Schooled: Portal On The Wabash Reading List

Companion Cube, Companion Cube, whereforeart Companion cube?

Delirium Wartner altered us to this fascinating snippet. Michael “Braingamer” Abbott’s day job is working at Wabash Liberal Arts college in Indiana. In the new (compulsory) Enduring Questions course they’ll be engaging with a variety texts with a general theme of humanity, across all ages. So we’ll have Gilgamesh rubbing shoulders with Poetics, Donne’s poetry, Hamlet, the Tao Te Ching and… Portal. The full story behind it is fascinating, but the core story is that a long-established (1832) college have decided that it’s worth putting a videogame on the syllabus for study. Abbott also talks about other games he considered – Planescape Torment and Bioshock – but decided on Glados’ star turn. Which does make me think… well, if you were in the same situation, what games would you put on a liberal arts reading list? I suspect I may have made the same call as Abbott. Or Robotron, obvs


  1. unholy waffle says:

    My budget for purchases for the semester include a portion for games on steam now. Win. Also, portal set to rake in big bucks for a long time as a text. Double win.

  2. DrGonzo says:

    I would think Planescape would be a better option. But I imagine Portal being available free must have influenced them. Also, Planescape isn’t accessible to non gamers and is very long and rather hard.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      No, PS:T would have been a far worse option – hard to find, expensive and fiddly to set up, and I’m willing to bet its gameplay would have been too complicated for a lot of people. Portal is much more accessible and also has something intelligent to say – it’s a great entry point for games into academia.

      What I find a shame is that they didn’t simply ask Valve to set them up with a cybercafé license of some sort so they could have Steam on all the computers in one lab and play Portal via that so that everyone on the course could have it on their reading list – I’m pretty sure they’d have at least a few computers capable of running Portal.

    • Vinraith says:

      Everything Alexander said, plus Planescape’s MUCH longer. Portal is a “short read” kind of length, by book standards Planescape is War and Peace.

    • DrGonzo says:

      I agree. I was trying to make that point myself but it didn’t come across very clearly. But I was trying to say that I think Planescape would be more fun to analyse, although of course as you say completely impractical.

    • Emphursis says:

      War and Peace isn’t that long…
      Anyway, I don’t think its a good idea.
      Why? It serves no purpose.
      There are no lessons to be learned from Portal in the same way that there are from War and Peace, or Beethoven’s Sonata’s. Waste of time and money.

      It seems as though it is the equivalent of a media studies degree, anyone taking the course should be hung, drawn and quartered.

    • DrGonzo says:

      What exactly do you learn from Beethoven’s sonata?

    • Vinraith says:


      Yeah, from what I’ve heard it would undoubtedly be a fantastic game to analyze in a classroom environment. Plus, if it was coursework, I could audit the class and I suppose I might actually get past the first few hours finally.

    • Coriolis says:

      I think beethoven’s sonatas (at least the good ones, i.e. #23,21,14 and a few others) are more fun then Portal… but what exactly do you “learn” from them?

      I don’t think you “learn” anything from any of these things, it’s just a matter of learning how to enjoy the good stuff in life, and games certainly have a part in that.

      But then again I’m a physicist not a LA type heh

    • DJ Phantoon says:

      A boring physicist if you think Beethoven is more fun than Portal.
      Momentum in video games and you don’t think about it at all?

    • Brumisator says:

      Beethoven is several orders of magnitude more beautiful than Portal, however, the latter is much more fun.

      Now, from a general standpoint, having gaming introduced as a real form of expression in college, great!
      Although is any of those students hadn’t played portal yet, shame on them!

    • BAReFOOt says:

      Bioshock?? IF, then System Shock 1 or 2! Those audio logs alone were haunting!

      Also, people should finally lay off the idea, that stories could only be in the form of something that can be written down like a book. Stories are just a subset of experiences. And those can be vastly more complex, deep, and all-encompassing. And they can be void of any logic or dialog while still telling communicating such a great experience.

    • Snall says:

      Planescape is way better though…

    • l1ddl3monkey says:

      Portal has lots of “crossover” appeal (by which I mean just about every “type” of gamer I know adored it for one reason or another) and the fact you can finish it in a relatively short space of time, that the game experience is the same for everyone and that it is widely and simply available makes it (IMHO) ideal for debate and study.

      It’s good to see gaming increasingly being the focus of more intelligent debate and academia; us gamers need something to counterbalance the “Vidya games promote violence” ranting that we’ve been on the arse end of for god-knows-how-long.

  3. Novotny says:

    Eve – though I don’t play it, I can see its importance.

    • Colthor says:

      Eve Online would certainly tell you a lot about humanity.

    • Jon says:

      EVE told me everything about humanity.

    • Bret says:

      To quote one of the greats, “everything there was to know about life is in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky. But that isn’t enough anymore.”

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      Bret: One of my favourites, for the record.


    • l1ddl3monkey says:

      I read it expecting it to be about a family that steals floor coverings (thanks to Gary Larsson’s Farside Gallery for that joke).

  4. moof says:

    Would definitely pick PS:T over Portal in the writing department, but Portal is much easier to learn and digest and also a lot shorter, therefore a better match for this sort of thing.

    Imagining all the art majors trying to wrap their heads around AD&D rules makes me giggle.

    • Ubiquitous says:

      I am an art major. I really don’t find it too hard to “wrap my mind” around D&D. What did you study that left you so well equiped to deal with the blinding intricracies of DnD rules translated to a computer game?

