Valve On Why Games Could Very Well Fix Education

The first time I ever played Portal was damn near magical. Each room I walked into held promise of some diabolical new assault on both my brain and the laws of physics, but I made them look like child’s play. At the time, I was certain it proved I was a genius with an IQ so huge that even my bulging genius brain couldn’t count that high. Of course, I soon came to find out that everyone experienced Portal that way. So I wasn’t a genius. But the puzzle designers at Valve were.

To this day, Portal stands as the most masterful example of invisibly intuitive teaching I’ve ever discovered. It slowly builds upon itself – sneaking new techniques into your repertoire until you’re snoozing through puzzles that would’ve short-circuited your synapses maybe 20 minutes earlier. Is it a fit for classrooms, though? My first inclination would be to think not. I mean, it’s not exactly a hyper-accurate physics simulation – even with science jokes making up the bulk of both Portal 1 and 2’s brilliantly witty dialogue. That, however, is precisely the point, according to Valve director of education Leslie Redd and designer Yasser Malaika. It’s how Valve games teach – not what they’re teaching – that could help save a rusty, way-behind-the-times education system.

“I think it’s the design approach,” begins Redd, a former senior administrator at The Evergreen School in Shoreline, WA. “It seems like it’s even harder to make something fun than it is to create something that teaches well, or that demonstrates well. So we feel that it’s easier to build the teaching on top of something that’s fun and engaging already.”

“I think what’s really important is for kids to have genuine experiences where they feel that they can accomplish something. And when they’re using the puzzle maker, they’re using a tool which can be used and is used by adults and professionals. They see the opportunities in it. It’s that sense of flow. Portal 2 is challenging. You’re working at the outer level of your capability, but you never get so frustrated that you stop. That is how you have good learning, in pretty much anything that we’re doing.”

Which is all easy to say, but how does Valve know it’ll actually work? Well, this may come as a surprise to you, but Valve doesn’t simply launch things willy nilly. It pokes, prods, tests, measures, and even trashes stagnant products altogether. On Teach With Portals, that mentality most certainly hasn’t changed. Redd explains:

“As [Portal 2’s recently launched] puzzle maker came closer to going through its beta, we also put together a group of about 20 to 25, as we call them, beta test teachers. They were from a diverse group around the country. For instance, we have urban, rural, different socioeconomic levels, private, public, Catholic, online, home school – we just tried to get a really diverse group. Game design teachers, physics teachers, math teachers.”

And that pool, according to Redd and Malaika, is expanding constantly, but not in a haphazard way. Rather, it’s all about adapting to the needs of teachers and students, then rolling findings back into the larger curriculum.

“We responded to things like a teacher writing to us who works in the LA inner-city schools and saying, ‘I don’t know anything about games. I don’t know anything about your company. But is there any way you can help my classes made up of students who cannot pass Algebra 1? They’ve taken it so many times, and if they can’t pass, they don’t graduate. How can you help?’ And for us, that was an impetus to say, ‘OK, can we find a math teacher who can use Algebra 1 concepts within the puzzle maker and Portal 2 to be able to engage students?'”

And, on that front, Valve’s had a number of rather pleasant surprises. The idea, explains Malaika, is to provide teachers with less of a framework and more of a mold. Teachers can then shape that mold into whatever’s needed for the task at hand – whether that’s physics, chemistry, math, language arts, or even solving the age-old problem of creativity and outside-the-box thinking being staunchly discouraged in classroom settings.

“Cameron Pittman, a teacher at a science-technology-engineering-math magnet school in Nashville, Tennessee, has been one of the ones who’s pushing in that direction,” notes Redd. “Cameron’s taking the next step, which is teaching kids how to use the puzzle maker and then asking them to design their own experiments. He’ll say something like, ‘Create a chamber that tests the strength of gravity.’

“The kids will come up with completely unique solutions using different game mechanics, and some of them will be better than others, but that springboards to a discussion about engineering processes and the scientific method. It gets kids into the practice of critical thinking and creative exploration and learning from failure as well as success. We see that as a place where games can really shine over rote learning.”

Of course, this is hardly the first attempt in history at using games to teach. Oregon Trail – an American institution that masterfully teaches kids how to commit buffalo genocide and also a bit of US history, I guess – immediately springs to mind. It’s fondly remembered by adults and horse-drawn wagon enthusiasts across the country, and yet, it grinds to a halt after that. But why? Why didn’t such an effective, enjoyable tool kick off a games-in-schools revolution 30-some-odd years ago?

“You know, [the Games For Change conference, where Teach With Portals debuted] has been really interesting,” says Redd, “because, let me tell you, they’re bringing up Oregon Trail. But I think that the mass was not there, the mass interest. And now what is happening in this educational space is, people at the highest levels and at the ground level, the teachers, are all looking at how games can help with learning, and the richness that exists in video games. And also, you have to think about it as being generational. Now, pretty much eveyone’s a gamer.”

“Everyone now has a sophisticated device at their fingertips,” adds Malaika. “The activity is much more ubiquitous, and game design education is more common. There’s a lot more pieces in place now. And we’ve also solved a lot of the online business transactions. There’s more development tools [readily available to everyone].”

