What if Portal was a University Lecture?
And what it tells us about gamifying education
Gamification in higher education is met with reserved reluctance at best, and exaggerated eye roll at worst. It’s understandable why.
Gamification paints education as the proverbial broccoli that’s smuggled among the mash potato and gravy to be deemed edible. Only instead of mash potato, it’s Crushed Candy.
I want to flip the script, and discover what happens when we use the traditional lecture model to teach make-believe physics of a game. Instead of gamifying education, what happens when we edufy a game?
Portal is considered one of the greatest puzzle games of all time that tasks players to navigate a series of white-walled test chambers using mind-bending portals. It requires critical thinking, persistence and a lot of trial and error.
But who needs a game? I hope to leverage the lecture model of education to teach you the rules and laws of the warped, virtual world of Portal. Using diagrams, screenshots and GIFs, I aim to keep you engaged while offering a more comprehensive understanding of the game’s laws than the game ever could. To compare, we also have a bunch of willing test subjects playing the game as we go along, trying to figure out puzzles without my guidance. Which pedagogical approach do you think will be more effective?
Before we begin, let’s introduce our willing test subjects: Enter the React teens! React is a YouTube channel that records various demographics reacting to viral videos, vintage technology and yes, games. These six teenagers will be offering their live reactions as they stumble through Portal for the very first time. Say hi!*
* I don’t own the copyright to these video clips and am using them to help illustrate this exercise. You can find the full video here :)
So without further ado…
Lesson 1: Blocks and Buttons
We’ll start really simple for our first lesson in portal physics.
When this block called the Weighted Storage Cube:
is placed on this red button called the Heavy Duty Super Button:
an action is triggered. The action is signified by a circuit of linear circles that snake away from the button to a door. Blue denotes an inactive circuit whereas orange denotes an active one. Please refer to Figure 1 below.
When the Weighted Storage Cube is placed on the Heavy Duty Super Button, the door triggers open. This is demonstrated by the comparison pictures below.
I apologise if this feels a little basic at first but stick with me here. Let’s see how the React crew takes on this simple concept in the game…
Not too bad, right? I’d say both you (the reader) and the teens are learning at a similar pace and hold a comparable level of understanding. But what happens when things gets a little more complicated…?
Lesson 2: Portals
If there is one rule of Portal that you should know, it’s this:
When you walk through a blue portal, you come out of the orange portal, and vice versa.
This is otherwise known as the The Universal Rule of Portals. Feel free to look it over a few times to help burn it into memory.
Here’s an illustration of this rule in action.
And here is a screenshot of what portals look like in practise with some helpful annotations.
Now watch our unenlightened young people try to grapple with this crucial rule all by themselves.
What do you make of their progress? Do you think the teens’ comprehension is helped or hindered by being left to play around on their own? What if the teens were provided The Universal Rule of Portals with accompanying illustrations before experimenting with portals. Would learning be enhanced, or stifled?
Don’t ponder for too long. We have more lessons to cover and a strict pace to maintain!
Lesson 3: Placing Portals
Now you have a portal gun of your own. It looks like this.
With it you can fire your own blue portal wherever you want. On the walls, on the ceiling, on the floor, you name it! If you walk through your newly created blue portal, you’ll end up at the orange portal (refer to The Universal Rule of Portals). I’ve recorded a neat little GIF to help you out.
That’s it. Be sure to return to and revise this lesson to fully appreciate all of its implications.
Now let’s see how our inexperienced teens do trying to figure this one out, without this gift of knowledge.
What do you think? How does my attempt at describing the concept of portals aid your understanding? Better than the testers’? Maybe I need to add another GIF. (Did you also notice the expressions of pure satisfaction when each tester solved the puzzle?)
Let’s not dwell though, I’m sure I can spark your passion with one more lesson!
Lesson 4: High Energy Pellets
Now this lesson builds on a concept we learned in Lesson 1 (feel free to scroll up and refresh your memory if you need to). This time, instead of activating a door by placing a Weighted Storage Cube on a Heavy Duty Super Button, the objective is to guide this glowing ball of energy called a High Energy Pellet…
…ejected from a High Energy Pellet launcher…
…into a High Energy Pellet collector.
The High Energy Pellet (Figure 3) passes through portals, rebounds off walls and self-implodes after a short amount of time. Upon self-implosion, another pellet is ejected from the High Energy Pellet launcher (Figure 4). Maybe this annotated screenshot will help you understand this lesson better.
Be aware: touching the High Energy Pellet will result in death. Never, ever touch the High Energy Pellet.
That concludes all the lessons we will cover today. What a productive session: you’ve just learned everything you need to know to reach level 10 on Portal without even playing the game! How do you feel?
Before we start drawing some conclusions from this mini-experiment, let’s see how the teens did with the High (and highly dangerous) Energy Pellet.
So after watching the videos and learning the content yourself, do you think reading this Medium post or playing Portal with no foreword knowledge is a better way to learn the fictional physics of the game?
The answer seems obvious now. But let’s look a little closer.
What actually happened when we condensed a game into descriptions, labels and illustrations? Or put more plainly, what happened when we edu-fied a game? We certainly made it more measurable, more digestible, more intelligible. We also made it sterile, tedious and disconnected. How much fun was it to read through those lessons? I guarantee you not as much fun as it was playing the game. Here’s what our testers had to say about the experience:
Those React gamers now understand more about portal physics than any amount of revision could yield from the text above.
In summary, it took a couple of paragraphs and a few pictures to turn exploring the wonderful world of Portal into a chore, suffocating learning and creativity in the process. The real world holds far more wonder and delight than anything a game developer could cook. Yet when we condense the universe’s greatest mysteries into a textbook, formula or whiteboard (interactive or not), it’s no surprise learners start tapping on their phones.
In the post-internet age, a great teacher is not someone who presents answers in more innovative ways. A great teacher is someone who takes a part of the real world and presents it in a way where students are free to discover their own solutions, or fail trying. The magic is in the journey, not the destination.
This is not a straight-forward task. But is one that with a little experimentation and a lot of testing, all teachers can strive to achieve.
To conclude, why does ‘gamification’ matter to education? Because game designers are some of this generation’s greatest teachers. And we have a lot to learn.