    • Ozzie says:

      The problem with PS:T is that it takes about 40 hours to get to the good stuff, at minimum. Sure, “What can change the nature of a man?” is foreboded a lot, but the climactic confrontation with Ravel is at the half point of the game. I don’t know when you get to the Brothel of Slating Intellectual Lusts, but it also takes its time. And you don’t get to the skull pillar until you’re three quarters through. And between all the great dialogues and philosophical stuff there’s lots of combat and typical RPG gameplay that doesn’t integrate into the story too well.
      Yeah, Planescape is deeper, but it required more time than it’s worth the hassle for such a course, I think.

    • JackShandy says:

      Fact is, completing planescape: torment is actually an ACHIEVEMENT. Most textbooks could probably be read through in a weekend. If you assigned Planescape you’d probably have to wait a month or so to give everyone time to even get a decent way through it.

  5. Flint says:

    It’s a great step for gaming and I agree that Portal is a great choice in the sense that it’s simple and easy to learn, but I honestly don’t understand where they’re pulling these philosophical concepts in it. It’s got an AI that does amusing quips here and there and… what?

    But then again I never could stomach philosophy so I’m probably immune to seeing the grand depths of works.

    • Xercies says:

      The nature of a master and student relationship where at first we rely on our master to get through and then later on use that knowlede to surpass them. Or soemthing like that.

    • Xercies says:

      Also the existential nature of cake.

    • Tetragrammaton says:

      Pretty much. I loved portal, but to put it on the same list as Politics and Tao Te Ching? Planescape was a little closer, but I would say that no game has reached that point yet. Not to say it wont happen….(although given the focus of the games industry it probably wont happen for qu i t e a w h i l e ………………)

    • Dinger says:

      The fact that you (and most first-year undergraduates) don’t understand where these philosophical concepts are coming from, and yet enjoy the game, is a perfect reason for putting it in a course: a great work can be read in several registers, and that’s what the “great books” first-year courses try to teach.

      In this particular case, he wants to use Portal to illustrate The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which is in itself a bit of a thesis. GladOS assumes the persona of an omnipresent and omniscient test manager, and you explore her “on stage” persona: spotless rooms, clear instructions, a septic environment. Only you get dissonant glimpses of the “backstage”: glitches in what she says, hidden backspace areas, an underlying chaos. When you break free and go “backstage”, GladOS realizes she does not have control over you, and rapidly cycles through personas…

      There are other ways to read Portal. Who are you?

      And, sure, you can use Bioshock for Free will or Deus Ex for political thought, Planescape: Torment for whatever, and so on. But Portal has one huge advantage over all of them: it’s relatively short.
      The one great innovation of Portal that, three years on, it seems not even Valve has taken to heart was its length. 20, 40, 80-hour games are great, but they require an obsession to get through. If you taught a 40-hour game in a standard liberal arts course, you’d need to spend 5 weeks on the game, or nearly half the course. For Deus Ex, that means the course would consist of reading a survey of political philosophy from the Republic to Marx (if not beyond), followed by half a semester of discussing map levels, and a final class treating the application of political ideas.

    • DrGonzo says:


      Proof that you can read it in different ways is that I disagree with you :). You never did break free or get out of her control. Killing Glados was just another test room. Why else would she have clear instructions of how to ‘kill’ her? She had been training you throughout the game to do exactly what you did.

    • Max says:

      Do you think that each poet thinks of the countless interpretations that will be attributed to their poem when they write it? No. They have – at most – a handful of meanings and nuances in mind when they begin to write. In most cases we never find out what the “true meaning” is, since the author dies without revealing it. Does that make the alternative interpretations less meaningful? No.

      Portal was not created with the intent that it would be studied in philosophy courses, however the author of that article makes it clear that it’s writing and design fit very well with the course material. If students can use Portal as a muse to foster discussion and learn something about themselves and the rest of humanity then it doesn’t really matter whether or not Portal has any intentional philosophical meaning.

    • Dinger says:

      @DrGonzo: Well… I didn’t say it was my reading either; I was trying to explore how it would be taught in relation to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Still, if you were to follow that approach, when, after you go against everything she tells you, and “kill” her, she asserts that she planned this all along, you could claim that was Cognitive Dissonance.

      Your reading is heavily influenced by the Bioshock “Free Will in a corridor shooter” subtext. Yes, GladOS tells you exactly what to do. Is that because she wants to, or because, in her broken state, she reveals her weaknesses? Mechanically, we know why this has to be done: because, ever since the Babel Fish puzzle in Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide, game designers have known that it really helps to tell players what they’re expected to do.
      All these readings can be defended, but they don’t (to me) explain why the game would be used to illustrate a particular thesis on how we construct ourselves.

      Of course, the sequel will probably explain more than is necessary, ruining the fun.

    • Bob says:

      I think it is too early in the life of this genre. A game has to give you a unique experience to really be a shining example of it’s medium, portal is linear and doesn’t really fit the bill. Dwarf fortress would be a good choice, if it was in any way accessible, it is one of the greater freeform games, and has given many people great experiences. Maybe someday it will be possible to play the game without a bachelors in engineering.

  6. Moonracer says:

    This sounds good, especially when the class will have to relate it so a written piece with similar ideas. I’ve thought of Portal as a good “gateway game” and I’m glad others do too. If Valve are smart they will offer some sort of deal to this school. Get all these new people into gaming with Portal and then “oh my this Steam thing I installed is full of game!”

    As far as other games that work with the direction of the course I think the only things Portal is missing is the kind of character development and story telling in RPGs and the often strange and uninhibited “human” interactions that multiplayer allows. A good RPG experience takes too long IMO for a class. I’m having a hard time thinking of a good single multiplayer experience as I’d like students to experience PvP and cooperative social interactions. Though even a class field trip where everyone meets up in something like Second Life could be interesting. “My class has a WOW guild” seems like a bad idea though.

  7. ZamFear says:

    Ancient epic poetry on speed?