But videogames are hardly the only way game design has infiltrated schools. Gamification, popularized by luminaries like “Reality Is Broken” writer Jane McGonigal, has attempted to overlay game-like elements onto normally mundane activities. Education, especially, has ended up a major focus – though not always for the right reasons. And while Redd and Malaika are happy to see that there’s such a strong desire to dump gallons of oil on education’s rusty old gears, but they also make a sharp distinction between smartly considered principles of game design and sloppily implemented point systems. If, in fact, reality is broken, we need to fix the problem – not slap achievements on it.

“I think that things have to be relevant to people at the end of the day,” explains Malaika. “You can’t take something that isn’t relevant to somebody, gamify it in some superficial way and expect it to be a good solution. I think that the best gamifications – and I really don’t like that term – are things that express inherently interesting and relevant and valuable information [in an engaging way].”

“I don’t think it’s worrisome if people are trying new things, trying to improve the situation,” he quickly adds. “And you never know. Sometimes something will not work, but within failure we’ll learn why, and that gives everybody a sense of where we need to go next. And certainly, coming from a design background, I can attest to the value of failure – repeated failure.”

And ultimately, it’s that mindset that’ll pave the way not just for education to finally catch up with, well, much of the rest of society, but also students using these sorts of programs – Teach With Portals and Steam For Schools included.

“I think that it’s not so much about failing as it is about putting in the effort and learning from the experience,” Redd clarifies. “It’s all about putting in the effort, and through the effort – being uncomfortable and the awkwardness and learning more about the experience in the process – that’s where you have success. Having high-stakes tests and high-stakes experiences and having things track you, those are the parts that make you not want to try. That’s one of the things that’s wonderful in Portal 2. You can just do it again and again and again, you can keep putting in that effort. You can be persistent until you’re able to solve it. That’s a really valuable skill. Persistence is certainly super valuable.”

“Yeah, it’s important for creativity,” adds Malaika. “If there isn’t a safe way to fail, then it’s really hard to be creative. And what’s more important to teach in schools than how to love learning and how to be creative and engaged?”

So then, for Valve, Teach With Portals is just the beginning of something far, far larger. After all, what’s the point of Steam For Schools if it only has one game? But what’s the next step? Where do we go from here? Well, according to Redd and Malaika, that’s where we enter the picture.

“There are several layers here,” concludes Redd. “We created the platform, the framework, and the tools. Now people have to decide how they want to use it, how far they want to take it. Within that, it’s the enthusiasm and the time and the effort that will carry it further and make it more successful. We’re all going to need to do this together. We need the students, we need the parents, we need the teachers.”

“And we need gamers, to reach out to other developers,” Malaika points out. “Because we feel that other games have potential to be used in an educational context. I think it’s really important for other developers to steer that, because you know, you’re focused in on your own little world. It’s so much work just to make something fun, in an entertainment context. Knowing that there’s demand and interest was really critical for us. I believe that other developers would feel the same way.”

If you’re interested in seeing more – because I imagine you’ve hit your limit on reading for the day/year/life – you can watch the entirety of Valve’s Games For Change conference presentation here.


  1. sinister agent says:

    Can someone simplify this for me please. I can’t read all these words, it hurts.

  2. Reapy says:

    Some of my most memorable lessons came from hames, but generally there was already an interest there. Would be cool for the game to be able to create that interest in the first place by creating a need for the knowledge that is a bit more subtle than mathblaster was.

    Game i liked was some sort of whaling museum game, cant remember much. Also learned a lot from battle of brittian manual and the encyclopedia thing that came with the first total war game.

    • Rivalus says:

      hames? Did you eat it to learn or just watch it turn into something?

  3. Wunce says:

    I’ve always wondered why no one made a hacking Minigame that actually used simple logic circuit diagrams (that I know of).
    I remember a game we played back in school (Maths Circus I think it was called) that had logic diagrams as part of the main game but there was no explanation of how to use it so I just randomly mashed buttons until I won; perhaps that’s why it isn’t necessarily a good educational tool.

  4. frenz0rz says:

    Did anyone else ever play Zombinis? Playing that is one of my best primary school memories.

    • PleasingFungus says:

      Zoom-zoom – Zoombini!

      Truly, a timeless masterpiece.

    • sub-program 32 says:

      I have played Zombinis on multiple occasions, and it was amazing. I still find it enjoyable even now (I still have it!).

    • InternetBatman says:

      Zoombini’s did have that squirrel that was oddly supportive of segregation. “A place for everyone and everyone in their place.”

      It was also funny how the announcer changed over the games. In the first one he was exuberant “HIP, HIP, ZOOOMBINIS!.” He sounded like he had just had a gallon of really good scotch. By the third one he sounded like he had a permanent hangover. Poor zoombinis announcer.

    • Camal says:

      i just registered for this comment:
      i saw this game being presented in a children show on tv when i was like 10? i couldnt remember the games name so i told everyone i know about this game and how it works (i only saw the first puzzle of the game), finally someone gave me a hint: “its called lemmings” (close enough :D ) eventually i lost interest in searching for the game (no internet for me back then) but every now and then i would thought about this game. now, after randomly searching for this “zoombini” game on the inet because i was curious about your comment, i FINALLY found it! thanks man! (sry for english, i am german, and yes, i need to find alternative words for “game”)

  5. Vinraith says:

    Ah Oregon Trail, now that was an educational game!

    link to

  6. Tiguh says:

    As a teacher, and a gamer I have to say that integrating this sort of thing into normal lessons is extremely hard. You can always get already-engaged students to join in with some cool new gadget or toy, but that isn’t really the issue.

