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Education Games

Portal On the Booklist At Wabash College 203

Posted by Soulskill
from the take-that-ebert dept.
jamie passes along this quote from a post by Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer: "This year, for the first time, a video game will appear on the syllabus of a course required for all students at Wabash College, where I teach. For me — and for a traditional liberal arts college founded in 1832 — this is a big deal. Alongside Gilgamesh, Aristotle's Politics, John Donne's poetry, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the Tao Te Ching, freshmen at Wabash will also encounter a video game called Portal. "
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Portal On the Booklist At Wabash College

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  • Coordination? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SanityInAnarchy (655584) <ninja@slaphack.com> on Friday August 20, 2010 @07:31PM (#33320208) Journal

    Some people have never been exposed to WASD, but everyone knows how to read a book. Will people be expected to game to be culturally literate these days?

    I'm not sure if that would be a bad thing, but it would be different.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by dingen (958134)
      I think there would be more freshmen unfamiliar with reading a play or a novel than playing a mouse & keyboard controlled first person game.
      • I doubt that. I'm pretty sure most of them would be more used to playing with a game pad.
        • by Hadlock (143607)

          If console sales of the Orange Box are any indication, portal is completely playable on a gamepad. The Steam version of Portal has gamepad/360 controller support so I don't think there's any problem with the control interface.

    • Re:Coordination? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by cappp (1822388) on Friday August 20, 2010 @07:39PM (#33320278)
      Yeah requiring manual dexterity introduces some new and interesting challenges. I wonder how they'll ensure every student is able to finish the games, or if that is even important enough to consider. The stats suggest that most of the upcoming generations have access to gaming systems, and play games of one kind or another, so they shouldn't be too out of their element.

      As for cultural literacy...perhaps. You're expected to be able to engage with literature, academic text, cinema, the visual; performance; and oral arts, and so on at college - video games are just going to get added to the list. Entertainment has always been political and fundamentally positioned to reflect social and cultural attitudes, the more tools we develop to analyse what play means, the better.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Darkness404 (1287218)
        Portal, at least for the PC has cheats to make it really, really easy to finish.
      • I'm assuming that, just as people with really worthless eyesight(and a doctor's note to that effect) aren't generally expected to read without accommodation, the gaming-challenged, er "gaming-differently-abled" will be able to use god-mode, or write essays based on videos of runs through, or something of that sort.
        • by tverbeek (457094)

          I'm tempted to enroll just so I can win a nice comfy settlement over their failure to accommodate my lack of post-Missile-Command gaming skillz, a result of reaching puberty in the late 1970s, and never looking back. And if that fails, my friend with cerebral palsy is sure to clean up... in court.

          A little more seriously... surely they can't be assuming (as I'm sure most of the nerds here are) that anyone under the age of 25 has grown up with a controller in their hand. In my tech-support work, I've met a

          • by gman003 (1693318)

            Many current students are as familiar with "books" and "literature" as they are with LP records or horseback riding. Should classes stop requiring actual literacy, beyond text messaging, to accommodate them?

            I'm completely serious about that above claim, by the way. Many of my college classmates seem unable to find the apostrophe key, let alone spellcheck. Even using proper English is beyond them, in some cases. I considered putting an actual example up, but I decided not to subject you all to that level of

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by kkwst2 (992504)

              With all due respect, then your classmates probably shouldn't be in college. I don't think kids are getting that much dumber. There have always been dumb or more often just unmotivated kids, but in the past fewer of them went to college. Some institutions have lowered the bar because undergraduate education is profitable for them.

              As someone who teaches at a top institution, the kids I see there are coming in at least as prepared in all subjects as 20 years ago. Maybe some differences in independence and

              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by gman003 (1693318)

                I will concede that I'm not attending a prestigious or even selective college, but literally half my class wouldn't have made it through my (prestigious and selective) high school.

                Most of them aren't all that dumb or ignorant, but, once they start typing, the intelligence starts dropping. Of course, there's the one guy who turns everything into a "legalize-marijuana" argument, or the people who thought "A Modest Proposal" was serious, or the one who thinks a chain email counts as a reputable statistic, or t

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by morari (1080535)

        Portal was a pretty easy game by any standards. You don't really fight anything and most of the puzzles are pretty straight forward. Some of the portals require a quick turn of jump, but nothing a little practice couldn't quickly solve. The plot was humorous, but the gameplay was exceedingly simple considering the possibilities. There was a challenge mode to help balance that, I suppose.

      • Yeah requiring manual dexterity introduces some new and interesting challenges. I wonder how they'll ensure every student is able to finish the games

        I wonder if that is built into the lecture and guided discussion of the class. Keeping in mind that this is a general inquiry about contemporary ideas of identity and society, I think a discussion about everyone's differences may be appropriate.

