Jewish museum in S.F. launches iPad game for California Dreaming exhibit

The year is 1853, and as you look at your iPad, you take on the persona of a Jewish immigrant to San Francisco, freshly arrived by boat and looking for help to get settled. Soon you are greeted by a mustachioed August Helbing of the Eureka Benevolent Society, who asks if you need lodging.

This is how a new iPad-based game begins. But you can’t buy it at the App Store.

It’s an interactive game that has been introduced by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco to accompany its exhibit “Cali-fornia Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.” The game is largely for school groups visiting the museum, but it made its public debut May 30 and is now available for limited public use on selected Sundays.

Trying out “California Dreaming: The Game” are (from left) Ledryn Orozco, Simone Hudson and Monique Orea.

This month, on June 10 and 17 between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., people can check out one of six iPads from the family table in the CJM’s lobby and play “California Dreaming: The Game.” The opportunity to play is included with museum admission, and other public-use dates have been scheduled for July 8 and 22, Aug. 12 and 26 and Sept. 9.

Designed to guide users through a non-linear tour of the exhibit, it takes about 30 minutes to finish, and is mostly character- and story-based; there is no animation, high-tech graphics or moving images. It is played on a series of touch screens loaded with images, maps, archival data and text that parallels the content of the museum installation.

“It feels like a new experience because I’m on my own path,” said Simone Hudson, 18, a museum volunteer who recently tried out the game. “I’m not a fan of the conveyer belt museum exhibit.”

In playing the game for the first time, Hudson and her friend, Monique Orea, voiced the dialogue of different characters.

A screen shot from the game

“We as a generation do a lot of reading on screens,” Hudson said. “I have many peers who prefer reading novels on their Kindles and newspaper articles on their laptops”

The historical material in the game is not different from what is in the gallery exhibit, but the game allows users — particularly families, children and teens — to connect exhibit elements from separate locations.

“Gaming is one of the ways the museum is focused on visitor engagement,” said Denise Childs, the CJM’s interim chief operating officer. “While in no way intended to replace how visitors connect inside the museum, technological advances afford us the ability to draw from a greater tool chest for interacting with visitors.”

The game is particularly aimed at youth from fourth grade through high school. With financial support from the Jewish education–focused Covenant Foundation, CJM joined with educational gaming experts Global Kids to design the game and pilot it with student groups. The response has been enthusiastic, said Fraidy Aber, the museum’s education director.

“They love it,” she said. “Youth in particular are enthusiastic at the chance to use an iPad while exploring a museum exhibition.”

The game is part of a larger CJM effort to promote educational gaming. In February, the museum conducted a full-day workshop for teachers from five local Jewish day schools that not only introduced the iPad game, but also taught teachers how to develop other educational games for their classrooms (with the open-source platform ARIS).

Those with ARIS on their iPads and iPhones can play the game for free in the museum. As for the museum’s iPad supply, officials have yet to decide whether they will get more or whether they will be available to the public more often. The “California Dreaming” exhibit, which opened last November, is scheduled to close Oct. 16.