    If you want to use games or game-like software then it needs to be REALLY simple and quick to use. It also needs to run on ancient and insane computers. I’ve often wanted to teach design with Minecraft but there isn’t a school computer I’ve ever seen that could run it.

    I teach (amongst other things) computer-aided design at secondary level and students really struggle with even the simpler programs. Google Sketchup gets them building, but not actually designing, because anything simple and intuitive enough to actually use inevitably ends up not being powerful enough to do what I would call “learning”.

    Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a good idea, but I’ve used the Portal 2 level creator, and that isn’t the answer. Almost everything that you think might work in classrooms unfortunately ends up being too complicated for a significant proportion of the students, and that’s not going to engage young people; it’s going to make them feel even worse.

    Also, Nathan, I really do love you and everything (honest!) but saying things like:
    “a rusty, way-behind-the-times education system.” and particularly “the age-old problem of creativity and outside-the-box thinking being staunchly discouraged in classroom settings.” isn’t really fair. I think you’d be (extremely) surprised to find out how much effort is put into these things in education (at least in the schools that I’ve worked in, here in the UK). And I think /overall/ that if this were possible then teachers would already be doing it. But it will be one day, and then we will do it!

    • Donjo says:

      Which schools are going to have to finances necessary for the implementation of systems that use these teaching methods? These idea are fascinating, but it seems that privately funded companies are more likely to become involved with privately funded schools… there is already a massive divide in education levels, we need to make sure this problem isn’t exacerbated….

    • Dinger says:

      In fairness, this is true of using computers to teach at all levels: it needs to work on crappy kit, and most of what you’ll be doing is far more basic than what someone from the outside would imagine.

      Years ago, when I was looking at the VBS stuff (military training FPS), it was always interesting to see the difference between what gamers thought was going on with it (“ooh, super-advanced military simulation running on the military’s fastest liquid-cooled PCs”) to what was actually going on (old PCs, simple exercises and the rest). Times have changed for VBS, but I’m betting a lot of the training it’s used for is pretty mundane.

      So too for primary and secondary education. I remember way back when spending a year (mid-80s) at a High School in rat-infested quonset huts by the Rhine. For our Physics class, we projected a Sputnik-era filmstrip of a ball’s trajectory against the wall, and took measurements on paper. Now, I’m old, but not _that_ old.

      That said, I’ve found that knowing some basic physics and how to conduct experiments comes in handy when working on modding games. Each simulation has its own set of rules, and people who know how to discover those rulesets are valuable to civil society.

      If games and fancy tech help kids learn, great. PLATO also had that ambition. While over its 46-year operational history it didn’t have a huge impact in terms of numbers educated, it constitutes one of the great and largely unknown chapters in the history of computer gaming. Tech isn’t the answer to education’s woes, but it does shape society.

    • Yosharian says:

      Exactly, it’s a pretty arrogant, misleading and ignorant statement to say that games can fix education. There is nothing that can fix education because there are no governments that WANT to educate in the way you’re talking about. The elite will attend elite schools and get elite educations. The poor and lower class can go work in McDonalds restaurants for a minimum wage.

      • Donjo says:

        Yosharian- I share your frustration, I don’t think the fatalistic attitude is useful though :) Everything is in flux, whether we’re aware of it or not.

      • Ernesto says:

        Did you even read the article? Nobody said, that games fix education. It’s just that Valve apparently had the idea to use their software to teach kids. Nothing more.

        • Lacero says:

          It’s the title of the article!

          • Ernesto says:

            Then you should have your eyes examined, sir. Because there is the little yet important word ‘could’ in the title. I’m not a native englishman, but I think that suggests, that it is an idea or a theory rather then a fact ;)

          • thestage says:


            I wonder how people become this stupid.

            So because the article did not explicitly say “games WILL 100% “fix” education,” then you can make no claim whatsoever about the aims of the article, which 100% is about games “fixing” education?

            But hey, Valve said it in a press release so it must be true.

          • Phantoon says:

            It’s part of being American. We’re trained to believe that every story is as bombastic as it’d be at first glance. The Weekly World News didn’t die because it was too ridiculous- it’s just that we got used to it.

    • Ernesto says:

      ‘Ease of use’ is a big keyword imho.
      I don’t think, games belong in a classroom. Sandboxes belong there.
      There are professional ‘sandboxes’ like Ansys, Matlab, Solidworks, CAE software in general. Those have an enormous potential to teach stuff. The problem is, that these programs are designed by engineers for engineers. Fortunately in the last years ease of use is getting a higher priority.
      The same problem applies to game engines and world editors. But ease of use is a big issue in this area too (see Unreal Engine 4 editor and the above mentioned portal maps creator).
      So we need either a somewhat ‘dumbed-down’ professional software or a ‘smarted-up’ sandbox game ;)

      Game engines and professional software have one thing in common: the goal is to simulate a world. And there is an increasing demand for that. So let economy take it’s course and in a couple of years you have some incredibly easy to use sandboxes.

