Although some video games are non-social, that is the player does not interact with other humans, many of the most popular games are known as Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG). In these games, players both cooperate and compete with other players from around the world. In many of these games, players are grouped in ‘clans,’ ‘guilds,’ and ‘factions,’ with players communicating orally through voice over IP (VoIP). Because of the cooperative nature of these units, and the camaraderie developed through collaborative team play, players can have meaningful social relationships with other players. Indeed, some MMOGs are designed primarily as platforms for social interactions.
Through informal Jewish education, common social activities have been transformed into vehicles of Jewish engagement, utilizing the power of peer groups to reinforce the notion of community and klal yisrael. Video games specifically, and virtual communities in general, present an interesting challenge for Jewish community institutions: How can these activities be transformed into vehicles of informal or even formal Jewish education?
Virtual Jewish communities have in fact emerged. Although not as popular as it once was, “Second Life,” a virtual world where users can freely don a virtual identity, build, explore, and chat (either by VoIP or text) with other ‘residents,’ includes an impressive, even utopian Jewish community. One can find synagogues, yeshivas, museums, and ‘Israel Island,’ which advertises itself as “home to a community of people from around the world who have an interest in Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people.”7 On Israel Island, Israeli music plays in the background and one can find replicas of famous Israeli landmarks and shops. Chabad even has a presence in Second Life, although not officially affiliated with 770.
The virtual economy of Second Life mimics that of the real world. If a resident wants to build a virtual home or store, s/he must first purchase virtual real estate, which can be done directly from Linden Labs, the creator of Second Life, or from other residents. All transactions are made with Second Life’s own currency, which residents can purchase on an exchange market with actual money. For those disconnected from these virtual worlds, it is hard to imagine that one would actually exchange real money for virtual money, but this is indeed the case. In 2009, when Second Life was in its prime of popularity, the value of resident-to-resident transactions totaled $257 million U.S.D.8 To date, Second Life has accumulated 41 million registered residents, and still has about an average of 40,000 residents online at any given time (down by about 30 percent since 2009).9
The virtual market contains an impressive amount of Judaica and Israeli goods. Residents can purchase accessories or clothing for their avatars (their virtual self or character), such as Star of David necklaces, Israel themed t-shirts, kippot, even IDF uniforms. Items such as menorahs, Shabbat candles, and mezuzot can all be purchased.
Second Life is not a true game in that there is no overall competitive objective or goal – no winners or losers. It is more of a sophisticated Internet chat room that harnesses crowd sourcing to develop an elaborate virtual environment, and provides an interesting window in it to the notion of a virtual Jewish identity. It offers some lessons that can shape policy.
It is clear from traveling in Second Life that there is an organic Jewish community and, literally, a market for Jewish content and accessories for residents to proudly display their Yiddishkeit. It is organic in the sense that it was a grass roots creation. The community was not created by a major Jewish institution with deliberate goals of formal and informal education, outreach, connecting Jews around the world, or hasbara. Nevertheless, those are among the functions and features of the community.
Since its creation in 2012, Israel Island has received over 12,000 visitors. As in traditional, non-virtual Jewish communities, participation ranges from those who are active in the community and feel a strong attachment to it, to those who might visit once or only occasionally. Approximately 800 people from all over the world and from various Jewish streams are affiliated with the ‘Israel Island’ group presently.10 There is a weekly Shabbat candle lighting ceremony and special events organized to mark Jewish and Israeli holidays. In 2015, Israel Island’s Yom HaShoah event was attended by about 60 people from around the world and their Yom Haazmaut event by around 100, numbers on par with many Jewish communities around the world.
Considering the relatively low cost of further developing the Island, the number of visitors the island has attracted in the last few years, and the size of its active community, it seems clear that it would be a wise and practical investment for Israel and the Jewish people to continue building Israel Island, and expand its function as platform for Jewish engagement and strengthening community bonds.
Many companies maintain Second Life property for holding meetings and conferences. Rather than listening to a conference call on a telephone, or participating in a video conference call, individuals login to Second Life and travel to a virtual location to participate in a meeting. Jewish organizations should experiment with events and conferences in virtual locations, such as Israel Island, to engage those Jews who are familiar and comfortable with the virtual medium and would be more likely to engage with other Jews there than in real life. It would also be a cost effective way of bringing Jews throughout the world together.
Perhaps because the virtual world challenges and transcends current notions of geographical, national, and organizational borders, it has been thus far overlooked by Jewish organizations, which were largely set up to serve local communities. Therefore, the Government of Israel should strongly encourage the Jewish Agency and other bodies to extend their mandates to include servicing virtual Jewish communities.