Valve’s Learning Space

Portal 2 is a game primarily about Physics – the game pits the player against an AI unit called GLaDOS who at one point in the game states, “Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” From Newtonian Mechanics such as mentally calculating the vectors of force and velocity, potential & kinetic energy, momentum, conservation laws to things like Modern Physics, such as Einstein-Rosen Bridges from the theory of General Relativity – Valve has made Portal 2 perhaps the most compelling online learning space that currently exists for the teaching & learning of STEM.

Allowing students to grapple with Newton’s Laws in a visual way will appeal to most and perhaps even excite a new generation of students interested in science. What Portal 2 does so well in my opinion is that whilst a majority of the physical laws are true to their real-world counter-parts, at some stages Valve violates these laws – allowing the player to experiment and explore what might be. Allowing players to act out these thought experiments or Gedankan, a concept that Einstein made famous, allows deep connections to be formed by students in relation to their prior knowledge and experiences.

Using FRAPS, students could create Machinima exploring and explaining the Physics within the game – but what is really powerful is having students create a mod of Portal 2 using the Authoring Tools. By having teams of students create a full-blown mod of Portal 2 you have them involved in true inquiry as they have to first learn the Authoring Tools, think about character design and development, narrative, scripting, level design, physics, flow and story. Students are part of an iterative design process as they mould and shape their product. And what about voice acting for their characters? To make an AI-sounding voice students have to learn about pitch, modulation, frequency, amplitude, period – a hands-down better approach to teaching students about sound and wave theory. This is a true systems thinking approach that has real world connection – a simple and elegant solution to the declining number of enrolments in STEM courses around the world. Wrapping the study of this stuff around 3D graphics, vector geometry and computational and aesthetics principles that are tied to game development will excite even the most academically disaffected student. In provides a context.

This is the first in a series of posts that will detail the use of the Portal 2 Authoring Tools and how this learning environment can be used to promote STEM Education. Games are permeating life – lets harness their potential as effective learning spaces.


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