      The recent attempts with Portal or Minecraft in the classroom are just a welcome excuse for pupils to play computer games instead of learning or doing homework. At least it would have been for me ;)

      • Vorphalack says:

        > ”The recent attempts with Portal or Minecraft in the classroom are just a welcome excuse for pupils to play computer games instead of learning or doing homework. At least it would have been for me ;)”

        Isn’t that the point though? Create a virtual environment that children don’t recognise as a teaching aid, but still provides an engaging platform that inherently promotes non-quantifiable skills such as critical thinking and creativity. I think that’s what Nathan meant by ” way behind the times education system”. We need to give proper credit to teaching methods that aren’t neatly presented in a textbook for comparative marking.

        • Ernesto says:

          That may be true, but there is no transfer of that creativity or critical thinking or whatever to the outside world. You can get some inspiration out of it, but that’s not learning imho.
          When you solve a puzzle in Portal, you have an eureka-experience. When you build something in Minecraft, you can be proud of yourself or your teamwork maybe. But what did you learn exactly?

          • Donjo says:

            That’s what I was thinking… I’m not sure of skills that are learned in virtual environments translate to work in other environments very effectively…

          • Vorphalack says:

            > ”there is no transfer of that creativity or critical thinking or whatever to the outside world”

            All skills are transferable.

          • Faxmachinen says:

            Ah, computer games.

            At 5 I played it.
            At 10 I created it.
            At 15 I programmed it.
            At 25 I had a degree in it.
            I’m currently a consultant programmer for Norway’s largest bank.

            Your mileage may vary. I should mention that I did not get to use computers at school for all but the last three years (and even then I had to code on paper for the exams).
            My grades suffered for it.

          • subedii says:

            I was usually well ahead of my class when it came to English language and Literature.

            Truthfully? I put that down to growing up with the classic Sierra and LucasArts adventure games at the time. For all everyone says about how games drop kid’s attention spans, it was through gaming that I only really got an interest in reading (sci-fi at the start, then basically everything else).

            School was just teaching daft pap “fun” stories about plucky kid heroes called Benjamin who got up to “hijinks” and saved the day against an evil headmistress (teachers ALWAYS seem to gravitate to these kinds of stories because they think children will relate to them. They don’t, or at least I didn’t). Of course I hated reading at the time when it was tripe like that. It was patronising and stupid and I was forced to analyse it in minute detail and then made to write essays and character stories based around them. Meanwhile at home I was playing Ultima VII ( which had amongst other things, core themes and story elements about ritual murder, the nature of virtue, the nature of drug abuse, and racism in society. Not the most in-depth handling of them, but it was certainly more intelligent than anything I was getting at school) and blasting through whatever novels I could get my hands on on our bookshelves.

            Speaking more tangentially (and of course, anecdotally), I used to play RPG’s, strategy games and the like, and I feel like those helped me to learn rule systems, how to apply them, and how to solve problems in context. I usually had a better idea than classmates on how to figure out lessons in sciences (got an interest, went on to engineering at Uni).

            And that’s leaving aside all the stuff I learned about computers just to get these things running.

            Basically I agree with the above two posters that these skills are transferable, or at least some of them are. If nothing else, we develop our abilities to extrapolate information, to problem solve, and to implement, through testing our minds on those things. And I believe games can definitely help with that. Alongside those aspects of critical thinking, you need persistence and structure in order to allow you to see a task through once you’ve worked out your objectives, and I believe games can help there as well. I didn’t learn perseverance from school arts-and-crafts, just annoyance. But I certainly learned it from playing through Another World and solving all the problems by myself, and from trying to make levels for Jetpack.

            No I’m not saying all games do this. If I had grown up with a Street Fighter 2 like the kids down the street then I’m sure I wouldn’t have learned much from it. But something like Portal? Yeah I can definitely see value in allowing a kid to experiment with the level editor of Portal. More than I ever saw in a lot of the things they used to force me to do in school. Geography: Colour in this figure, make a paper Pyramid. French: listen to an audio tape and make animal noises when the barnyard animals on the tape do. And they used to wonder why some kids didn’t seem to be “engaging” with those classes like they’re supposed to be. Grief.

          • MadTinkerer says:

            Ultima Underworld II forced me to learn what an “Oubliette” was before I could advance the plot.

            Me: What? Where do I go next? I don’t understand! Quests with objectives automagically marked on maps haven’t been invented yet!
            UW2: I just told you, stupid! The oubliette! Come on, you know what an oubliette is! Just go to the oubliette!
            Me: Waaaaahaaaaaahhhh! :(

            But seriously: Reader Rabbit, Stickybear, Frogger*, Rocky’s Boots, Robot Odyssey, Carmen Sandiego, Wheel of Fortune**, EGATrek***, and many other games from the 80s and early 90s all taught me concepts,if not always skills, that did directly translate into subjects I studied later.

            Thank goodness I wasn’t born twenty years later in the era of perpetual modern shooter clones, Farmville, and Angry Birds.

