Before it housed NYU students with smoothies and laptops during the workday, the Asch Building on Washington Place was known as the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Two years before the fire that scorched Triangle Shirtwaist’s name into history, the women toiling away inside–mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants–had already decided they were fed up with poverty wages, dangerous working conditions, and sexual harassment.
Meeting in the Cooper Union’s Great Hall in November of 1909–the same room in which Mayor Bloomberg delivered the class of 2013’s commencement speech last week–garment workers voted to strike, and over the next several days, 20,000 people walked off the job at Shirtwaist and other major manufacturers.
Now, local iPhone and iPad users can travel back in time to the golden age of Jewish labor organizing through a game called “Jewish Time Jump: New York.”
Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, a Ph.D. candidate in education and Jewish studies at NYU and founder of Jewish games for learning nonprofit* ConverJent, started developing Jewish Time Jump after attending the 2010 Games for Change festival. Then, securing funding from the Covenant Foundation and a team of 20 helpers, he developed a “situated documentary” game that lets you “jump” back in time as a reporter for a fictional newspaper and explore the labor movement around Washington Square Park.
“Games are really often about what’s called contested space,” Gottlieb said. “The labor struggle brings about that contested space.”
Before he was ordained as a Reform rabbi and founded ConverJent–which is incubated by the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership–Gottlieb used to develop software, write for TV and film in LA, and taught modern dance in Israel’s Negev desert. But the game builds on his fascination with women’s history and labor history, which he first studied as an undergrad at Dartmouth.
“I’m really interested in what it means for a young girl, perhaps studying history, that a woman, perhaps not too many years [older], who wouldn’t have had a right to vote, had a role in organizing people and bringing people into the streets,” Gottlieb said.
Jewish Time Jump allows the player to interact those historical characters, too. For example, two central figures in the game are Rose Schneiderman and Pauline Newman–both real New York City garment workers who started organizing around socialist and feminist politics before their 22nd birthdays.
The game, Gottlieb says, was inspired by something called “Dow Day,” developed by Jim Matthews at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dow Day took players back to two days in 1967, when student protests against Dow Chemical for its production of napalm for the Vietnam War escalated into riots on campus. In Dow Day, the player is also a reporter covering the protests for the Wisconsin State Journal, and both games use an open-source platform called ARIS for their mobile augmented realities.
Gottlieb’s goal for Jewish Time Jump, which has been nominated for a Games for Change award, is to get kids more interested in modern Jewish history, in addition to teaching them multiple perspectives. “Players also speak to and sometimes dress as owners and bosses,” he said. “Part of the history that doesn’t get spoken about is that many of those bosses worked their way up through sweatshops–so there’s some complexity.”
Exploring the labor movement through an iPhone or iPad 4G in today’s fashionable, post-industrial Greenwich Village adds another layer of complexity. But the game does take contemporary labor struggles into account, though we can’t say more for fear of giving away spoilers.
“The game clearly raises issues of values,” Gottlieb said. “We’re hoping it’s a multiperspectival experience.”
*The original version of this piece mischaracterized ConverJent’s organizational status. We regret the error.