If you are a gamer, at least one who is not exclusively tied to consoles, this last week was potentially painful. It was a blissful sort of pain, though, since Steam’s now famous Summer Sale happened. Many gamers flock and buy what would constitute tons of discs worth of entertainment, were it not entirely digitally based. Valve, the company behind Steam, can barely keep up with the server strain, and with good reason. A number of people picked up Portal 2, a game I’m more than familiar with. But the game is starting to pick up, well, a bit of steam within the educational community.
Valve is offering what they are calling “Teach with Portals,” a free version of Portal 2 and a Portal 2 Puzzle Maker, intended to allow teachers to provide a sort of digital testing ground for a variety of subjects: physics, math, chemistry, game design, language arts, and more. I’ve suggested before that thoughtfully interacting with games could provide a number of benefits, including a shared world and setting to discuss ethical issues. I suspect many students in high school will already be familiar with the game, so finding a way to encourage students to learn while playing something they already enjoy seems like a pretty solid plan. Some of my fondest memories from elementary school include playing Oregon Trail, though I can’t for the life of me remember what lesson I was supposed to learn there, though I suspect it had to do with avoiding dysentery. I did learn quite a bit from the typing game we played, though I can’t remember what the game itself was called.
Here’s the kicker, though. I’m pretty sure that this is not only a winning strategy, but one that makes me excited about pursuing teaching. This isn’t because I want to play games in class; I’m actually just excited that a medium I enjoy is becoming sophisticated enough technologically to be useful. Aside from the physics simulation, however, I am glad to see ‘language arts’ on the list of subjects Valve believes you could teach with Portal 2. I find studying literature fascinating, and video games have mostly been lacking in this area. We’ve come a long way since the story line stopped at “A giant reptile has captured a princess, so the plumber had better go save her” which, I have to admit, sounds more like a mad-lib than perhaps the most famous video game series in history. The realm of role-playing games had better stories, or at least ones that were more involved. But rarely did the writing of games have the wit of the Portal series, the emotional weight of the Mass Effect games, or even the action-movie level of madness of the now yearly installments of Call of Duty.
But Portal is not unique for its wit and clever writing. On that Steam sale I mentioned earlier, I picked up Quantum Conundrum. It was designed by Kim Swift, the creative director behind Portal, not to mention working on Half-Life 2, both Left 4 Dead games, and the weirdly titled Fat Princess. It is clear that Quantum borrows heavily from Portal‘s style: we get rooms of puzzles and a nearly omniscient voice directing us (voiced by none other than John de Lancie). The game is far cuter than its spiritual predecessor, but the wit is all there. There are a number of books lying around with names like “Henry ^8″ and “Beowatt.” So far the game is a bit more of a platformer than a puzzle game. That is, it takes more raw skill than Portal did, but ends up feeling a bit more like a traditional game.
This recent push of ‘smart’ games strikes me as mostly a good thing. Of course, we don’t want to encourage our children to become addicted to video games, but recognizing their strengths will aid us in wading through a world that is saturated with digital goods. Even if our schools don’t immediately pick up ‘teaching through games,’ we can use games to teach those who already play them. Sometimes, you just have to ask the right questions.