        Certainly, some of the players may have issues with the FPS aspect, but perhaps their problem-solving abilities are stellar, maybe the converse. I do think it is a necessary (and difficult) learning experience to discover that there are some things that some people

    • by cgenman (325138)

      There are baseline courses that require watching movies, listening to music live, playing games, or other forms of consuming culture.

      And If you want to be broadly culturally literate, you do have to do everything. Having people play Portal seems akin to having them read good recent books. I don't know how many titles I'd put on that list, but Portal is definitely one of them. Portal seems like a good choice as it is A: short, B: more puzzle than twitch, C: incredibly rich, D: not a resource hog.

      • Re:Coordination? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by flyingsquid (813711) on Saturday August 21, 2010 @12:42AM (#33321742)
        It seems to me that Portal could be read as a metaphor for existence:

        When you start out, you're confused about everything. Where am I? Who am I? Why am I here? How do I get through this maze? As you go along, you start to piece things together, you start to figure out a few tricks and it doesn't actually seem that hard. But as you go further and further, things get harder, more challenging, it's more and more difficult to find your way through the maze. The stakes are higher, and you start to suspect that things may be conspiring against you. Supposedly if you apply yourself and try hard, you'll get rewarded, but you start to wonder. Maybe they aren't being honest with you, maybe the whole thing is just a big lie... you just run around through a huge labyrinth, toyed with by forces more powerful than you, but never get what you were promised. And then you die. Is that it?

        Man, it sure would have been fun to take a whole class studying video games. I can just picture the titles of the essays: "The Hero's Journey: Odysseus and the Master Chief", "Idealization of Society Perfected: Plato's _Republic_, Thomas More's _Utopia_, and Sim City", and "Envisioning the Underworld: Dante's Inferno and 'Doom III' "

    • Re:Coordination? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by T Murphy (1054674) on Friday August 20, 2010 @08:21PM (#33320532) Journal
      FTA:

      I pitched the idea to my colleagues on the committee (decidedly not a collection of gamers), and they agreed to try Portal and read selections from Goffman's book. After plowing through some installation issues ("What does this Steam do? Will it expose me to viruses?"), we enjoyed the first meaningful discussion about a video game I've ever had with a group of colleagues across disciplines. They got it. They made the connections, and they enjoyed the game.

      If non-gamer professors liked it, I am sure the students will be fine.

    • "Everyone knows how to read a book" isn't quite accurate. Everyone knows how to read, maybe (I'll go ahead and assume literacy for college courses), but that's not the same as marathon reading, especially for a book that doesn't interest you.

      Personally, I've had a longstanding difficulty reading academic texts, to the point where I could say "I don't know how to read academic texts;" specifically, I don't know how to memorize from texts, I don't know how to get through long tedious overly-verbose sections

  • Not quite (Score:3, Informative)

    by cappp (1822388) on Friday August 20, 2010 @07:32PM (#33320228)
    The most obvious problem is addressed near the end of the article

    Deploying a game for an entire cohort to play at the same time requires more problem-solving than you might expect. We ultimately decided that hardware, installation, and licensing issues were complex enough to dissuade us from teaching Portal in all sections of the course this year; so I and a group of eager colleagues will play the game in our sections to work out the kinks. I don't want our first college-wide experience with a game to be plagued with problems.

    So not quite as advertised, but certainly pretty cool nonetheless.

    • if they thought a bit they could have had Steam set them up with a local server and a bunch of free keys for Portal

    • by geekoid (135745)

      I wonder what those issues were? it's not like portal is expensive. I would assume they already have computers.
      You can assign a 100 dollar text book but not a 10 dollar game?

      I wouldn't be surprised if valve gave them licenses. Portal 2 is coming, so getting more people interested in the series could only be good.

  • by scapermoya (769847) on Friday August 20, 2010 @07:36PM (#33320246) Homepage
    Please note that we have added a consequence for failure. Any contact with the chamber floor will result in an unsatisfactory mark on your official testing record, followed by death.
  • by lyinhart (1352173) on Friday August 20, 2010 @07:36PM (#33320250)
    Buying into how absurd this is since Portal isn't a book, I guess Cliff's Notes should publish a Youtube runthrough of the game with annotations.
  • Sounds Easy (Score:5, Funny)