  8. Joe Martin says:

    I can see why they’d go with Portal – the length and availability make it perfect for mass study. Personally, I think Planescape could raise some more interesting and educational topics, while parts of Beyond Good and Evil might make for some interesting discussion too.

    • Joe Martin says:

      Or System Shock 2. SHODAN/The Many discussions could be interesting, especially when discussing the persistence of identity (SHODAN impersonating Polito, and the dramatic reveal, anyone?). Or Bloodlines, maybe. Or any of the other games mentioned by people like us in places like this, which we’re inclined to automatically think too much of.

      It’s the accessibility of Portal that seems to make it win out from what is said about it, not the actual depth of the content – because, on that front, it is surpassed.

    • Max says:

      The problem with System Shock 2, Planescape, Bloodlines, etc. is that there’s too much game in between the storyline. System Shock’s story is told through audio logs and cutscenes sprinkled throughout a rather lengthy game – so for school work it would make much more sense to just study the text of the game and leave the playing out of it.

      Portal is short enough that the pauses between story aren’t as significant and so much of the story is told through the ambiance that I think it would lose a lot of its power if translated into words. Lots of games have fantastic stories but I think we forget that – as gamers – we enjoy playing through the game to hear the story. If a game is going to be mandatory course material, you don’t want to make non-gamers suffer through hours of challenging battles or inventory management just so that you can have a philosophical discussion.

      Keep in mind that the point of this isn’t to use Portal as a gateway drug to get more people into gaming – it’s simply to expose students to a wider array of media. Portal is accessible enough that people who don’t like gaming should still be able to finish it and participate in the class.

  9. TCM says:

    I think a primary difference between Planescape and Portal, beyond anything else, is that Planescape is a narrative with game elements, Portal is a game-as-narrative.

    If that makes any sense.

  10. Freud says:

    Outcast is interesting. Standard story but extremely well told and has a sense of place pretty much no PC game has managed to best.

    • DrGonzo says:

      I’m playing it through at the moment. I love the way you ask an npc where another npc is and he says that the last time I saw him was over there. It’s full of little touches like that which make you feel that the npc’s are somehow alive.

  11. Hendar23 says:

    Portal has a lot to say. Not many people noticed that Glados actual wants to die.

    link to

    Really interesting

    • Decimae says:

      It’s pretty much the first thing I thought when I finished portal the first time since GLaDOS wouldn’t let herself being killed so easily after being quite intelligent later. Only, when I tried looking on the internet I figured it was paranoia and the change in tone was just there for gameplay and story purposes(and I didn’t want to ashame myself for bringing up a theory likely being thought of before and being confirmed not true or something). Also, the developer commentary didn’t seem to imply such complication.

    • Bob says:

      I think the belief that GlaDOS wants to die is reading too far into the game.

  12. fearian says:

    Portal makes perfect sense, its cheap, its short, in other words, its the perfect game to be ‘compulsory’ to play. Dara O’Brien said once that Gamings shortcoming is that you don’t need to beat a tedious boss to find out what happens at the end of a book – how many students would actually complete planescape?

  13. .backslash says:

    Portal would be my first choice too.
    Other possibilities include World Of Goo and its using of blobs of black goo going unto a tube to comment of complex questions regarding consumerism, the nature of beauty, net neutrality etc, but it’s too mechanical for a literature course.
    BioShock seems nice too, but it kind of beats you over the head with it’s messages. Still, apart from the rather unsubtle Ayn Rand stuff it could be used to examine basic morality, (harvest/rescue Little Sisters), morality of Science (splicers & plasmids) and determinism vs free choice (Would you kindly)
    I could go all artsy with whatever Braid was about and finally I would pick The Longest Journey, simply because it’s a great story.

  14. JohnnyMaverik says:

    I would have gone with Bioshock but Portal certainly isn’t a bad choice.

  15. Arglebargle says:

    Alpha Centauri. Distilled version of much of humanity’s concepts there. And a dang good game to boot.

    Portal has a certain charm though. I don’t like playing that sort of game, but I really enjoyed watching someone else going thorugh it.

  16. dadioflex says:


    I never cared before but now I want my money’s worth.

    If I can’t grind a few bucks out of some clueless student, then the system is broken.

    If I CAN grind a few bucks… happy days….

  17. Jacques says:

    Portal makes the most sense, like others have said, it’s cheap, it’s short and it’s good. It’s not tormentingly hard (largely because of bugs) like Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth, nor is it the painful by the skin of your teeth constant survival-ism of Pathologic, which though poorly told at times, has a great plot (or maybe just atmosphere), if drawn out, far fetched, and insanely difficult. It’s not the brilliant movie with crappy game parts and innumerable loading screens of DreamFall or its predecessor The Longest Journey or the overrated (in my opinion) turn based opera of Final Fantasy 7.

    As for War and Peace, it’s a drawn out narrative of a nobleman (well, several really) put in soldier’s shoes for a while, seeing a couple battles, but mostly rambling on about nonsense. Lessons to be learned from it: Don’t try to piss people off you don’t have to, but don’t act cowardly either. Oh and as long as you’re rich and powerful it’s OK to throw people (either a policeman or an old lady) off bridges into freezing cold waters in which they will die, while you’re drunk, and it’ll get the same attention in the book as a door nob 30 pages earlier, that amount being a page, or 3/4 of one.

    There is plenty to learn from Portal by comparison, I mean hell, people have analyzed it (possibly in excess) to the point where some are convinced that GLaDOS was suicidal and her form represented a woman upside down in a straight jacket. Though I think her snark comments in Portal 2 point differently and IMO that while her ‘death’ was a part of the test, it wasn’t one she looked forward to, rather she wanted to avoid it.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      My heart would love to argue for Dreamfall. Certainly, speaking personally, it had a far deeper effect on me than Portal did. But my head knows that it has many flaws, and not just gameplay ones, and that Portal is a much tighter example of the form.

