot, and the Shabbat immediately following, as an isolated island in a sea of play. I could look, but I could not touch. Every time I heard a laugh or a shout of triumph from players, I was reminded that I did not truly belong.

While it is rare for me to attend a game event over a major holiday, the tension between my Jewish and scholarly lives is omnipresent. Every week, I observe the Sabbath. Although I am a professor of computer science, I spend twenty-five hours without technology. Every year, as the fall semester starts, I prepare three Thanksgiving-level celebrations in the course of three weeks; this period typically falls either during the early stages of teaching or against the largest professional deadline of my year. While my collaborators and students are generally understanding of this conflict, I’ve had to turn down opportunities ranging from leading a conference committee to speaking at the White House. I hate to say no, and I accommodate where I can, but if I can’t do it all then living as a Jew comes first.

Part of why I make this choice is because I refuse to compromise my heritage for the convenience of a Christian-dominated society. But it is also because my engagement with Jewish observance makes me a better scholar in the long run.

First, halacha reminds me that digital is not everything. On Shabbat, and more often during the holidays, I put my devices down. But Shabbat is not a time of deprivation; it is a time of celebration. During the twenty-five hours I am away from the digital world, I am commanded to rejoice. I eat leisurely meals with my family, I nap, I read, I sing – and I play. I can’t play Call of Duty or Candy Crush, but physical play, card games, board games, role-playing games are all, so to speak, on the table. I bring those experiences back to my professional life, in which the digital can easily take center stage. These games help me see that there is a continuity between games using different platforms, and that the principles of game design apply whether the rules are being processed by the human brain or a computer. As a result, my research values and includes non-digital games. Sometimes that means exploring how to augment non-digital games with at-the-table apps or other technology, but sometimes it means studying other aspects of non-digital games, like how non-digital game pieces can shape the way players use their bodies.

Second, halacha helps me critically analyze the values and ideals of my field. Game designers often talk about “elegance” in game design, where a small number of rules produce a range of interesting outcomes and play experiences, or about games as the fruitful elaboration of a small number of core play experiences. While randomness and other types of uncertainty are central to game design, ambiguity, conflicting perspectives, and unpredictability are not. Halacha is also a system of rules, but it violates every one of these assumptions. The Talmud alone contains millions of words, not to mention the complexity of commentaries, legal compilations, and responsa. The goal is not to create a clean, comprehensible system, but to embrace messy complexity, to capture and appreciate diverging opinions, to find and often exploit legal loopholes. The saying “Two Jews, three opinions” reflects not cantankerousness, but rather Jewish respect for this system, in which fastidious attention to detail (what, exactly, makes food count as a meal rather than a snack?) is paired with respect for ambiguity and for the range of opinions that can be derived from a halachic process. As a result, I feel a particular scholarly affinity with role-playing games, particularly those that provide a sprawling body of text for players to engage with, and in which players are asked to apply the game rules in complex and unpredictable ways. Games like Ars Magica and 7th Sea feel familiar to me, and so I am able to take them on their own terms rather than trying to fit them into an ideal of what games “ought” to be like.

Finally, halacha keeps me centered on the power of community. Multi-player games are typically more complex, both to make and to study, than single-player games. When I struggle with networking libraries, multi-party game balance, recruiting playtesters, or conversational analysis, it is tempting to make experiences for just one person at a time. But long years of observance have taught me that if doing things is powerful, doing things together is better. On Passover, for example, I gather friends around the Seder table to study together, sing together, eat together, and bare our hearts together. It is an experience we share at the time it happens, but we also reference it often throughout the year. The Seder ritual doesn’t stay at the Seder table. It lives in the relationships it has transformed, and this relational transformation is a design aspiration for my own work. What conversations will continue long beyond the game’s end? How will people know one another better afterwards? And how can I make the space of play a holy space?

At IndieCade, I watched people play Magia Transformo, in which players dress up as witches and follow the instructions on screen-enabled “spellbooks” to perform a magical dance. The designer pointed out something fascinating. As the first step of the dance, players are asked to circle to the left – and in every single game he’d seen, at least one player circled with their finger on their spellbook rather than moving their body. The world we live in is being shaped, both for better and for worse, by the ubiquity of screens and by our absorption in devices. Games can disrupt the easy defaults of our lives. They can shake us back into our bodies, help us embrace ambiguity and conflict, or make us connected to people we might not otherwise know. These experiences in turn can shape our religious and spiritual lives, helping us better understand the practice of religion through play.