Category Archives: Mind Sports

Blog Based Games, Matrix Games and Student Writing

campaignDo boys write? Of course they do, but it sometimes feels not unlike enforced dentistry. I have found, however, that given the right setting, boys will write copiously, fluently, and largely grammatically! Boys will write a great deal about subjects they care about. They do so happily on forum postings and fan sites.

I run a Mind Sports Club at my sons’ school, and have found that the club members generate a great deal of writing around games played at the club on the club blog site. When the club started back in 2008, I started a campaign game – based on the wargames campaign popularized by Tony Bath. Each player takes the role of a leader in the ancient world. They receive resources and can raise armies, build roads and cities, wage war, make peace, build alliances or conquer continents. Each week players would submit a set of orders detailing what they wanted to do, and I would adjudicate based on common sense and a roll of the die. If there were battles, players would wargame this using DBx rules. Every week I would bring out a newsletter which reported the events of the previous week which were common knowledge, and players would get private reports.

I didn’t plan it, but the newsletter became so popular students started writing their own entries, and I moved the newsletter to a blog, allowing players to post their own stories. The campaign game then became more of a joint narrative creation exercise and started dominating the game itself. Players would use the blog to further their game position, spread propaganda, or simply let their imaginations run riot.

The campaign go way too much for me to handle, but was so popular that club members have resurrected it, and one of them has taken over as Games Master. Interestingly enough they have chosen to run the campaign from the blog itself, so all announcements are made on the blog, and players email the GM their orders. This shows that students saw the blog as a vehicle for their play, and enjoyment.

space truckersThe Mind Sports Club is an extra-mural activity, and I think that any attempt to bring this kind of writing into the curriculum would be doomed to failure, but one wonders if a blog-based game might not work in the English class. What I have in mind is more of a role play type game. Players would be given a character to play, and victory conditions – aims they need to fulfil, and then make arguments as to what they want to happen in their blog. Other players would leave comments tying to modify the action, and the Teacher/Games Master would use a die roll to decide which outcome was more likely.

This mechanism is based on the Matrix Game invented by Chris Engle, and in particular the thrust and parry variation of the game pioneered by Marcus Young. In this variant players make arguments about what they want to happen (the thrust) and other players make counter-arguments (parries). The GM then decides which is more likely to happen, and rolls a die (D6) to decide. A strong argument might succeed on a roll of 2-6, a weak argument only on a roll of 6. Parries that change arguments only slightly are rated very strong because both players essentially agree, whereas major changes are rated as weak. Unopposed arguments happen automatically.

Telling stories, even in this digital age, still has tremendous power to enchant, and I think this is why the campaign game at the St John’s Mind Sports Club has proven so alluring, and why a matrix type game would work well in the classroom.


Gaming to Learn

starcraftI’m doing a course on coursera on Gaming and Learning and the assignment for the first week is to play a new game for 30 minutes and reflect on your experience. So … this is it. I run a Mind Sports Club at my school, so I’m not exactly a rank newbie, but I don’t really have the time to play games, so I’m not experienced either.

I chose to try to learn how to play Starcraft because I’ve played a bit of DotA/Warcraft before, and that’s what the kids in the club play all the time, but none of them plays Starcraft. What have I played in the strategy game genre before? Age Of Empires really and that’s it! I jumped into the tutorial with some trepidation – I’m a 50-something, and when I watch the kids playing DotA it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me! The tutorial took me through movement, combat, resource production, etc pretty painlessly. The right-click / left-click conventions were similar to other games so most of what was new was the terminology, background narrative, and getting used to what the graphic representation meant and what sort of thing one needed to do to do well in the game.

The tutorial was punctuated by the usual video narratives giving background exposition, and I guess helped set the scene. But I was still pretty nervous. Reading what I was seeing on the screen was not easy. The characters are small, and how do you know one from another? From experience I know that after playing for a bit it becomes familiar, but games have become more difficult for my middle-aged eyes to read!

starcraft 2At this point the fact that I was able to follow the game mechanics so easily calmed my anxieties, and I was able to concentrate on trying to figure out the most that I could about the framing story and game aims. And at that stage my 30 minutes was up …

What did I learn about how I learned? I learned by doing – that is probably the main factor, My fingers started to get used to the movements needed to perform actions quickly enough to be competitive in any game. My brain started to perceive patterns, and drawing on my experience with Age Of Empires I started to wonder about what my own strategy should be. Within moments I was thinking metacognitively.