  18. Jake says:

    I would have loved to have studied Silent Hill 2 in a classroom environment. But I’ll just settle for droning on about it down the pub, I guess.

  19. sfox says:

    Penumbra: Overture and its expansion Black Plague

  20. kahki says:

    Me, I’d nominate Azrael’s Tear, a hidden gem of a game about a failed society of insane 900-year old Templars and dinosaurs that’s still one of the few truly mature games out there (yes, I’m dead serious). Or ideally a faithful remake of it, if one existed, since it’s admittedly a bit clunky and not that pretty to look at today. Still, it has stellar writing and a story that’s intelligent and tragic. Also has some of the most complex and fascinating characters ever to grace a game. If only it would appear on GOG one of these days so it could get even half the attention it so desperately deserves… and maybe then we’d also get the unreleased sequel somehow? Oh god, now I’m depressed.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      Seems like Mindscape still exists, and is closely affiliated with EA – so we just might get it. It certainly sounds interesting enough to warrant buying on GOG, based on your description.

    • Ozzie says:

      Oh man, I want to hug everyone who mentions Azrael’s Tear! :)
      Despite it illusion shattering bugs, it’s one of my favourite games around, it’s so awesome. I don’t think it would fit into this course though. It’s a well researched and told story with believable characters, and the atmosphere is incredibly dense, unlike any other game I played, yet what would you want to philosophize about?

  21. markcocjin says:

    On their forums, they’re talking about playing the game simultaneously and chatting over Skype as they do it.

    Someone tell them they don’t need Skype for that.

  22. Neil says:

    Some college classes better prepare you for a successful career. And then there are classes like this.

    • Dinger says:

      q.v. Liberal Arts.
      I didn’t go to college to learn to be a better slave.

  23. maicon says:

    stalker for sure, then i could add the book roadside picnic and the movie stalker from tarkovski…

  24. [21CW] 2000AD says:

    From a philosophical stand point Sinistar is quite possibly the deepest game out there:
    link to

  25. Robin says:

    The learning curve for Portal for a non-gamer is insanely steep. The writing is cute, but worthy of serious study? It’s about on par with an amusing light radio comedy.

    A game where you make decisions that impact on other characters’ lives would be more interesting to dissect than a Disney ride experience like Portal.

    • Meat Circus says:

      I think you seem to be confusing writing with narrative. They are linked, but they are not even remotely the same thing in well-constructed games.

    • Robin says:

      No, not really, but thanks anyway.

    • The Hammer says:

      “The learning curve for Portal for a non-gamer is insanely steep.”

      No it isn’t. The first few levels are an extremely relaxed tutorial, with no enemies. I’ve tried a few non-gamers on Portal, and the biggest stumbling block was using the mouse to look, but that’s the case with any FPS.

  26. Meat Circus says:

    Much as I adore PS:T, I think it would have been the wrong choice because of its obvious literary pretensions.

    Portal is an excellent choice, not because it’s tightly, brilliantly scripted (though it is) but because Valve have a deep understanding of the narrative structure of video games, of context-as-narrative, of the emergent storytelling which makes their games such joys to play through.

  27. Chris D says:

    I recently introduced my mother to portal. It was quite an eye opener. I hadn’t realised trying to walk through a door was going to be quite so challenging. I had also taken for granted the ability to use the keyboard and the mouse at the same time. It turns pout this isnot so universal as you might think.

    Still, she’s kept at it, and has just picked up the ability to fire orange portals. Despite the consensus being that portal is a short game I think she might be playing for a while yet.

  28. negativedge says:

    Let me go ahead and copy what I wrote on his blog:

    This is completely selfish. While Portal is an excellent video game, it has no place in a required college course. If your job was to provide “non textual” options for the class, you should have stepped back from your cute little hobby and thought of your students. Is Portal a more important contributor to the humanities and to the intellectual and cultural development of human beings than, say every film ever made? Is every person that attends your institution supposed to have a computer that can run Portal? Are they all supposed to naturally be able to control a first person video game? Have you seen people that don’t play games try to wrestle with the controls of these things? Are the professors at this school supposed to be well enough versed in video games (physically and intellectually) to provide any insight or help whatsoever? I’m sure the people in your class with no interest in video games will mail that part of the course in, giving you exactly what you want to hear before moving on. Those with an interest in the form have likely already played Portal. Maybe one or two kids per class (if you’re lucky) will have the desire to approach a video game from an intellectual perspective–and outside of video game design concerns and other detris inextricably tied to a deep familiarity with the medium–things that are as far removed from the stated goals of this course as possible–Portal doesn’t have the legs to any sort of academic rigor. I forsee an awkward classroom back-and-forth apologia of the medium that ends in a confirmation (for those so inclined) of all the worst stereotypes of a liberal education. If this little exercise teaches your kids anything at all, it will be how to limit their analysis of legitimate cultural offerings that welcome a more nuanced, open reading than Portal could offer. Quit masturbating with the education of others.

    Of course, anyone that considered Planescape or Bioshock shouldn’t be in a position to make these kinds of decisions anyway.

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      This is nonsense. Why should Portal need to earn it’s place by being better than every film ever? Any more than, say, Seven Samurai should need to be better than every book ever before being considered worthy of literary study? Portal is an example of the most important new cultural form of our generation, honed to perfection, and, as TCM says above, is the best example yet of the form itself as a medium for storytelling. As opposed to something like Dreamfall, which has a wonderful story, but one mostly told through a cinematic form.