            *Traffic safety. Duh.
            **Arithmetic, probability, and grammar.
            ***Resource management, algebraic geometry, Star Trek trivia

          • Haderak says:

            I learned basic economics playing Elite on a C64 :)

            Also learned not to be a drug dealer. The police shoot lasers at you. Important moral lesson there.

    • Lacero says:

      “Also, Nathan, I really do love you and everything (honest!) but saying things like:
      “a rusty, way-behind-the-times education system.” and particularly “the age-old problem of creativity and outside-the-box thinking being staunchly discouraged in classroom settings.” isn’t really fair.”

      From his twitter feed I think Nathan is in California. So, er, yeah.. :)

    • InternetBatman says:

      I think that the impact of every new media is vastly overstated on education. The skill in teaching lies in picking the appropriate content, regardless of media. Sometimes its a recording of a speech. Sometimes, it’s a well done video (I’m looking at you CNN Cold War and Ken Burn’s Civil War). Sometimes it’s a flash game where you balance the budget. Sometimes it’s a summary or reproductions of primary sources in a textbook. Sometimes its learning how to research through an online database.

      There is no cure all for education ( I think healthier lunches / food security, class times that match biological rhythms, ending summer vacation in favor of more small vacations, and IEPs for every student would be a great start), and comments that suggest otherwise are simply misguided.

  7. Salt says:

    I’m extremely interested in this subject. I agree with their general arguments about the possibility of games as powerful learning tools, but find myself wanting more concrete examples of success.

    How do you teach Algebra I using Portal? Typically the problem students have is that’s when mathematics moves from adding apples to something abstract. How is that helped by engagement with Portal? I’m not able to imagine a level or level design task that teaches a student how to rearrange an equation.

    I can imagine a completely different game that teaches how to rearrange equations (and kind of want to make it). I worry that they’re too keen to adapt existing games to “add the education on top” rather than build the lesson right into the heart of the game. We don’t need a clone of Sonic where you pick up letters instead of rings and pretend that it’s teaching basic literacy.

    • 7hink says:

      Like others have said, there is a problem with the computers. You’ll need a fairly decent computer to run portal and the schools I’ve worked at (as sys admin) did have those. Or maybe there were 2 or 3 computers which were able to do it. I doubt most schools are going to spend their budget on better computers which can only be used to teach some of the more basic concepts like gravity, terminal velocity and such.

      The only abstract thing I can come up with that you might be able to create with portal would be some stuff with boolean logic. I believe there is a limit to the amount of objects you can place in a map so those designs will likely not be very complex either. Maybe that limit is still enough to be useful. Don’t really know too much about the map editor in portal 2 yet. I should give it a go some time in the near future.

      Edit: Didn’t mean to post this a reply by the way. That didn’t go as planned.

    • InternetBatman says:

      You can do a good deal of physics with Scorched Earth.

  8. darkath says:

    Well they should start by handing over Paradox games during History classes (if there is still any).

  9. beast unleashed says:

    this will never catch on im in secondary school and know way could there computers handle half life 2 yet alone portal 1/2 what are valve thinking?

    • Torgen says:

      Well, from that comment, we can tell you attend a very poor quality school. Or perhaps you just don’t pay attention in class?

      period after “never catch on.”


      “no way”

      “their computers”

      comma after “Half Life 2”

      period after Portal 1/2.

      You also have a shift key, which is used to capitalize the beginning of sentences, and proper names, such as Half Life and Portal.

      • Odexios says:

        He/she might also be from a country where English isn’t the main language. A lack of English knowledge doesn’t necessarily imply a poor education.

      • Salt says:

        Still, he/she makes a good point.
        School budgets are tight and computers that can run Portal 2 are expensive.

        • MadTinkerer says:

          My three year old laptop runs Portal 2 at almost highest settings with maximum framerate. It struggles with Quantum Conundrum, and certain other first-person games, but Portal 2 runs fine. I think you’d have a hard time finding a new computer for sale that can’t handle Portal 2.

          On the other hand: having a sufficient budget for new computers, period, is a different story.

          • DrGonzo says:

            3 year old tech is way beyond most schools. At least my school, which was a technology college had computer that were around 5-10 years old at all times. And that was far, far more advanced and better than my middle and primary schools.

      • Carwash says:

        Also, it’s “Half-Life”

      • Donjo says:

        No need to be a dick, Torgen

      • thestage says:

        and if you were actually educated, torgen, you might be familiar with work in the fields of composition and linguistics, none of which supports any of your normative superiority in regards to grammar.

        • Phantoon says:

          Also, English is dumb. You can’t say ‘murder’ without saying both HURR and DURR.

  10. StickyNavels says:

    Rather than communicating algebra, or multipliction, or factoring, I think that games like [i]Portal[/i] can be more helpful in teaching a less specific but very important general skill – namely, spatial thinking. It’s a governing ability with a lot of trickle-down effect later in life. Playing around with objects in a 3D environment is a good way to promote it – even if it’s all done virtually.

    Games can be an intuitive and fun way of reinforcing spatial thinking, one that might be especially useful for “girls”, as they generally do not get as much practice/aren’t as encouraged to take part in activities that promote spatial thinking as “boys” are. I’m not sure how well it’d work in a classroom environment – there are naturally a lot of factors to consider.
    Still, I’m convinced games can be an extremely efficient method of teaching and reinforcing skills and abilities, such as abstract and spatial thinking.