I also learned immersively. I can’t really remember now, 24 hours later what any of the characters were called, or what the gas they mine is called, but I do have a sense of what it is to be immersed in that world, and some sense of what things I need to be doing to succeed.

And I learned things with a growing sense of wonderment and awe. When my thirty minutes was up, and I had a meeting to go to, I was reluctant to stop. I could quite happily have continued for hours! I wanted to learn more!

To my mind that is a clear indication of what video games have to teach us about learning. They model what it should be like, and so often isn’t in our schools and work-places.

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Posted by on October 5, 2013 in Gaming in Education, Mind Sports, MOOCs


Role Play Games

Playing Role Play Games is often seen as a guilty secret, something which places one slightly above train-spotting and the anorak-brigade! I guess it’s time to come out of the closet and admit to playing RPGs, and to assert that I believe they have a definite, and under-explored place in education. I have used RPGs in the English Second Language classroom from time to time alongside more prosaic role play situations to encourage authentic talk.

For those who are uncertain as to what an RPG is, it is a game in which a number of players assume a role within a scenario created by a Games Master (or Dungeon Master). The DM creates a narrative of events in which the players face situations, puzzles, challenges or combat, and, using a set of rules, resolve these situations to conclude the narrative and propel it forward. A set of die are used to help simulate luck and determine the success or otherwise of player actions. Some DMs are fairly proscriptive, others more free-wheeling in approach. In the most famous RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, parties of adventurers seek fame and fortune in dungeons dreamed up by their Dungeon Master.

In the classroom I create a common scenario, and split the class into groups. Each group represents a party of adventurers. I then circulate continually, adjudicating each action the party has decided on. I don’t use any set rules, merely set what roll of a die is required to succeed in an action, based on a quick assessment of how likely it seems that it would succeed. By moving quickly from group to group each game moves at some pace. By using set situations I am able to remember what each group is up to. The aim is to encourage talk, and it certainly does this. I often used it also as a Friday afternoon lesson when any thought of more serious work would have resulted in rebellion!

Recently, however, I have begun to see the enormous benefits of using RPGs to encourage writing. Players become attached to their characters, and are willing to invest an enormous amount of time and energy in fleshing them out. This includes art-work, and writing about their characters on forums and blogs devoted to the game. I run a Mind Sports Club at my sons’ school and one of the activities they engage in is RPGs. Over the weekend, many of the players use the club website to blog about their characters and the game. The volume of work they produce would amaze their English teachers I am sure!

RPGs (such as Runescape) can also be played online, and are very popular. I am not entirely sure how this loyal fan base can be harnessed by a school to encourage writing, but it seems to me that part of the answer is to take it outside the classroom and into the realm of the extra-curricular activity such as a games club. By creating a club blog or using a social website tool such as you can begin to create a community of students who share a common passion. This is the key to creating the conditions under which students will write copious quantities of writing. I cannot attest to the quality of the writing, but the quantity and enthusiasm displayed by these reluctant writers would astound their English teachers.

The RPG format also allows you to encourage writing of a particular type. A few weeks ago I asked all the players to use their blog to write a motivation why they should be chosen for a special favour in the game. I would choose the player based on what they had written.

From what I have seen on the Mind Sports website of the club, RPGs and social websites can be a powerful tool for promoting writing. How this can be used by a class teacher is not so certain to me, because I know that the moment writing becomes perceived as a chore, the motivation for doing it is lost, and any work produced will be laboured and meaningless.


Skype In The Classroom

Skype has launched a directory which will help teachers connect with each other to find resources, share ideas, and find collaborative projects to engage in with their classes. The interface allows teachers to view existing collaborative projects, email the creator of the project, make comments, or set up their own projects. Projects are categorized and searchable, making it relatively easy to find other teachers looking for similar projects.

I have a feeling that the Skype directory has an advantage over some other dedicated sites, such as e-Pals, because of the ease of access to other interfaces from Skype itself. Put another way, my Skype is set up on my toolbar so that incoming messages reach me immediately, but I often miss messages from e-Pals because it is at a remove. I am not knocking sites such as e-Pals at all, but the more direct an interface is, the better. A very useful blog on using skype in the classroom has been set up at which looks at various pre and post skype activities to enhance the learning experience. The various tasks which are necessary to set up a skype call with another classroom make it an excellent activity in fostering collaborative and co-operative skills.

