Augmented-Reality Game Brings a Story of Jewish Labor Organizers Back to Life

Discovering the tale of a massive 1909 garment-workers strike in New York City's Greenwich Village


There is a feeling you get when you stand on, say, the ground at Gettysburg or the steps of the Lincoln Monument and you know that something momentous, a piece of history, occurred right on that part of the Earth right beneath your feet.

But what about the history that went down at less noted locations, places that you pass every day on your way to work or when you take your dog out for a walk? It's easy to never see those stories, to relegate them to museums and books, away from the physical locations where they took place. But what if the city itself became our history museum, and its sites bore their pasts more prominently?

This is essentially what happens in a new game for iPad and iPhone called Jewish Time Jump. The game takes place right on the same ground as the history it tells, and as the players progress, they "encounter" people, events, and other historical artifacts on their device, triggered via GPS by their arrival at certain locations.

Players are journalists who work for The Jewish Time Jump Gazette. The game begins with a meeting with their editor, who sends them back to the early 20th century "on a quest to find a story that has been lost to time, and then bring that story back to their editor in the present day," the game's co-designer, producer, and writer Rabbi Owen Gottlieb told me. (The game is funded by The Covenant Foundation and the organization that produced it, ConverJent, is incubated at Clal-The National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership.)

When the players begin their reporting, they soon learn that a major story is unfolding: They've arrived at New York City's Washington Square Park just months before  the Uprising of 20,000, a massive garment-industry strike in 1909, led primarily by Jewish women workers in protest of the harsh and unsafe conditions in the shirtwaist factories. Gottlieb wouldn't reveal too much about the specifics of the plot -- he doesn't want to ruin it for anyone -- but the history is known: One year after the strike ended in February of 1910, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames just half a block from Washington Square Park, killing 146, mostly young Jewish and Italian women.

As players travel around the park and the nearby streets of Greenwich Village, historical artifacts such as photographs and newspaper pages (with important passages translated into English, if in Yiddish) will appear on their devices, many of which were digitized especially for this game as they came from non-digitized archives. A video explaining the game for parents and educators shows how this all works:

Players will also "meet" characters whom they'll interview for their story -- factory bosses, journalists, workers, and labor organizers, such as Rose Schneiderman, Pauline Newman, and Fannia Cohn. "What if 12-, 13-year-old girls, for example," Gottlieb said to me, "are learning about women just a few years older than they are who led tens of thousands of people out of those factories?" Will that make the history more meaningful to them?

Gottlieb says he chose the story of the uprising for a couple of reasons: For one, it was actually possible. "You need some type of media to do augmented reality with," he says, and the strike was well-documented in the press of the time (pictures of the park were harder to find, but they managed, says Gottlieb). For another, it's just a beautiful play space, and an often neglected one in terms of Jewish history, at least compared with the Lower East Side which is just a short trip away. Also, the story really spoke to Gottlieb. "I personally am interested in labor and women's history. There are figures in Jewish women's history that very few people know about who are absolutely fascinating," he said. With his game, he could give those people and their stories new life.

But, with renewed attention on worker conditions in the garment industry around the world, there were reasons not specific to New York City or Jewish history to focus the game on the Uprising of 20,000. "Making the material relevant to today is a very important part of teaching history," Gottlieb remarked. "Sadly, that is very easy to do with this game."