    EDIT:: Thank you for writing a very interesting article, Nathan. There aren’t a lot of video game feeds willing to serve up something like it.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Minecraft is also good for this. I’ve pirated, and am considering buying legit copies of, certain architecture books just to improve my Minecraft building skills.

  11. tossrStu says:

    When I was at school, this was what educational games looked like. Shit me up good and proper, it did.

  12. beast unleashed says:

    Well, from that comment, we can tell you attend a very poor quality school. Or perhaps you just don’t pay attention in class?

    no i know school systems and specs…… school networks put so many restrictions on everythink its allmost impossible to do anythink but simple office programs and very very basic web suffering, and school will not allow kids any more access as we could “bring virus to school’

    • Yosharian says:

      Most educators and people in charge of schools think video games are toys that don’t belong in a school. So yeah, let’s get a class of 30 kids all playing Portal.

    • po says:

      Actually you’d be surprised. Valve have done some very good work on the scalability of the Source engine, and the minimum specs given for games based on it, on the Steam site, are more like a minimum to run the games and get a decent experience.

      I’ve been setting up a few computers to be used for some social LAN gaming, that were donated by a local college, to a charitable organisation I’m involved with.

      They’re the kind of PCs intended for just internet and wordprocessing, and with 1.7GHz AMD64s, 1GB of ram, and integrated AMD X300 graphics, they’re under the minimum specs for L4D, Portal and Portal 2, but can still run Portal playably at lower settings (not even the lowest).

      I’ve put another 1GB in, along with HD5450 cards, for a total of only £40 per computer, and they now run all those games really well considering their age and the cost of the upgrades. ~30fps at 1280×1024 with 4xAA and 4x aniso, with everything else at medium. I was honestly expecting to have to set everything to low/disabled with GFX cards that cheap.

      My only concern regarding hardware with the Portal 2 puzzle maker is how long it takes to test changes made to levels. It could really do with a simple test mode that uses extremely basic lighting and geometry, so that editors can quickly check on their work, without the release quality graphics. It takes far too long to get from the editor with a level ready for testing, to actually being able to test the map, when you have a low end CPU, and in a classroom environment, with a lesson only being around an hour, that’s a lot of wasted time, in which students could easily get bored.

      Having experienced it myself though, I agree that the real issue is the staff. You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else, outside of a government beauracracy, where incompetence and backward thinking is so rampant as the teaching profession (mediocrity is the norm, although you do rarely get the odd teacher who’s an absolute inspiration), and that goes right up into universities, where many lecturers get their degree, then stop learning about any recent changes in the field of computing. The field just moves too fast for the education system to keep up, so really you’re learning computer history.

      I knew I wanted to design computer games since well before high school, but every single teacher thought it was a joke. With the video games industry now being bigger than film, and media studies being on the high school syllabus, teachers still consider the field of video game development to be a joke.

      Unfortunately most of the people shaping the minds of the future are a bunch of fossils, who can barely see what’s going on in the present.

  13. beast unleashed says:

    everythink its restricted
    everythink is blocked
    and any good hardware they have gets bottled down to nothing due to anti virus software,web protection,firewalls ect.

    • Phantoon says:

      Young padawan, you must learn the proxies if you wish to excel!

  14. beast unleashed says:

    ps i don’t waste time with grammar and correct spelling when it does not matter

    • Donjo says:

      Yeah- although communication can become garbled and indecipherable when the shared rules are ignored.

    • Carwash says:

      It ALWAYS matters !

    • Chris D says:

      It matters any time you want people to care about what you’re saying.

      • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:


      • Vorphalack says:

        As a dyslexic i’d just like to jump in and call you out on that. I regularly make spelling mistakes that the spell checker doesn’t catch, and i’ll be dammed before I let anyone argue that undermines the validity of my point.

        • Chris D says:

          I’ll cut people a lot of slack if they’re dyslexic or trying to write a second language. That’s fine.

          A slip up here or there is also fine, we all make mistakes sometimes. It’s when someone obviously hasn’t even tried that there’s a problem.

          • Vorphalack says:

            But you can’t really tell if someone is dyslexic or a non native English speaker from the other side of the internet. They could mention it every time, but that’s something not everyone wants to reveal, and repeating it becomes tiresome. Personally I think it’s better to ignore spelling entirely when considering someones opinion. If it’s a good point spelled badly, it’s still a good point.

          • Chris D says:

            I’ll always give someone the benefit of the doubt if I’m not sure, but in the case above it was an explicit “I just don’t care.”

            My comment wasn’t intended as “If someone doesn’t spell properly you shouldn’t bother with what they have to say” but more as “If you want to persuade someone then it will help your case if you make the effort to be easily understood.”

            It’s usually easily enough to work out what someone means if there’s an isolated mistake. If there are several mistakes in a row then maybe I’ll have to read through a couple of times or more to work out someone’s intent before I can even begin to work out if their point is good or not. I’m not going to be as inclined to spend that time if it looks like they haven’t tried to meet me half way.

            Grammar is only one factor though. If someone is being polite and intelligent from what I can understand then I’ll make the effort. As a rule of thumb, two out of three of those will do.