I am going to confine myself to offering just one suggestion. Looking at what people are writing about skype in the classroom I have not seen much comment about how Skype can be used for gaming applications. I am not talking about the extras that come with Skype, such as Chess, Checkers, Go and so on, although that is a very useful tool and the possibility of running extra-mural programmes through Chess, Checkers and so on is a good one. I was thinking, however, of using Skype for more Role Play, simulation type games in which students from different classrooms take on different roles. Although Skype is set up to handle synchronous voice or video calls, it can also handle text-based chat and asynchronous conversations, which gives it a great deal of flexibility as an interface, ideal for games play. Let us say, for example that in a History class you are exploring the French Revolution. You might set up a tribunal on Skype in which historical figures have to defend themselves against a charge of responsibility for the Terror. One group might take on the role of Robespierre, Danton, Marat, the King, etc. Groups could be within the same classroom or cut across different classrooms. Groups would need to use Skype to prepare a defence or a prosecution charge, culminating in a trial staged via Skype.


Dungeons & Dragons And Writing

When I was at University, too many years ago to mention, I played a bit of Dungeons & Dragons, and my exposure to Role Play Games (RPGs) is something which has sat in my baggage for many years now, being used every now and then in the classroom often in conjunction with Matrix Games, which I discussed in an earlier blog.

These days I run a Mind Sports Club at St John’s College in Johannesburg, and most sessions include an hour of Checkers, Morabaraba and other board-games, and then an hour of Role Play and campaign games. I invented an RPG called Space Truckers for the club, and used it to set puzzles and challenges which the players had to solve. I’ve never enjoyed the hack and slash type of RPG. What struck me very clearly yesterday, while watching the boys playing the game, was the rapt engagement, in a non-digital game. Once a month the Mind Sports Club uses the computer room to play eSports, but most of the games we play are boardgames, and role play games.

And yet, the digital engagement is there too. The Mind Sports Club has a website, using, which allows the boys to post messages to forums, write their own blogs, which together form a club magazine, and upload pictures and videos. The boys have made a large number of posts over the months, amounting to a considerable body of writing about the campaign game we played, and the role play. A great deal of what happens in the game, happens on the website between Friday meetings. It happens in written exchanges about the characters and what they are doing in the game, and often about the life of the character beyond the game. One player has written a complete biography of his character’s life before the game. Others enter journal style entries in which they extend the narrative of the previous meeting, explaining what they were doing and thinking.

What pleases me about all this is that it was a totally unplanned consequence of simply opening up a digital space where members of a club could socialize, and where announcements could be made. I can well imagine that for many of the boys, more writing was done on the site than in their regular English classes. They wrote about something they were passionate about, and the replies they got did not mention their spelling mistakes, but addressed what they were saying, prompting further writing. I am an English teacher and I know how precious this kind of feedback is in encouraging students to write. When your words are taken seriously it brings confidence and a belief that you can write to good effect.

Given that the boys are also writing about their thoughts and feelings, albeit in the guise of an imaginary character, I would argue the case that Role Play Games, accompanied by a social space where players can write about what they are doing, should be encouraged in schools. Role Play Games are often, however, seen as something a little dark and perhaps even dangerous. Dungeons & Dragons does not have a very good reputation. This is totally misguided, however. There is nothing satanic or even vaguely evil about what goes on in a role play adventure. The protagonists look after each other, they protect the weak, and bring order and good to the worlds they explore – just like the fantasy genre they draw inspiration from. Orcs get killed, for sure, and that might offend liberal sensibilities, but Orcs are bad, really bad, and no-one should weep for their demise! A good RPG will challenge players to collaborate, be social and exercise all the virtues.

And above all, it appears to encourage students to write!


Mind Sports in Schools

For many years now I have been running Mind Sports Clubs, as extra-murals, at a few schools. During that time I have come to some realisations, and have a few observations to make.

Mind Sports is a generic term used to encompass a variety of mental games, such as Chess, Checkers, Bridge, Go, boardgames and miniature wargaming. I believe that they offer a valuable addition to a child’s development, and any school’s extra-mural programme. Many schools will have a Chess Club, but the benefits of offering a range of games needs to be considered.

