Portal is a brilliantly simple game: you navigate through a sci-fi space-station type-place, besieged by errant robots and killer forcefields, armed only with a “gun” that creates manhole-sized wormholes. While it looks like a first-person shooter, in this puzzle game you don’t go blasting your way through levels; you leverage the meticulous physics of the game to divert enemies, leap chasms, and move steel blocks into useful positions. The smart and generous folks at the studio behind the Portal franchise, Valve, have created a project, Teach With Portals, that helps STEM teachers develop lessons with the game software by enabling players to design their own levels for the sequel, Portal 2.
At first glance, this sounds like a great project, and one that will turn heads because it smashes an award-winning video game head-on into the edtech buzz of “gamification.”
But I don’t think that the success of a project like this will lie with the fact that it makes learning STEM principles (be they physics, chemistry, or geometry) “game-like.” Here’s what’s more important:
- The Portal games are fantastically good physics simulators. The shoulder-mounted wormhole slingers are more or less the only improbable physics element in the game. Falling and flung objects accelerate in perfect gravity-driven arcs. Massive objects exhibit significant inertia. Bodies in free-fall, say moving from one wormhole to another without interruption, continue to accelerate. Everything, from steel cubes to sliding androids to the protagonist, moves with a precise conversation of momentum. Sure, there are lots of education software titles that simulate any sort of physics from cannon-firing trajectories to airplane flight. But the environments in the Portal games are devilish imitations of the real world, where if you slide a box along a slick floor with too much force, it won’t stop where you estimated and will tumble over the edge of a hole. The physics of the game aren’t “intuitive” because the physics of so many real-world situations aren’t “intuitive.” Instead, the physics in the game is real-world honest: a little messy, precise and consistent, and not always what your brain estimates until you start moving.
- Valve has made it so that users can “mod” the game, which is game-speak for “make your own levels.” Rather than setting out to create an educational and precise physics simulator, the folks at Valve set out to create a great game. Realistic physics was a critical element of the gameplay. Portal in this instance becomes a potentially great educational tool by adding the modding capabiliites after establishing the imagination-stimulating power of a physically realistic virtual playground.