      I also think this is a fantastic thing for gaming in general. The more people who study the form in this way the more it will be pushed forward, and the more people will be equipped to write for games with an understanding of it’s conventions.

    • negativedge says:

      It doesn’t matter whether or not this is “good for gaming.” The point of the class is not to provide some future talking point for video game nerds to high five themselves over. It is to educate students on important matters in human thought and cultural development. This is not the place for questions on the functional role of video games that have not been satisfactorily hashed out by any thinkers, much less ones teaching or attending Freshmen Bullshit 101. It is neither the time nor the place.

    • Ozzie says:

      Games are the art form of the future, so students and lecturers will have to “wrestle” with this medium sooner or later anyway, and I would say better start now then!

    • somnolentsurfer says:

      So at what point do you think it becomes appropriate to begin studying a new form? Study doesn’t begin at the point some anonymous academic overlord deems it appropriate. Study begins at the first moment of consumption. If academia is ignoring entire cultural forms, it’s failing, I would say.

    • negativedge says:

      Please point to where I said “video games should not be studied.”

    • sebmojo says:

      Is Portal a more important contributor to the humanities and to the intellectual and cultural development of human beings than, say every film ever made?

      Ridiculous hyperbole. Worse than Gigli? Worse than Ballistic:Ecks vs Sever? Worse than Southland fucking Tales?

      Portal is an eminently suitable subject for study.

    • negativedge says:

      I meant to ask whether it was more important or interesting than every film ever made, rather than any. Regardless, this is rather far down on my list of objections to this idea.

  29. Eight Rooks says:

    I’m sure you think you’re being the practical and level-headed one in an ocean of gibbering media studies students, but… what an unpleasant human being that post makes you appear to be, mister negativedge. Anyone who doubts any video game has literary or philosophical merit probably shouldn’t be in a position to comment on this site, I’ll say that much.

    I’ll add another vote for Portal, in that it’s hardly the best narrative or writing a videogame’s ever had, but it’s up there, it’s got depth and subtext and is perfectly culturally valid, and it’s by far a more practical choice than lots of other candidates, no matter how more deserving they might be.

    • Robin says:

      “Anyone who doubts any video game has literary or philosophical merit probably shouldn’t be in a position to comment on this site, I’ll say that much.”

      That’s not what he said.

      Portal would represent an unworkable amount of rigmarole to explore questions that are less interesting that those posed by hundreds and hundreds of films.

    • negativedge says:

      That post certainly contains no pretensions of being level-headed, sir! What it is is correct. I happen to take education very seriously. Previously, the floundering game studies academics had kept to themselves. This is not an attempt to educate people–it is an attempt to convert them (a cardinal sin for an educator). It is an attempt by the misguided game studies crowd to selfishly legitimize their desperate attempts to turn video games into literature (to be fair, this is not the goal of everyone looking at games seriously–only most of them) without understanding much of anything about either, much less about what they might share.

    • negativedge says:

      Also what Robin said.

      The problem is two faced:

      1. People that don’t play video games really cannot play video games. There are a set of physical skills surrounding the medium that non gamers simply have not adequately developed. 3D space, in particular, are extraordinarily difficult for non gamers to navigate while wrestling with completely foreign (and largely abstract) controls. First person games add to the confusion. That Source is a bit of a loose engine (plenty of seasoned gamers experience slight vertigo while playing Valve games that they do not otherwise experience, even in other first person games) does not help matters. That Portal is an extremely advanced test of perspective and spacial skills (despite how “easy” it is) compounds the problem further. At this level, the game is best discussed on these spatial terms (actually, it is arguably best discussed on these terms regardless, but too many are wooed by GLADOS as an isolated figure)–how does that fit into the goal of the class?

      2. WIthout a familiarity with the medium, neophyte players will not have the basic knowledge, vocabulary, and experience to engage the game on its own terms. What is to be said of the game’s level design without any idea of how the medium functions? Most Portal discussion focuses on the game as commentary on video game design principles and the role of designers in the realm of play. How can one even begin to approach this subject in a general studies environment? This topics are inextricably linked to level design concerns. What can be discussed outside of the greater debate on the nature and design of video games besides some limp commentary regarding the hostility of GLADOS and the manufactured (and false) affection for the companion cube? None of this is generally applicable to the humanities. To focus on writing and aesthetic concerns–as will obviously be the case–is both to belittle video games and to offer something that pales in comparison to the other works being studied. To associate them is to actively mislead the students, and to dull rather than sharpen their critical eye.

    • Ozzie says:

      Well, the guy doesn’t want to pretend that games are literature, that would be stupid.
      It was more the question to look for works that contain some philisophical aspects in all kinds of media, not just books. So why not also choose a game? Sure, he could also have chosen a comic book, or a film, or some music. But why not a game? Why not?
      Not that I say that Portal is a great choice. Maybe some of those HL2 mods that experimented with narrative would have been a better choice. Never played them, so I dunno.

  30. Fede says:

    Portal seems to fit very well, but another good one could be Floor 13.

    • DrazharLn says:

      What a fun sounding game! I feel another DOSBox gaming archaeology session coming up.

      Thanks for the heads up.

  31. Eight Rooks says:

    negativedge – can’t be bothered with the reply system –

    Wanting to credit video games for being literary doesn’t automatically mean you harbour ambitions of ‘turning video games into literature’. What the hell does that phrase even mean, anyway? I can credit films for being literary – and frequently do – without implying I’d prefer to see them as words on paper rather than moving images. Your previous post contains some good points, and I jumped the gun in responding, but I felt they were largely lost behind a mask of patronising, heavy-handed, hysterical ludologist ranting (Oh, God, the academics have got their hands on our precious hobby again! Save us! They’re employing the same terms they use to talk about other forms of media! Aieeee! …Christ.)

