The 2011 Horizon Report foregrounds games based learning as one of the emergent trends in global education. There is a great deal that can be said about this, and clearly much of the best practice experimentation will revolve around which sorts of games provide the best learning opportunities in online, and classroom contexts.
I would like to look at one type of game that I have been playing online for a number of years, which I think has some merit in this regard: the Matrix Game. Matrix Games were developed by Chris Engle. Essentially they are simple pen and paper, or oral games in which the players present an argument, within a given context or scenario, of what they think should happen, drawing upon the matrix of possible reasons and motivations available in real life. These arguments are rated by the Games Master, and a simple roll of the die determines whether they happen or not.
There have been some interesting developments and additions to this mechanism over the years, such as the thrust and parry system, in which players parry other players’ arguments by suggesting how slightly different results are achieved. But essentially the mechanism of argument with reason remains in place. When used in the classroom, or for training purposes, specific mechanisms might have to be looked at, but essentially the Classic Engle Matrix Game remains a powerful tool for any teacher interested in exploring gaming mechanisms.
I would suggest that anyone wanting to give it a try, joins the yahoogroups list serve and play a game before trying it. The group is very happy to help out with suggestions and commentary as well. One of my big regrets is not having played a game in a while! 😦
Most games begin with the Games Master setting out a scenario and a list of characters. Players choose which characters they wish to play, and the Games Master starts the game by asking the first player to make an argument. Each player follows in sequence, or jumping in when they wish, with arguments succeeding or failing. A narrative thus unfolds, with which the players engage to achieve whatever goals they have been set, or develop for themselves.
To give you an idea of the flavour of the game, here is a possible argument by a player in a game about time travel:
“I pick up the shovel and use it to break open the treasure chest. Inside I find gold, and riches beyond my wildest dreams. This happens because I have the treasure map I stole from the pirates back in 1769, and because I overheard them telling where they had set the trap, enabling me to avoid it!” The Games Master rules this argument average, and requires a 4,5 or 6 on a die roll to work!
Notice the structure of argument and motivation. While some players tend to role-play, writing narratives in the style of the scenario, others blandly state what they wish to see happen and why. Both styles are considered valid.
There are two things which chiefly commend the matrix game in the classroom, I believe.
Firstly the very simple game mechanics are easy to run both in the classroom, and via a list serve. Secondly, that any situation, context, scenario can be used. The engine is nothing other than the imagination of the players, and the expertise of the Games Master. The Games Master, who can be another student, or the teacher has the primary role of ensuring that the game mechanics and turn-taking run smoothly, but would also be ideally placed to ensure that learning opportunities within the game are exploited.
Several years ago I ran a game (which married the matrix game with the role play game genre) as part of a Life Orientation class I was giving with 16 year olds. The game explored themes of collaboration and co-operation in a mythical adventure in which each party had to try to steal the Dragon’s egg. The players were in groups and I roved around the room, adjudicating arguments as they were raised by the players, giving each group a chance to discuss their next move and frame reasons for success. By rating all arguments that favoured co-operative behaviours as strong, and individual loose-cannon approaches as weak, I was trying to make some kind of pedagogical impact. The players seemed to enjoy the adventure, and came to some breath-taking solutions to the obstacles I had planned for them. In the debriefing, what did you learn session, I cannot say that co-operation was amongst the most mentioned outcomes, but a surprisingly rich array of life skills were discussed, which made the lesson far richer than my original lesson design.
The fact that the Matrix Game is driven by the players rather than the Games Master is probably a huge plus for classroom applications, rather than a disadvantage. Crucially the game provides a shared experience which can be used as material for discussion.
I have only ever run a Matrix Game in a classroom, but I have played on the yahoogroups list serve in a number of memorable games, and It would work well via email off a school Moodle, for example.