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August 25, 2010 at 4:19 PM

College requires students to play Valve’s Portal

A liberal arts college in Indiana is requiring its incoming freshman to play “Portal,” the hit puzzle game from Bellevue’s Valve Software.

“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,” Michael Abbott, a Wabash theater professor and game enthusiast, announced on his Brainy Gamer blog.

The game is required as part of mandatory course called Enduring Questions, which addresses “fundamental questions of humanity from multiple perspectives.”

It’s the first time a game has been required coursework at the all-male college, established in 1832 in Crawfordsville, Ind.

Abbott explained that he was charged with finding alternative material such as films, music and art to expand the course.

I recalled reading Daniel Johnson’s recent essay on the game and its strong connections to Erving Goffman’s seminal Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. One of the central questions of our new course, “Who am I?” is the focus of Goffman’s study. He contends we strive to control how we’re perceived by others, and he uses the metaphor of an actor performing on a stage to illustrate his ideas. Johnson describes it this way:

… we’re acting out a role that requires constant management … of the interaction. The front stage is the grounds of the performance. The backstage is a place we rarely ever want to reveal to others, It contains the truth of our obstruction and to reveal it would be to defraud our identity in front of the audience — it simply spoils the illusion of where we’re placing ourself in the interaction.

This tension between backstage machination and onstage performance is precisely what Portal depicts so perfectly — and, no small detail, so interactively.

In the game (pictured below), players progress by solving puzzles and manipulating the environment, opening portals to move through the space.


Valve may have to start an education discount program. Spokesman Doug Lombardi said the company wasn’t involved and learned of the course from news reports. He said via e-mail:

“We obviously are flattered by it, and feel it’s very strong validation that Portal (and the upcoming Portal 2) are games that make you smart, and the promotion of problem solving found in Portal and Portal 2 make them they type of games that parents DO want their kids to play,”

Lombardi said Portal is being used in game design courses, but this is the first time the company’s heard of its use in traditional curriculum.

“Who knows? Maybe it will one day become as universally found in campus bookstores,” he said.

Portal has an academic history. The game was created by students at Redmond game college DigiPen Institute of Technology.

Valve representatives saw Portal during a student showcase, hired the team and released the game in late 2007. The sequel — “Portal 2” — has won high praise from critics and is one of the most-anticipated games coming in 2011.

DigiPen, by the way, is starting classes next month in its new Redmond campus on Willows Road where it’s having opening ceremonies at 1 p.m. Friday.

Comments | More in | Topics: digipen, Education, education


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