            I can understand why this might be a touchy subject for anyone who struggles with grammar for any reason but my comment absolutely wasn’t aimed at people who are making an effort to get it right, and I apologise for any offense or hurt to anyone who read it that way.

          • Phantoon says:

            I don’t have dyslexia, so I don’t know, but is it not easier to read something well formatted than something carelessly thrown together?

            And personally, I take beast’s comments to mean, “Hi, I am twelve, and this article is about people my age.”

          • Vorphalack says:

            Of course it is, but i’d really like people to get away from automatically associating spelling with intelligence.

          • Phantoon says:

            But why would we not? This isn’t the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’, it’s the difference between yapping like you’re on the XBAWKZ LIEVUH and actually communicating with other people.

            If someone comes across as a child, then would you not treat them as such?

          • Vorphalack says:

            > ”But why would we not?”

            It’s a subtle difference i’m trying to get across:

            Here’s the correct way to think about it: ”That guy is a moron and can’t spell.”

            Here’s The incorrect way to think about it: ”That guy can’t spell, therefore he is a moron.”

            I want people to put more emphasis on the content of someones text than the spelling and grammar. If someone is acting like a child, proper text format wont make them any more valid.

          • tinytiger53 says:

            Phantoon says:

            But why would we not? This isn’t the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’, it’s the difference between yapping like you’re on the XBAWKZ LIEVUH and actually communicating with other people.

            If someone comes across as a child, then would you not treat them as such?

            Just saying, not everyone treats children like children, and some are smart enough to realize that they are being treated “higher” than their standings are normally treated, and those who do, tend to act a little better than others.

            What I’m saying, is if you treat someone (a child) like an adult, they tend to act like one (just from seeing it)

        • Faxmachinen says:

          Vorphalack: Of course it does not; you’re using proper grammar and punctuation. It’s really rather easy to recognize those who simply do not give a shit, so paying in kind is rarely unwarranted.

          • rb2610 says:

            Lack of capitalisation generally helps determine the difference between people who have a valid reason for poor spelling/grammar and people who are just ignorant or lazy.

    • FriendlyFire says:

      And I don’t waste my time reading comments where the author thinks what he writes doesn’t matter.

  15. MythArcana says:

    Back in the 90’s when PC games were meaty, complex, and difficult, I would definitely say that particular material would be a great supplement to education.

    Unfortunately, the only thing vALVE* is concerned with is mass marketing. If anyone has noted the spelling and grammar in the Steam forums, one could easily arrive at the conclusion that they are the epicenter of scholastic failure.

    * Take note on how they spell the logo. That pretty much explains it all right there.

  16. mrcalhou says:

    As an educator and a gamer, I have to say that this just isn’t going to fix education. Unless Valve would provide the computers and games for free it will never catch on because there is no money in the budget for it. As a science teacher, I find I already have to shell out hundreds of dollars just so my students can do labs.

    Also, after having played games for decades, I feel pretty confident in saying that games generally do not provide or teach skills that translate well into the real world. Now, I’d venture to say that one of the biggest problems facing education is apathy on the part of the student (the other big one being a lack of accountability for both students and parents) and games could help in getting children interested in the subject that is being studied, but it would not be sufficient as the only way–students (in science classes) still need to be able to manipulate equations, plot graphs, and write lab reports.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      I say it depends on which games. Like I mentioned elsewhere, The DOS version of Wheel of Fortune helped me to understand English grammar and probability, and EGATrek introduced me to algebraic geometry almost a decade before I took a class on it. Neither of those were trying to be “educational” games, but they focus on particular skills and subjects that happen to be relevant in the classroom.

      Virtually all games teach some kind of skill or concept (even “score attack” games are good for basic memorization, arithmetic, spatial recognition, and tactical planning), but if only certain kinds of games are being made and played, then there isn’t a broad enough set of skills being taught. More importantly, most games aren’t designed to teach those skills at more than a basic level. Rhythm games will teach you rhythm, but you need to do more than just play every rhythm game to become a musician.

      We need high school level “educational” games. We need college level educational games. We need Code Hero and Rocksmith and Inform 7 and MinecraftEdu and XGamestation’s build-and-program-it-yourself-from-scratch consoles and we have all that BUT WE NEED MORE.

  17. subalterngames says:

    As a part-time developer, part-time teacher, I’m very skeptical about the ramifications of this annoucement. Portal 2’s impact on the world as a piece of hardware-intensive wizardry can only go so far. I’ve elaborated on my blog:

  18. thestage says:

    “Oregon Trail – an American institution that masterfully teaches kids how to commit buffalo genocide and also a bit of US history, I guess – immediately springs to mind. It’s fondly remembered by adults and horse-drawn wagon enthusiasts across the country, and yet, it grinds to a halt after that. But why? Why didn’t such an effective, enjoyable tool kick off a games-in-schools revolution 30-some-odd years ago?

    Probably because, I don’t know, it wasn’t actually effective. What did you learn from Oregon Trail? What will you learn from Portal 2? Yeah, sure, you can “engage” the kids in something you tell them to do. That’s nice. I can “engage” them in throwing shit at each other in the classroom too, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything from it. There are many, many problems with institutional education. Not being able to teach ineducable people who, twenty years later, count tricking teachers into allowing them to play video games among their educational highlights is not one of them.