    I struggle to take anyone who says “doesn’t have the legs to any sort of academic rigor” or “legitimate cultural offerings that welcome a more nuanced, open reading than Portal could offer” at all seriously, let alone something as laughable as “Of course, anyone that considered Planescape or Bioshock shouldn’t be in a position to make these kinds of decisions anyway”. I’d like to know precisely what that’s supposed to imply if not ‘My goodness, Planescape: Torment worthy of academic scrutiny? Hahaha! You’ll be writing a Masters on Ke$ha next, I’m sure! Have your immediate superiors seen this lunacy?’.

    I’m sure this decision represents a lot of effort which could be invested elsewhere, and there is merit in pointing out other forms of media address the same issues and talking points which can be read into Portal and do so more directly and succinctly. If someone seizes on that and launches a lazy, reductive, hysterical, arrogant attack against the idea that led to the decision in the first place (‘It is an attempt by the misguided game studies crowd to selfishly legitimize their desperate attempts to turn video games into literature’ – seriously? Do you actually realise how things like that sound? Honestly?)… well, it gets me annoyed. You want me to take your rant as anything other than alarmist, scaremongering nonsense, learn some civility and/or take the time to write something more constructive than regurgitating The Wall.

    • negativedge says:

      “negativedge – can’t be bothered with the reply system –

      And I can’t be bothered to legitimately respond to a lazy effort that asks no questions, offers no salient points, and severely misunderstands anything I could possibly hope to address or present in favor of a lame reactionary defense over a perceived attack on your (likely nonexistent) cultural sensibilities.


  32. Ozzie says:

    A quote from the article:
    “…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.”

    In this regard, I would recommend the movie “Synecdoche, New York”. Fits really well with this train of thought.

  33. Fergus says:

    A nice step forward, though I crave being able to discuss video games academically at something other than “liberal art” level.

    I just finished a degree in media studies, and I focussed my entire final year on critical thinking around video games. It was great and all (a dissertation writing about GTA4 and Heavy Rain is always going to be awesome), but the vast majority of the academics on the course simply weren’t prepared for it. I remember having painful discussions in seminars where the concept of games reaching a deeper philosophical level than Mario and Modern Warfare 2 was just something that people couldn’t get their heads around. In some ways it brought home to me how big the obstacle we have to get over is before we can talk about games in the same arena as academics talk about books and films.

    • negativedge says:

      Mario is far, far more worthy of “deep philosophical” (lol) debate than GTAIV or (Christ) Heavy Rain.

    • Fergus says:

      Now you’re just trolling. Trolling rather obviously.

      Hm. That could become a meme.

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      “Forget it, Fergus. It’s Negativeedgetown.”


    • robrob says:


      One of my favourites, for the record.

    • negativedge says:

      Telling that you would rather assume I was trolling than take my statement at face value. The idiot generally is not interested in facing what he does not intrinsically comprehend.

    • Chris D says:


      “The idiot generally is not interested in facing what he does not intrinsically comprehend.”

      That would certainly explain your problem with Portal.

    • negativedge says:

      Portal is one of my favorite games of all time. I am nearly certain I have a greater understanding of it than you do.

    • Chris D says:


      Really? Leaving aside the question of how you could possibly know what my understanding of portal is, how would you even begin to quantify that?

      What are we talking about? Knowledge of it’s design history? Understanding the relationship between Glados and Chell. Deconstruction of the storytelling techniques used. Who can get the highest score on the challenge modes? The use of the rat-man motif? The psychology of euthanising the companion cube? Whether interactivity changes the nature of the narrative? Whether Portal can be considered to be interactive at all? How physics shapes the structure of the game? Is “We do what we must because we can”, a valid philosphical position? What real world philosophies is it parodying?

      There’s a lot there to try to understand, if we consider understanding a worthwhile goal.

      Now if only there was someone teaching a course on it…

  34. Andrew says:

    Portal is a better idea for a literature course than Torment because it’s approachable? Since when has approachability been a requirement for literature? The reason Torment is a bad idea is that it’s a book masquerading as a video game, and there are better books that are actual books.

    • negativedge says:

      Look at the man in this thread that is right.

    • The Hammer says:

      Approachable technically, Andrew. If you try and analyse a text which has limited availability and therefore unreliable access, then your study of the text is going to suffer for that. You’re just wasting your time that way.

  35. ed says:

    I think it’s right to select something that doesn’t have a literary or film style narrative, but instead focus on something which uses the medium’s unique strengths (ie interactivity) to tell a story. Half-Life 2 would have been a solid option. Portal is a decent one… both in length and content. Something a bit more controversial may have provided some more fuel for a cultural angle. GTAIV? Modern Warfare 2?

  36. N says:

    How utterly retarded.


    • Fergus says:

      I’m interested to hear a more detailed explanation of why it is “retarded”?

  37. Ozzie says:

    But PS:T isn’t very approachable gameplaywise either. How much combat do you have to endure to get to the meaty part for such a course? To much I’d say.

    • sfox says:

      Almost none actually, Torment can be completed with almost no battles as it has a heavy emphasis on giving you the option of peaceful solutions to most situations.

    • Ozzie says:

      Yeah, especially when you have to fight the hordes of the fallen angel. Gosh, was that frustrating! How could I go around that?

  38. Ryan says:

    Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

    Although negativedge comes off as a bit of an arse, he does bring up some things that deserve consideration. For a minute, we should forget about whether Portal merits serious academic discussion. The other important question is whether an familiarity with video game behaviours and conventions is required before any worthwhile study of Portal is undertaken.

    I can’t answer that, but I think it’s a valid question.