    by sokoban (142301) on Friday August 20, 2010 @07:53PM (#33320366) Homepage

    I bet that course is a total piece of cake

  • by Dr. Hellno (1159307) on Friday August 20, 2010 @07:56PM (#33320384)
    I like the idea of having a game on the syllabus, definitely very forward thinking. My problem is with the choice of game.
    Portal was short, and as the author states it's multi-platform and fairly cheap, which goes a long way toward making this kind of project feasible. But reading portal as a game of ideas is a real stretch. The comparison to Goffman's Presentation of Self is baffling when the game allows no genuine self-expression (it's completely linear) or self-portrayal (no dialogue options), the subjects of Goffman's book. It's a fun game with a single intriguing character, but it's as deep as a kiddie pool.
    It would have made a lot more sense to start with interactive fiction- essentially, text-adventure games. IFArchive.org is a great place to start, and in no time you can find lots of innovative contest winners and other pieces expanding the genre. These are easy to play on any computer, they are of variable length and complexity, and they allow for an easier transition for students- the tools they use to analyze literature will be largely applicable.
    All in all, this is a cool effort. But look into interactive fiction! It might surprise you how well the genre is suited to your project.
    • by DeadboltX (751907)
      I think portal is an excellent choice for a video game (if one had to be chosen for a report requirement). A puzzle game is a "no brainer" of a choice, of course, and portal has impressive sale ratings for any genre of game. Portal also has no human people in it other than the protagonist whom you play, and no violence against living creatures. Portal features complex puzzles that require problem solving skills and spacial mapping ability that could be beneficial in the real world. The teacher could have th
      • by T-Bone-T (1048702)

        I never understood the feelings for the companion cube. When I got to that part, I used the cube and threw it away when I was done. It seemed like a small and trivial part oftge game. The turrets on the other hand creeped me out and then were just funny.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Sycraft-fu (314770)

      Well that's what you get from English majors over analyzing everything. They want to find meaning where there isn't.

      Portal, of course, was never created to be some deep statement. It was a puzzle game using a neat game mechanic. The story was put in to be funny, and to help guide the player through the puzzles. You can hear the developers themselves comment on it, in game, if you wish. There isn't much to analyze because there isn't intended to be. It isn't some commentary on society, it is just a fun and g

      • My understanding was that the companion cube was actually to make fun of the tendency of certain types of players to drag boxes around with them long after they weren't necessary.
        • by Lehk228 (705449)
          that occurs because before developers took the possibility of an extra crate or two into account some games were much easier if you brought and extra block with you
      • by wickerprints (1094741) on Friday August 20, 2010 @10:31PM (#33321254)

        There's no shame in reading into something and finding meaning where none was intended. That is how humans discover new ideas and relationships. Granted, sometimes the whole critical analysis thing can go really overboard and get tiresome to listen to, but if every creative effort had to explicitly include every possible interpretation of its meaning, and if its creator had to intentionally express it, we wouldn't have art or literature.

        Sure, the design decisions that went into making Portal may have been superficial, or subconscious--but the result is a game that can be understood and enjoyed within a much larger context than what it was intended for. If it helps to serve as a vehicle for introspection and stimulate interest in philosophy and the humanities, then all the better.

      • by DavidTC (10147)

        You can hear the developers themselves comment on it, in game, if you wish.

        In fact, I suspect this is why the game was chosen. Once you beat it, you can play it again in commentary mode. It's very informative.

        It might be useful to ask people to write down what they thought everything meant as it went along, and then to go back and play it in commentary mode. ;)

        And, of course, the other reason it was chosen was that it is a) short, and b) easy.

        There is no secrets, there is no obscure logic, the only tr

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Omestes (471991)

        Well that's what you get from English majors over analyzing everything. They want to find meaning where there isn't.

        As a past philosophy major (we make English majors look downright practical): where is there any innate meaning that exists previous to analysis? Meaning is largely a cultural thing, and a deep a priori property of things (like, say, mass, or charge).

        Portal, of course, was never created to be some deep statement.

        A lot of things we take as "deep" weren't created as such. Often the m

    • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Saturday August 21, 2010 @11:42AM (#33324762) Homepage

      First, even if we posit that Portal has no depth, it's a class for freshman. Sometimes it's better to start people off with something simple so things are a bit more clear. For example, in a linear game with a strict narrative, everyone will have similar/comparable experiences with the game and so there will be common experiences to talk about.

      However, I don't agree that Portal has no depth to talk about. Valve is a solid developer and their games have a lot of refinement and details. You might point at something like the lack of dialog with the main character and say, "obviously this is because Valve isn't taking the story seriously enough to bother to write dialog." On the other hand, they've claimed that they never game Gordon Freeman any lines because they wanted the player to be able to imagine himself in the role. When a game character speaks, he speaks with a voice that is not the player's. He says things the player wouldn't really say. But in the game, Freeman's (or Chell's) only response is the player's response.

