Re‐Playing Maimonides' Codes: Designing Games to Teach Religious Legal Systems

October, 2018

Source: Teaching Theology & Religion, Volume 21, Issue4, Special Issue: Games & Learning, Pages 246-259


Lost & Found is a game series, created at the Initiative for Religion, Culture, and Policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology MAGIC Center. The series teaches medieval religious legal systems. This article uses
the first two games of the series as a case study to explore a particular set of processes to conceive, design, and develop games for learning. It includes the background leading to the author's work in games and teaching religion, and the specific context for the Lost & Found series. It discusses the rationale behind working to teach religious legal systems more broadly, then discuss the hermeneutics influencing the approach to understanding the legal systems being modeled and closes with a discussion of the kind of teaching and learning involved in the design of the games and early-stage data on the public play of the games.


This design case has explored the context leading to and the development of two games for learning that use very different game mechanics and approaches to teaching subject matter. The games originated from the desire to merge Jewish learning with contemporary Games for Learning, and from the desire to explore the potential interconnection between games and religious legal systems given their nature as essentially rule‐based systems. How might law codes that were dedicated to realpolitik such as governance, and were simultaneously undergirded by theological principles and constructs, find a new kind of pedagogical form in contemporary game systems? These curiosities and questions led to years of iterative design work between faculty and students exploring subject matter as well as experimenting with various approaches to game design. The game design was player‐centered through regular playtesting and focused on generating both meaningful play and opportunities for curricular development. The games were envisioned not only as rich set inductions but also as providing rich cases for analysis through the act of playing through situations.

The processes of creating the games combined subject matter knowledge in Jewish studies ranging from history to law to architecture and beyond. Faculty brought a variety of knowledge to the table and students and faculty studied material together during design, learning in the process of working to translate that content knowledge into game form. At the same time, a parallel process of accruing game design knowledge developed as faculty-led design while students actively participated and contributed to design conversations. The pedagogical content knowledge developed similarly. I brought exegetical methods for studying religious law that I learned from Chernick and Diamond to the design team, allowing us to delve into and unpack the texts. Then, as faculty worked on our small study with teens, we also developed new hypotheses of how the games could potentially be built into the curriculum. The second game originated out of our new pedagogical content knowledge and our curiosity as to whether we could shift discourse from trade‐off decisions to a meta‐legal analysis. And so, the iterative and exploratory cycles occurred in all through knowledge areas. As our research proceeds, we will develop and integrate curriculum for the games, while expanding the series as we gather and analyze data from play.

Working with a diverse set of experts makes games in particular subject matter areas possible, as different voices add to the project and provide depth and breadth across content knowledge, pedagogic content knowledge, and design knowledge. Using the expertise of the Games and Learning community and built by learning scientists 5 and researcher‐designers across a broad spectrum, over a decade of research is now available to help inform new work in games and religion. At the same time, given that little Games and Learning work has been done in a new design for religious learning and literacy, there is also an opportunity to expand the research, design, and literature in this area.

Examining and teaching legal systems provides the opportunity to explore pro‐social aspects of religion. Legal systems hold implications not only for theological and ethical decision making but for governance structures, both centuries old and contemporary. They can provide a platform for seeking to understand religious law in historical and geographical contexts. Unlike contemporary law, the medieval codes often preserved specific situated struggles. While not the most efficient structure of writing a legal code, they can provide specific and provocative cases for play – opportunities for discussion.
At a time when governance and democracy are being challenged in new ways, it is especially relevant to see how even just a few verses in Deuteronomy could lead to extensive governance structures, structures that pre‐figure modern day legal systems. With games, we can explore these models of governance for hints about how we might find better ways to collaborate and cooperate today while developing new knowledges for teaching, learning, and designing.

Updated: Nov. 14, 2018