I have a feeling that playing games is probably very good for developing cognitive skills generally. This is not the place to explore this notion, but as Einstein observed, “Games are the most elevated form of investigation.” The formal thinking, the effort that needs to go into analysing positions and understanding the tactical and strategic aims of good play in any game, and the work that needs to be done in terms of memorizing opening theories is all probably very good for working and developing general intelligence.

But beyond a general notion that mental exercise is probably good for you lies several social reasons for building strong Mind Sports at schools. Especially for boys. I don’t want to exclude girls here, but the following TED talk illustrates some of the factors which are disadvantaging boys in education these days, and illustrates a role that I believe Mind Sports can fill.

What emerges from this talk most strongly is the need for male role models, the need for good cognitive male role models, and the need for schools to engage with gaming sub-cultures and give them a space within the school.

eSports has recently been brought inside the fold of what Mind Sports encompasses, certainly in South Africa which is one of the few countries in the world to have an officially recognised sporting federation administer a range of games. Chess and Bridge are excluded for historical reasons, but all other codes fall under the aegis of Mind Sports South Africa. The incorporation of eSports, computer gaming, under Mind Sports has been somewhat controversial.

Many teachers, who are quite keen on seeing children play Checkers and other boardgames as an extra-mural, are dubious, at best, about seeing children play computer games, especially those that employ violence. This year Mind Sports South Africa introduced a high school eSports league, and probably the very first official inter-school eSports matches have been played, involving Warcraft III, DotA and CounterStrike.

Ali Carr-Chellman makes the case far more eloquently than I could, but I can add some personal observations from the Mind Sports programmes that I have run.

Firstly, it often seemed to me that, especially the boys who joined Mind Sports were often those who were being failed by the schooling system. Often very bright, their marks were low or they were socially disruptive. While I was running the Mind Sports Club at St Enda’s, an inner-city school in Johannesburg, some of the students who excelled at Checkers or Morabaraba were amongst those I found discussed at teacher meetings as being at risk. A visiting Checkers Grand Master played a simultaneous demonstration match against fifty of our students one year, and identified a number as being extremely gifted. These very same boys were being described as slow and problematic by their teachers!

A few years later, most of these same boys were identified as candidates for the St John’s Academy, and although I cannot prove it, I am convinced that some of the confidence that they gained from success at Mind Sports enabled them to rise above the difficulties they were experiencing in the classroom. Nothing helps someone who is under-achieving quite like being told that they are mentally gifted, I am sure!

My second observation is that for many boys especially, if you do not fit into the sporting hierarchies at school, you are condemned to finding refuge amongst the lesser sub-cultural hierarchies, where low self-esteem is often a contributing factor in turning boys off school. The geeky culture of gamers, both traditional boardgamers, and the eSport gamers is not generally rewarded within the school system. While many geeks are academically bright and are recognised for this, many are not, often because of the reasons outlined by Ali Carr-Chellman above. If they are not sporting then they receive no recognition at all. There are too many boys slipping through the gaps at school, and taking refuge in sub-cultures such as gaming. It seems to me that if we have a vibrant schools Mind Sports culture which recognises gaming skills and gives them recognition, we will have a way in, a way of helping these boys find their place within the schooling system.

My third observation revolves around the controversial inclusion of electronic gaming, and the need to have it recognised within the school environment. And here I want to bring the girls back into the discussion. I saw some stats recently which suggested that more girls than boys, in the tween age group were engaged in online gaming. Even where boys are still in the majority, it is certainly not the case that girls don’t play video games or game online, and increasingly teenagers and tweens especially are spending more time gaming online. As much time, in fact as they are spending in school. It is common sense then, to realise that if we don’t leverage some of the benefits to be derived from online gaming, and there are positives, we are wasting a considerable opportunity. Also, it is far too important to be left to chance. As teachers, and parents we need to have an influence on what our children are up to online. We have an imperative to help them make the best of it. Strong eSports at schools would go some way towards providing some of this leverage.

The tradition of Muscular Christianity, espoused by great educational thinkers such as Arnold, and immortalised in books such as Tom Brown’s School Days, places great stress on team sports in building character. All of this is true, but I believe, very strongly, that we need to help the digital generation, who are increasingly involved in eSports, whether we like it or not, develop the character building aspects of the online gaming world. This is a world where collaboration and co-operation are highly prized. It is a world where everyone is accepted and has a place. It is a world where those who break the codes are dealt with by the online community. It is not really a world teachers should be afraid of.


Posted by on June 30, 2011 in Gaming in Education, Mind Sports

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