That Soap and Water Feeling

Brainstorming the EMG I wrote with Chris Engle, circa 2008.

That soap and water feeling is what you get just before everything comes together in the right way. This is about the only feeling I trust when it comes to creative endeavor. I should have written up my experiences using matrix games for professional military language training years ago. It seems every month there is a new paper or post about using Chris Engle’s most excellent invention, Engle Matrix Games (EMGs). I’ll outline my experience using them with officer and NCO EFL trainees from Etat-major de Force 2 between 2007-10.

My road to EMGs was via my wargame chum, Brian Train. In 2007, while all NATO-allied armies suddenly became interested in counterinsurgency, I was casting about for a way of further gamifying my English course given at a French army divisional headquarters. I canvassed Boardgame Geek for all it was worth but found nothing sufficiently simple. “Your design for Algeria is great Brian,” I wrote, “But it will never work in the classroom.” This might have annoyed another designer but Brian is nothing if not patient and helpful. “What you need is a matrix game,” he answered. And the lightbulb went on. I had even already heard of EMGs via Ron Edwards’s site The Forge. Role-playing game design is a majorly underexploited resource in wargame design, but that is a subject for another day. Much of my thinking about the affective level of game play (”affective ludic phenomenology” is what I would say were I an academic) owes to the rigorously creative threads Ron Edwards curated.

Cambridge-style English as a Foreign Langauge (EFL) pedagogy turns on the notion of a teacher as an eliciter of new and prior knowledge, reassuring guide, and learner resource, prioritizing production of written or spoken language. Ideally, an EFL class should moved from closed tasks with right and wrong answers, thereby setting a model for later open tasks, where students might experiment with the day’s learning. Lesson planning depends on careful mise-en-scène and, above all, very clear objective-setting. EMGs fit into this agenda terribly well. Some, particularly early EMGs, contain very precise action lists, just verbs really, which was a perfect mesh with my vocabulary-based teaching. Grammar isn’t the first priority in a technical, military environment where exacting lexis challenges even native speakers. Having a menu to choose from is an aid to decision, are invitations, and lower barriers. Similar lists appear in current generation RPGs such as Apocalypse World.

The varying language levels among my students is never immediately evident. And the varying ranks and responsibilities redouble the challenge of understanding learner needs. Nobody is every any good at pronouncing either version of /th/ or the terminal /s/ when forming plurals, but that is low-hanging fruit here in France. Real ability comes from doing fairly open tasks, from playing games. The game must help your learners overcome fear. Not only had The Forge alerted me to EMGs, it had also provided many fruitful discussions of how player expectations might best come when a game system supports those expectations. Briefly, some players simply want to win any game while others wish to immerse themselves in a temporary alternate reality. The last group, the one to which I feel closest, want to wrestle with the perversities of awesome narrative. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive goals, but they are a trick to manage. You certainly can get them wrong, however. The result is nervous, even angry dysfunction. These ideas mesh well with Cambridge EFL’s adaptability in partnering strong with weak levels so that students learn from each other.

(To be continued…)


3 thoughts on “That Soap and Water Feeling”

  1. I shall always remember that Korengal Valley matrix game we played where I as Taliban commander took out the COP commander with an ABIED (Animal-borne Improvised Explosive Device). I thought I had invented such a thing but it seems there are numerous examples of insurgents willing to lube up and fist a goat in the service of Salafism.

    Anyway, they just sent another one.

    1. Thanks for reminding me. I’ll do a separate post later on about the power of narrative, ambiguity, metaphor, how life imitates art, and how diseased minds think alike, oh my. EMGs are a perfect vehicle for highlighting the inherent perversities of modern armed conflict. Not that I think your mind is diseased. I think the mind of the character you played in the Korengal game was the diseased one, natch.

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