    The other issue is that first year students are usually not expected to be academic trailblazers. Usually when students study something there is a history of study associated with that text and its medium that they can reference. How necessary are these resources in relation to the aims of this uni course?

    • Dinger says:

      First, as is pointed out, only a section of the course (20-25) students will be playing Portal, and this is exactly for the reservations mentioned.
      Second, as someone who went to a liberal arts college, has studied in a half-dozen universities in as many countries, got his Ph D., and has taught university courses for several years, let me just say:
      Fuck the canon!
      Why only study shit that’s been studied before, even as a freshman?
      The title of the course is “Enduring Questions”: that means you can find them everywhere. And I’m practically certain this course includes now or has in the past included cinema.
      Commencement week for my BA, the profs held some discussion events for the parents. One was on the impact of gender studies on the curriculum as a whole, and on the students in general.At the end, one of the parents asked:
      “With students studying all these new voices and conflicting opinions, do they still study the writings of Socrates during their four years here?”

      yes, yes, as much as you did when you were in skool.

    • negativedge says:

      On the internet, antagonism is extremely useful. I’d recommend others view what I say (here and elsewhere) under that assumption.

    • negativedge says:

      Also, Socrates never wrote anything lololol etc.

    • Dinger says:

      It’s nice to see that, even with the internet, some jokes still fail to break the sound barrier.

  39. TCM says:

    Good holy god what a discussion.

    I’m not going to comment beyond what I already said: Portal is an excellent game as a narrative, a game which does not rely on trapping the player in one area to explain itself for a bit (such as the story bits in games like Half-Life 2, where you can freely move the ‘camera’ around an entirely confined space), or forcing the player to do something they would not do on their own (like a traditional cutscene). Its narrative is told through action and monologue during said action. It has no dialogue trees, no freedom of choice. It is the purest form of game. And it is the purest, simplest form of game-as-narrative. As opposed to what so many RPGs, and other text or story-heavy games have, narrative-as-game.

    Portal’s plot is Portal. Portal is its own plot. The two are wed together, and there is no distinction, no disconnect. Nothing happens in a ‘scene’ that would not happen within the logic of gameplay, because everything is gameplay. There’s nothing the player is aware of that their character is not, and there’s nothing you know beyond what you see.

    I cannot comment on the literary merit of the game, and I refuse to comment on whether or not it ‘should’ be on a required reading list. But I can see why it would be chosen to represent games as a narrative form.

  40. Humble says:

    Lots of good points being adressed in this thread. I find myself in agreement with both opponents and proponents of introducing games as something to be studied on par with literature and films. Of course it’s important to incorporate new media/entertainment into teaching, as all forms of expression are equally valid (imho), and it’s important to teach students to decode the ‘language’ used by games, just as they should ideally be able to do so with films, literature, music and what have you.
    However, Portal is an incredibly exciting game *to gamers* because it breaks the usual gaming conventions. It references other genres and turns the fps clichés around, and we gamers appreciate this. As Negativedge noted, non-gamers won’t be able to see this, as they lack the necessary knowledge to see how this is something special. Now, as the general theme of the teaching is Humanity, focusing on the actual gameplay of Portal becomes somewhat irrelevant (unless you argue that the linearity of the experience is a comment on the human condition, and that would really be reaching), and therefore only the ‘story’ of the game remains. The story, while excellent for a game, is rather simple, and could be condensed into a few pages of text and pictures, which would be far easier to grasp for the non-gaming students (if these even exist ;)).

    Incorporating games into teaching, great! (Being a teacher, I’ve done this myself on several occasions and with good results) Games are becoming increasingly popular and ‘serious’, and thus students must be able to understand the genre.
    Using games to illustrate themes that are better represented in other media, I consider wasteful of the student’s limited time and may cause more confusion than enlightenment on their part.

    • choconutjoe says:

      It could be argued that pushing people outside of their comfort zones is precisely what intro-courses like this are for. True, most non-gamers starting the course will lack the kind of background knowledge required to really ‘get’ a lot of Portal’s significance. But perhaps forcing people to learn these things, when they otherwise wouldn’t, is part of the point. It’s as much about broadening people’s horizons as about teaching them something specific about Portal or games in general.

      Interestingly, the reading list also contains the Tao Te Ching, which is similarly incomprehensible to just about anyone born outside of China. Really ‘getting’ the Tao Te Ching requires several thousand years of Chinese history as context. So Portal is unlikely to be the only thing giving the students a headache.

    • negativedge says:

      The Tao Te Ching can be engaged from a Western perspective. In fact, in a broad western liberal arts curriculum, it is generally presented as some kind of alternative to Plato (there are some inherent problems with this idea, but they are beyond the parameters of this discussion). Portal, at its heart (and thus, where it is useful), cannot be engaged from the perspective of a non gamer. Regardless, it is more useful and interesting to understand the broad population set of “Chinese” (or “Eastern”) than the one labeled “gamer” (which, taken colloquially, has no academic merit–intellectually, it likely remains undefined).

    • choconutjoe says:

      The point I was trying to make was that the process of engaging something totally new in a way that forces you to think in a way that you’ve never had to before, might actually be the goal of the course (rather than simply teaching people something about games or gamers).

      For a non-gamer, trying to seriously analyze Portal will be a shock to the system, an exercise in mind-broadening. Irrespective of how brilliant any book or film you care to mention is, none of them could possibly replicate the total shift in thinking required to tackle something like Portal, because analyzing books and films is something that most students are already familiar with.

      If discomfort and unfamiliarity are what they’re aiming for then I can imagine Portal would be an excellent choice (as well as the Tao Te Ching).

  41. GGX_Justice says:


    Excellent post.

  42. JackShandy says:

    Hey everybody, let’s stop raving about literary games and start bagging great works of literature!