      In some ways, art isn't just in the brushstrokes a painter makes, but in the brushstrokes the painter does not make. As a writer, what you don't say can be just as important as what you do say. One of the things that I found amazing about Portal was how much of a story it has given that there's almost no exposition. You have a strange-sounding computerized voice prodding you through an obstacle course. Meanwhile you notice an empty observation room with an overturned chair. The voice makes some promise of cake when you complete the course, but then you find a small compartment "behind the scenes" of the course with writing scrawled on the wall, "The cake is a lie." You realize the AI is psychotic. You realized the AI is probably intending to kill you at some point. You realize that the AI has already killed others who have attempted the obstacle course before you, and has also killed the people who created these tests and created the AI. From very little explanation, an entire backstory emerges:

      Aperture Science is company pushing forward with new and dangerous technologies in order to compete with Black Mesa. An AI charged with running a testing facility begins to take its role too seriously, killing anyone who gets in the way of scientific progress. Something has happened to the world outside (the events depicted in Half Life?), so no one comes in to reclaim the facility. Eventually everyone is dead, except for a lone test subject (which may be a clone created by the AI for the purpose of testing).

      Now if you play the game again, pay attention to what it is that you're explicitly told. Think about how much you know and how much you can guess at, relative to how little you're told. I think you'll have to admit that Portal's narrative is brilliantly constructed.

  • Other "smart" games? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Phayder (1019938)
    Any other candidates for a course like this? I thought Braid had some pretty deep storytelling.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Colonel Korn (1258968)

      Any other candidates for a course like this? I thought Braid had some pretty deep storytelling.

      And I thought Braid's storytelling wasn't up to the par seen in my age 13 creative writing class.

  • Ooh, change... (Score:5, Informative)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday August 20, 2010 @08:00PM (#33320408) Journal
    Oxford: AD1610:

    "In addition to ye Greeke and Latin Classics and learned tomes of divinity and medicine, freshmen shall this year encounter Hamlet the work of a vulgar modern playwrite..."
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by UnknownSoldier (67820)

      > Hamlet the work of a vulgar modern playwrite..."

      I didn't know Francis Bacon was vulgar... ;-)

  • Well I hope they lvl up the students before letting them encounter Gilgamesh (http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Gilgamesh).

  • ...today's sign of the apocalypse.
  • by pz (113803) on Friday August 20, 2010 @08:34PM (#33320606) Journal

    How will they deal with students who have physical disabilities? I'm thinking oh, paralysis, cerebral palsy, or anything else that leaves manual dexterity impaired. Or what about visually impaired or blind students? Remember this is a required course for all incoming students. Sounds like a half-baked idea from this distance, and yes, I did read the article.

    Let's hope Wabash doesn't get into a heapload of trouble for not complying with the ADA, like losing any Federal grants they might have.

    • by muridae (966931)
      The same way they deal with required physical courses and people with disabilities: they work with the student. No professor is going to say 'sorry, you are blind, tough shit.' to this any more than they will say 'sorry, audio books aren't the required book, so you fail.' Expect them to accept listening to a playthrough guide on youtube, or reading about the game, or any other number of ways that someone could still understand the story of the game without having played through it themselves.
    • by BitZtream (692029)

      Okay, for reference, people with disabilities have ... disabilities.

      That means they can't do everything so where possible provisions are made to allow them to participate.

      That said, they are disabled which means they can not do everything that people without disabilities can. The ADA doesn't require that provisions are made so that a paralyzed person can perform brain surgery or do construction work.

      There are reasonable limits on what is expected. You don't have to make the web visible to a blind man beca

  • .... Do you get a party followed by cake?

  • I could think of many better games for discussing existentialist philosophy. But as a physics professor, I've toyed with the idea of using Portal to discuss conservation laws in Intro Physics. For instance:

    Which of the following physical quantities are conserved by an object passing through a portal?
      Speed
      Momentum
      Kinetic Energy
      Total Energy

  • by bistromath007 (1253428) on Friday August 20, 2010 @09:26PM (#33320926)
    The first game to be included in an academic curriculum should've been Deus Ex. I'm disappointed with you, America. :|
    • by pspahn (1175617)

      I would have chosen HHGTG myself (text ver.)

      I personally learned quite a bit from that game playing it when I was about 11.

    • by jdgeorge (18767)

      You mean, "I'm disappointed in you, Wabash College," right? Even according to the summary, this is noted as a first for Wabash, not for the United States of America. And wait, there's a bit more you missed, since you obviously didn't read the article....

      It wasn't "the first game to be included in an academic curriculum," even for Wabash college. It's the first game proposed to be a requirement for ALL students at Wabash. And according to the article (as previous posters have noted) they're not really ready

    • by am 2k (217885)

      I dont't consider it such a bad choice. It had serious impact on culture in certain channels (just look at all the cake jokes), is a rather slowly-paced puzzle game most of the time, has something to say on lies and morality, is accessible due to the easy user interface (movement, jump, aim and the two portal keys), and most importantly is very short (It took me 6h, and I'm a very slow player looking at every corner). You woudn't want to require them playing through a game that takes a year to finish for un

  • Many non-gamers get motion sick when playing an FPS, especially Portal. This sounds like a bad idea.

  • American Universities. Daycare for young "adults". Confirmed once again.

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