Learn Science While Playing Video Games? Video Game Maker Valve Makes Dreams Comes True

For decades, video games and education have gone together like oil and water. No matter what attempts were made to merge the two, it seems students and teachers had to pick between one or the other, with The Oregon Trail being the only tolerated exception to the rule. But a growing number of educators have become open and eager to use video games in the classroom, especially when it comes to teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Now, a video game developer has stepped up to attempt the seemingly impossible: convert a popular video game into a modern educational platform.

Valve recently launched a free initiative called Teach With Portals that aims to help teachers use the game Portal 2 (click here for a review) to engage students in learning STEM and critical thinking. By converting its level-building software, Hammer Editor, into a much easier to use interface called Puzzle Maker, Valve has made it possible for anyone to design challenging Portal rooms. The Teach With Portals website also offers community-submitted lesson plans (here’s an example of a harmonic oscillator) that utilize the game and align with national STEM standards so teachers can directly incorporate them into their curriculum. Teachers can sign up for the ‘Steam for Schools‘ beta program, which offers a limited version of the popular Steam gaming platform that hosts the free version of Portal 2 and the Puzzle Maker.

The inspiration for Teach With Portals came in part from a project called Learn With Portals, in which seventh graders from Evergreen School in Washington who were working on a spatial reasoning project visited Valve last year. From the video, it’s clear what an eye opening experience it was for the Valve staff to see students’ interest and creativity sparked by their game:

Valve is known for making breakthrough games with strong characters and story with great replay value, including the Half Life , Team Fortress, and Left 4 Dead series. Yet Portal 2 and its predecessor, Portal, are anomalies in the modern gaming world because they are puzzle games, not out of the role-playing, first-person shooter, or real-time strategy genres that typically sell well. From the time the games were released, fans were calling on Valve to let players build their own levels. Fortunately, Valve listened and released the Puzzle Maker back in May in what it jokingly called the Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative. The response was huge as the company reported that in just 3 days the software had been downloaded 1.3 million times and 35,000 levels had been produced in the Steam Workshop.

Check out this promotional video of the Puzzle Maker in action:

At the 9th Annual Games for Change conference, the Teach With Portals project was presented by Leslie Redd, the Director of Educational Programs at Valve, and Yasser Malaika, an interaction designer/developer. You can watch the whole presentation here in which they share their experience with kids and the vision for the initiative.

But still the real issue is can a game really be a means to learn science?

Although Valve didn’t design the game with the educational market in mind, embedded within the storyline is a strong science theme and the gaming engine itself aims to reflect the physics of the real world. For instance, during one of the tutorial sessions at the beginning of the Portal, the female-voiced computer named GlaDOS explains how portals are created using the portal gun. Although portals are effectively wormholes in space-time, the laws of physics still apply, as she makes clear when she says, “Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman’s terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” As you test out the portals, she comments “You appear to understand how a portal affects forward momentum, or to be more precise, how it does not.”

Now a typical science lesson on momentum would involve a teacher trying to represent the motion of a car on a whiteboard, but with the Puzzle Maker, students actually see how momentum works directly as they design levels and test them out. Learning about momentum in this context is much more relevant because it directly affects the virtual world they are building rooms in, far superior than trying to help students understand a car’s momentum when most of them are too young to drive. On top of that, students can experience what free falling objects are like by placing a portal on the ceiling and one directly on the floor below, whereas going on a skydiving field trip for a physics class would be absurd.

One Tennessee-based physics and chemistry teacher, Cameron Pittman, has even started the Physics With Portals blog to demonstrate how he is using the platform to teach science. Here is one of his videos demonstrating properties of the ideal gas law:

The launch of this program signals Valve crossover into a community of educators that for years has sought to get more games into the classroom. The kinds of games suited for education, once termed ‘edutainment’ but now referred to as Serious Games, tend to be much more explicit about teaching their subjects so that it is clear that education and not entertainment is their primary objective. A slew of serious games have been developed over the years, some that allow you to shoot math problems to solve them, like the shooter Dimension M, while others are more science oriented, like the cancer-fighting Re-Mission game. Additionally, strong efforts toward game development are being made with events like the National STEM Video Game Design Competition that awards cash prizes to students and educators for the development of STEM-focused serious games.

While serious games have been explored in academic settings, the genre has lacked support from big video game developers to make a hit and to date, widespread commercial success for serious games has remained out of reach. But Valve’s entrance into this space could be just the shot in the arm needed to get serious games into the mainstream.

The time appears to be right as many look to technology to right the wrongs plaguing the educational system. Take the Khan Academy‘s YouTube library that has become one of the most impressive approaches to assisting mathematics education or the Show Me app that crowdsources lesson development by allowing teachers to upload their lectures on a subject and users to upvote the best presentations. The increasing use of the iPad in classrooms is fueling a whole generation of apps and mini games that are enhancing learning, especially in the early elementary grades.

With the educational climate shifting toward more open-armed policies on technology, the potential to use Teach With Portals in the classroom is abundant, but how widely adopted the program becomes is not. Good lesson plans require a significant time investment to develop and test, so Teach With Portals could become a lesson bank of variable quality or one that is far from comprehensive in covering even a single subject. Additionally, teachers are still putting students in front of a video game and will likely have mixed results in keeping kids focused on learning instead of playing. Finally, the inherent nature of the Portal 2 gameplay is heavily biased toward physics, which makes some subjects, like chemistry and biology, quite difficult to produce lessons for. This may be rectified in the future with downloadable content or enhancements of the Puzzle Maker to incorporate these elements, but it will probably depend on the broad popularity of the initiative as well as Valve’s long-term commitment to making the program successful.

In the end, Teach With Portals is a welcome change for major video game producers and demonstrates how unique Valve and Portal 2 truly are. Hopefully, these efforts will translate into a new paradigm for STEM education and result in measurable improvements in student knowledge.

A sample lesson on harmonic oscillation from Teach With Portals
David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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