    Moby Dick! That was a terrible book. It reads like he made a narrative and then suddenly decided to make the whole thing about religion, then just sprayed religious metaphors indescriminately over every part of the book. The turning point for me was when the protagonist accidentally trips over an ashtray in a bar, and shouts “WHAT! Are these the ashes of that very damned city, Gommorah!?”

  43. Leperous says:

    This is a Good Idea simply because Portal does not have a weight of literary study behind it, thus there is the chance for students to apply what they learn to a contemporary/relavant work without preconceptions.

    At the same time, it is a Bad Idea because Portal is a puzzle game, not a reflection on humanity or performance. The antagonist (whom the study concerns) is not human and has no motive other than to murder the primary performer, for science. Chell’s decisions/reactions are based on cold hard logic, rather than emotion, and that, to me, is not worth study.

  44. Jacques says:

    Literature is, though quite vast, becoming one medium among many for telling narratives. Movies, television series, games, plays (possibly older than literature), and comic books (arguably literature still, but largely not regarded as such) all offer ways of telling a story.

    I studied Interpreting Lit. a year ago, and what I discovered is that my class had 0% to do with interpreting and 100% to do with memorizing; which is to say that our teacher had already interpreted the literature and we were supposed to copy what he said down and parrot it back to him. Granted we didn’t have to go through Pride and Prejudice, thank heavens. That said, I’m very bad at parroting back answers told to me a month earlier.

  45. jalf says:

    I can’t think of a better game to pick. Most of the other suggestions are uninteresting in this context because, well, the game part of them is really irrelevant. Alpha Centauri? Why not just use the tech tree quotations as a dictionary of Important Things Important People Said.

    The interludes are interesting enough to read, but I’m not sure how much there is to interpret in them. And even if they are, you’ve basically cut out the game part, so why not just tell the students to read a book? I loved the game, but it’s not something I’d bring up in a Liberal Arts class.

    Planescape: Much the same: the story is interesting, and yes, you can find things to analyze and discuss in it, but you might as well read a book.

    Portal is unique in that the narrative and the game are so closely tied together. You could never write Portal: The Book, and a Portal clone which kept the puzzles but removed the narrative just wouldn’t work. It is the only game I can think of that’s worth analyzing because it is the only game I can think of whose narrative isn’t just a “choose your own adventure” book with better graphics.

    It also touches on some interesting themes. Saying “GlaDOS isn’t human” is missing the point. She acts human (or at least like a somewhat neurotic human). She and everything else in the game is oozing personality, they are *characters* in the way that few video game enemies are. The guys you shoot in Call of Duty might be modeled to look human, but they’re not characters. The turrets in Portal are. GlaDOS is.
    And of course, a story about the relationship between two characters is always interesting to analyze. Much more so than the story of someone who goes on a killing spree to save the world, no matter how interesting that world might be.

    • Ozzie says:

      Planescape: Much the same: the story is interesting, and yes, you can find things to analyze and discuss in it, but you might as well read a book.

      I disagree. Consider for a second the moment at the skulls pillar, where you have to trade a part of yourself or one of your team members for information. That’s a moment you couldn’t replicate in a book, because the interaction the scene requires from you makes it so powerful. You travelled with your companions, and every single one grew dear to you. I couldn’t bring it over me to throw Morte back into the pillar, because he was so devoted to me. It really was a heart wrenching decision.
      And of course, PS:T allows you many ways to proceed in your quest, in simplified terms, you can turn evil, be selfish, or try to help everyone. You can play yourself, act how you want to. That’s why PS:T has worth as a game narrative, even if the gameplay and the story aren’t very well intertwined.

    • Ozzie says:

      Oh, and I forgot the confrontation with Ravel, the anxiety you feel while answering her questions. Will I die when I answer wrongly? I chose really carefully every single one of them. Again, not an experience you could replicate in any other art form.

  46. Sunjumper says:

    Also GlaDOS is a perfect amalgamation of the more disfunctional behaviours you will find in the natural sceinces. The experiments, the cold calculating mind, the fury when it goes wrong all things that you will find reflected in one way or another when working in a lab. GlaDOS is pretty the archetypical amoral scientist.

    I do agree that what makes the choice of this game a really good one is that the expirience cannot be replicated in any other medium. It has to be played to feel the full impact of the story. Just like Shadow of the Colossus only works as a game.

    What I found the most hillarious during this discussion is the idea of accessibility.
    Teaching should only ever be done with easily digestible material and no course should contain material that requires active work from the part of the student to grasp it.
    I’d have loved that having been spared Kant and not having to go to through anorganic chemistry in university. If you are not allready familar with it it is very hard to get into it at first, we should drop that.

    • Ozzie says:

      I think when talking about the accessibility PS:T the problem was that the gameplay was very much too hardcore, the combat and other RPG elements, and it wouldn’t add anything to the discussion either, since through those gameplay elements nothing philosophical or meaningful is said. So, you have to endure those parts to get to the interesting ones for such a course.
      So it’s less an issue about accessibility, it’s more the problem that It’s basically a waste of time.

    • Ozzie says:

      Just think about it: You had to fight your way through a dungeon for three hours before you could read Kant. That’s PS:T in parts.

  47. Sunjumper says:

    There are time constraints to be considered after all.
    Thus Portal being a better choice than Torment in the above example.

    I would like to add that Kant IS the dungeon.
    You grind your way through it for three hours and then: Level Up! It all makes sense now.

  48. Fergus says:

    *points at above comments*


    *breaks down*

  49. DaveyJones says:

    Bioshock is the easy/obvious choice… So many different works of literature to link to it. Personally, I would go with World of Goo:D

  50. Azazel says:

    Desert Bus.