The pandemic has emptied the real world of its people, and in its absence two virtual worlds have grown up to replace it. One of those worlds is Zoom, and if you’re wondering how much people like it—well, just search the phrase “Zoom fatigue.” The other world is Animal Crossing, and it is everything that Zoom is not.
If you’re not familiar, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game for Nintendo Switch that was released to great acclaim a little more than a month ago. In Animal Crossing, you play as a human living on your own personal island full of adorable talking animals. You can build houses, farm, design your own clothing, play music, and interact with your real-life friends, all at a leisurely pace. There is no final boss in Animal Crossing; in fact, the game has no ending to speak of. The whole experience is designed to feel like a kinder version of the real world; even its day/night cycles and seasons are based on your own time zone and location.
Right now, Americans are craving games like this: Animal Crossing debuted on March 20, just as lockdowns began in earnest and the first staggering unemployment numbers were being reported. More than 5 million copies have been sold since its release, and demand for the console itself has so outstripped supply that units now sell for more than double the retail price on eBay.
Why do people adore Animal Crossing and dread Zoom? It’s not just that one is play and the other is work. It’s that Animal Crossing is its own little universe, not just a collection of talking heads. When you talk to friends and characters in Animal Crossing, you feel like you’re in a real place—and because it’s a real place, there is a joy in simply being there, in the space you want, with the clothes you want, with the friends and trees and buildings and body you want. On Animal Crossing, existence is an art form. On Zoom, meanwhile, existence is a binary: You can be either muted or unmuted, and that’s the end of the list.
Let’s dwell on the mute feature for a moment, because its importance to the Zoom experience points to exactly why the platform feels so insufficient. The feature is crucial because it stops participants from hearing echoes and other people’s screaming children. But muting is a strange way of maintaining order. In the real world, you don’t need to cover your mouth with duct tape when someone else is speaking; you glance at the room, note that someone else has the floor, and keep your mouth shut. Sometimes, as you probably still remember, you can even whisper to the person next to you without causing any trouble at all.
Zoom doesn’t let you do these things; its very design makes them impossible. Whispering only works when the idea of the “person next to you” has meaning, and “reading the room” requires that there is a room to be read. Zoom eschews these gentler practices not because they’re bad, but because they require a meeting space that has a geography, that is more than just a collection of randomly ordered faces, that is more than just a featureless container for its occupants—in other words, on the subtle elements that give us a sense of place. Without these elements, group interaction is drained of nuance. When we meet in a place that is no place at all, we are left with only the crudest dualism: Either you’re speaking, or you’re not.
The problem of placelessness means that Zoom—unlike Animal Crossing—is fine for lectures and small meetings, but is absolutely incapable of simulating social settings like cafés or parties, which rely on physical space to let people participate in one conversation while soaking in the ambient noise from a dozen others. For Jewish educators, this is a particular problem, because the most important Jewish educational space—the beit midrash—is exactly the kind of cacophonous environment that Zoom cannot replicate.
The inability to simulate noisiness isn’t a small problem; the beit midrash is defined by noise the way the library is by silence. There is nothing in the world that sounds quite like a roomful of people paired off and fighting vigorously over the meaning of difficult Jewish texts. The tumult of the beit midrash is meant to energize, but it also informs; one is supposed to overhear one’s neighbors, to drop into other people’s arguments, to request help from anyone present and give help to any who ask, to “ask the beit midrash” by buttonholing people until one’s question is answered, all without fear that one is speaking out of turn.
Zoom can’t replicate this because it’s not a real place—but Animal Crossing can’t replicate it either because it’s a place meant only for play. To build a better virtual beit midrash, educators need something like Animal Crossing, but designed for education. This environment actually already exists, and it already has a lot of the tools that educators need to take a beit midrash fully online, but it’s been treated like an uncool failed experiment. In the midst of this pandemic, it’s worth thinking about what this environment did right and why it’s so promising in this moment.
