Learning how to use Matrix Games

“If we have to use force to crush the student protestors, we will!”

I heard words like this coming out of my mouth (with disturbing conviction!)  at our most recent Meetup.

To explain, I was role-playing the actions of an ambitious and ruthless young police chief during an unfolding conflict in a fictional former Russian state, KAZHDYY GOROD. A charismatic protest leader had just convinced school students in the working-class neighbourhood to abandon school to join the workers’ protest movement. As police chief, I had just ordered my police to form a barricade to contain these feckless young protestors.  We weren’t going to use aggressive force, at least not if we didn’t have to, but if these rabble rousers decided to try anything, they would soon regret their actions…

The Police Chief and an action template

Thankfully, the purpose of the meetup was not to crush student protestors, but to learn about Matrix Games – of which KAZHDYY GOROD (designed by Tom Mouat) is an example.

Our guest facilitators for the meetup were Andrew Savage and Michael Harcourt. Both are history educators who have collaborated in the use of  non-digital games as a method to engage students with history’s complexity. They have a particular interest in how games can generate debate, hone students’ argumentation skills and develop critical thinking when applied to historical contexts and contemporary conflicts. You can read more about their approaches in this case study, Playing for Peace, undertaken at Wellington High School in 2016.

Getting into it in the Wellington High Library

Andrew kicked off the meetup with a brief explanation of what Matrix Games are, and where they came from. As he explained, Matrix Games were invented by Chris Engle, an American psychiatric social worker. They were originally used as a technique for helping people work through personal relationship conflicts. The system was later turned towards the idea of simulating larger social and political conflicts.

The game “system” is itself relatively simple, though it took all of us at least a full introductory round of gameplay to see how it works in action. While I was playing the role of the police chief of KAZHDYY GOROD, other meetup participants took on the identities of other people in the city: a charismatic protest leader (the person who had inspired school students to walk out of school in solidarity), a journalist with sympathies for the cause, the city’s Mayor, an armed Militia, and the leader of a rebel faction.

Kazhdyy Gorod Map/game board

Each player’s “turn” involved declaring an action they would take next, along with arguments for and against why that action would be successful. The rest of the group debated the merits and plausibility of the proposed action (would that person actually do that? Is that in line with the beliefs or motives of that character? Is that something that we’ve seen happen in other similar real-world situations? ) After debating how many valid arguments were made to support the character’s action, a dice roll decides whether that action “happens” (i.e. Becomes a new fact in the scenario) and the question returns to “so what happens next?”

As we played, Andrew and Michael modelled how they use the game approach in the classroom, frequently questioning our ideas or challenging our suggested actions to provoke discussion. As each action “happened”, Michael added that information to the unfolding narrative (on a shared slide). They talked about the way the choices of wording used to describe “what happened” can be  controversial, and how they had these kinds of conversations with students, building their understanding of the role of media, and how historical accounts may vary depending on whose perspectives those accounts were written from.

Andrew questioning a player about their thinking
The narrative record of actions played…but according to whom?

Before we knew it, it was almost time to wrap up the meetup. We had some interesting conversations about how other teachers might use Matrix Games like these with their students, and debated different ways the game could be set up, the ethical dilemmas that teachers and students grappled with when it came to using a game or simulator approach in the context of sensitive or controversial issues, whether students could run the game themselves, and the flexibility in the Matrix Game system – i.e. there are really no fixed rules, so you can make whatever rules or ways of playing you want.

By the end of the meetup we were talking about what we could do if we had a whole day – or more – not only to learn about this system but to start hacking or designing our own versions of this approach for all sorts of different contexts, including primary classrooms, workplaces, or anywhere else that we might want to support critical thinking, the development of empathy and comfort with real-world complexity.

At least one primary teacher (Leanne, one of our Gameful Praxis co-founders) said she intends to hack this approach for her classroom, here’s hoping we can share more about that in a future blog post!

Are you interested in an extended session to learn about Matrix Games, even try designing and playtesting your own versions?

We’re currently looking at options for setting up another session, possibly a full day, in Wellington later in the year. If you are keen to be involved please let us know by joining our Meetup group and sending us a message!

2 thoughts on “Learning how to use Matrix Games”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *