Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teaching With Portals: Videogames in the Classroom

To make a good video game, certain laws of physics can be ignored. For example, if I am floating through space killing ice aliens, I REALLY want to be able to use my flamethrower. (I’m not sure if that game exists yet, but if it doesn’t… free idea.) Unfortunately, boring old reality dictates that in order to burn, fire needs oxygen, of which outer space is lacking. Ignoring this truth leads to a much more enjoyable rampage, and in the meantime I could still accidentally learn a thing or two about the laws of universal gravitation.

One actual video game series that runs with this concept of adapting physics is Portal. In Portal, you control a human test subject that obeys all the conventional laws of physics. However, your character has a gun that can create a wormhole between any two surfaces you shoot. Jump in one portal and you emerge from the other. Put one on the floor and the other on the ceiling above, and you can fall through an infinite loop.


The game proposes all sorts of puzzles that take advantage of your nifty gun, but the real draw is the associated physics/lack thereof. Thermodynamics laws are thrown out the window. As soon as you put portals at two different altitudes, you create potential energy out of nothing and violate the second law. Your character’s momentum is conserved, however, allowing you to gain speed by jumping off a cliff to fall through one portal in order to slingshot yourself through another. It’s disorienting enough to play, let alone describe, so perhaps the intro video above will help.

I just finished the game a couple weeks ago and can attest to how fun and original the experience was. But the developers, Valve studios, didn’t stop at making a fun game. Their new project called “Learn with Portals” takes the game into the classroom. A modified version of the game is used to teach physics concepts. Students craft puzzles and use the in-game tools to solve them. Valve goes even further for teachers. Valve president Gabe Newell says, “If you give us a lesson plan, we can give you a tool that allows kids to build content to lock down those lessons.” I’m willing to bet attendance will be perfect the day you play professionally-developed video games in science class.

Portal can teach concepts such as physics, math, spatial reasoning, logic, probability and problem-solving in the fun and engaging way only video games can. Newell continues, “It’s a lot easier to get people excited about it [education] if they’re on the moon and they get to throw the rock at the piece of glass that breaks the glass that lets all the robots fly out.”


Many popular video games are programmed with real-world physics to help the player intuitively understand the game mechanics. In Angry Birds, the player loads his or her slingshot with pudgy birds and launches them into an obstacle course in order to crush evil pigs. With at least 12 million copies sold and over 350 million downloads over different platforms, it’s one of the most popular videogames of all time, though it is little more than a maddeningly addictive cartoon demonstration of projectile motion. Valve has recognized just how big these audiences are, and is taking steps to use the physics of the games to educate as well as entertain.

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