If you kept Animal Crossing’s customizability but opened it up to the point where it wasn’t even recognizable as a game you’d get Second Life, a radically open, shared virtual world that debuted in 2003 and was hailed as the next big thing online until its sharp decline in the early 2010s (you might remember it from a 2007 episode of The Office, where it was already portrayed with extreme skepticism). Second Life’s openness encouraged real-world organizations to join; it hosted an unofficial Chabad House for a time.
Second Life never really caught on; its peak user base was only one-fifth of what Animal Crossing has already achieved. Successors in the shared-world genre have made technical advances, but the zeitgeist has passed them by: None of these worlds has truly caught fire, and none of them has become a popular refuge for those currently cooped up at home. Though these worlds are not games, they are treated as gaming alternatives; as a result, they are passed over by gamers looking for environments with a stronger sense of purpose, and they are also ignored by nongamers, who see them as childish and unprofessional. If you look past the lack of coolness, though, something exciting emerges: These open-world environments are fully capable—as in, right now—of simulating a complete beit midrash, from the cacophony of the space to the physical building itself.
To understand the potential, let me tell you about one experience with one platform. Last Monday night, I attended an event in AltspaceVR; it was a slideshow presentation about VR headsets set on a simulated Manhattan rooftop, at sunset, with a few dozen avatars in attendance. The presenters were at the front of the room, but as I walked away from them, their voices receded, more in one ear than the other, just as they would in real life. AltspaceVR, like Zoom, allows you to mute yourself, but it also lets you choose how loudly to speak, so you can decide whether to speak to one person or a whole room. A small button on screen allowed me to pull up a browser window, which could be repositioned anywhere in the environment and was visible only to me. Browser open, I navigated to the first page of the Talmud on sefaria.org and positioned my screen next to another avatar—my would-be study partner. Less than 15 minutes after downloading a free piece of software clearly not designed for the purpose, I had found a way to build a plausible virtual beit midrash.
This not to say everything is ready to go. AltspaceVR does not feel like a serious space, its graphics are distractingly ugly, it doesn’t work on MacOS, and it’s designed with VR users in mind. Still, the proof of concept is already there, and motivated early adopters can use it or its competitors to understand how to design a product that is better suited for the needs of the beit midrash. While this will take work, it will not take breakthroughs. All the necessary elements are already there. A virtual beit midrash—a real virtual beit midrash—could be built by motivated developers in less than a year.
Imagine it: You are sitting in a virtual representation of a building, in a room filled with chairs and tables and avatars. Your avatar is sitting at a table across from another avatar, your text of choice in a heads-up display next to them. You have a question but don’t know the answer, so you walk your avatar over to the smart guy in the corner and bug them for an answer. They don’t know, either, so you raise your voice a bit and ask the room. When you’re bored, you wander around. When your study partner leaves, you can continue to bask in the sound of the space. That’s what a virtual beit midrash should let you do.
The love affair between Torah study and computing is old, and it has born much fruit. The Bar Ilan Responsa Project, which digitizes Jewish texts, will soon celebrate its 60th birthday. The entire Talmud is available in English and searchable for free. Almost every fragment of the Cairo Genizah can be accessed through a smartphone app, and software developers run machine-learning algorithms on Jewish texts as part of their religious practice. Computing is so well integrated into the learning of Torah that the two can no longer be separated. Jews have embraced computers in the service of religious study with the same passion that they have rejected them in the service of Sabbath observance.
This history of computational trailblazing should now lead us, I believe, to the truly virtual beit midrash—and from the beit midrash, which is a largely self-regulating environment for adults, to other educational settings. Advances in graphics processing, VR, and internet connectivity have made virtual environments more enticing than ever, and the pandemic’s long tail may mean that group gatherings are complicated long after the worst is over; they will not replace reality, but they may heavily supplement it. While Second Life floundered, the success of Animal Crossing signals that there is now strong interest for purpose-driven, virtual immersive environments. The beit midrash can be one such environment. The time for the idea is now.
David Zvi Kalman is a Fellow in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the founder of an independent Jewish publishing house.