    “Why don’t schools ‘revolutionize’ the educational system to include exactly and only the things that I happen to like now that I am no longer in school? We must fix this!”


    • MadTinkerer says:

      Doopy doop doop. Games are inherently worthless because they are inherently only entertaining and that which entertains does not educate. Therefore no one has ever learned anything useful from a videogame and their presence in a classroom would only be a distraction by definition. Doopy doop doop doop doop doopity doop.

      • thestage says:

        I looked for the place in your post where you provided insight on what Oregon Trail or Portal 2 teach. I also looked for the point in my post where I substituted “Oregon Trail” and/or “Portal 2” for “the entire concept of an electronic game.” I did not find either of those. Judging from the intellectual capacity of Oregon Trail and Portal 2 players, I’m going to say you’ve a tall task ahead of you.

        • MadTinkerer says:

          Dooooopity dooooooooop dop dooopooop insight oop dooopity. Doop my point was only about Portal and Oregon Trail and not about other games booop moooop ooopity. Judging dooop the intellectual capacity of of Oregon Trail and Portal 2 players, dooop doop dooop people who play those games are dumb so therefore those games don’t have any educational merit. (Doop.)

          • tinytiger53 says:

            MadTinkerer says:

            Dooooopity dooooooooop dop dooopooop insight oop dooopity. Doop my point was only about Portal and Oregon Trail and not about other games booop moooop ooopity. Judging dooop the intellectual capacity of of Oregon Trail and Portal 2 players, dooop doop dooop people who play those games are dumb so therefore those games don’t have any educational merit. (Doop.)

            You want to show some proof about “people who play those games are dumb”?
            Lets say, that you know seventy (70) people who fit that description, do you really think that that would be everyone out there who plays the games?

            (Besides it isn’t not like most of the players ARE playing to learn, but to have fun. If they do learn, is it really that big of a deal?)

    • RegisteredUser says:

      Actually shit throwing, just like any other throwing, is going to help train hand-eye co-ordination, basic Physics(trajectories, solidity and density and other factors vs impact behavior) and dexterity for evasion.

      Just like even “twitch gaming” has shown to train a lot more skills than we initially thought, we humans glean quite a bit from _any_ kind of challenge, as long as it doesn’t become too stale too quickly, has a minimum amount of variance and is actively engaging our senses in some way, shape or form.

      That implicit knowledge does not equal explicit(i.e. most of what school is about outside of things like art and sports) knowledge is a given.

      I don’t think we should teach through videogames necessarily, but I do think we would not go wrong to increase interaction, challenge and intrigue overall a bit. Especially in language classes.

  19. Skyrain says:

    Valve and many of the people who are educators and wrote responses here might want to take a look at The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game published by Cengage Learning. Check out the reviews on Amazon and the stories from the Chronicle of Higher Education to Forbes. Game design can improve the classroom learning experience without relying on video game purchases, or focusing on extrinsic rewards like badges and achievements. Educators, students from middle school through college, and parents, in over 40 countries worldwide (see the Multiplayer Classroom Facebook page) are seeing more engagement, higher grade averages and almost perfect attendance. And all for free. No software to buy. It’s the principles of design applied to the class itself.

    • RegisteredUser says:

      Oh, just saw this _after_ I posted above.

      If gameplay design means more involvement and engaging everything, then no wonder and exactly the kind of thing I was after with what I said there.

      Nice post.

  20. sophof says:

    I am a teacher myself of both crew and ground personnel for the ISS and we try to use as much ‘alternative’ ways as possible, but in my opinion true learning by games is far away.

    You see, I have much greater amounts of time and money to spend relative to a schoolteacher and even for us this is not even close to doable. For this to happen we need tools flexible enough to enable the teachers themselves to design games relevant for their classrooms. I have considered a few games, but in the end they are not efficient enough. You can teach a skill relatively well, but the amount of time that requires is much less than what I can achieve with other, more boring, methods. I know how to code, but of course building something myself is far out of my job’s scope.

    Only in teamwork exercises we use a sort of ‘bridge simulator’ with an interface that is moronic by design. Then when you start ‘pushing’ with problems and goals in the simulated world, the student clearly learns what creates a good team, just by evaluating their own performance. But this really only works in these ‘soft’ skills.

    I guess my point is that in these kind of articles people seem to skimp over the very basic real problems that we face for this. Nice intentions won’t make it happen.

  21. MadTinkerer says:

    “Why didn’t such an effective, enjoyable tool kick off a games-in-schools revolution 30-some-odd years ago?”

    Since others are trying to answer this, I’ll give you two real reasons:

    1) Because no one took it seriously except for a very few (like me) who accidentally stumbled across some of the most interesting and educational stuff that games had to offer. Everyone else wouldn’t listen, because “games are entertainment, not educational”.

    2) Because nobody even tried to make educational software that wasn’t for elementary-level students. I mean: there were efforts, but the market wasn’t there and so the developers stopped trying.

    Games are kids stuff, so they can only be used to educate kids. But even then, you need to yank the games away eventually because you need them to stop learning kids stuff and start learning grownup stuff, which can’t be taught through games because games are kids stuff. Since we can’t afford tutors for everyone, I guess we need to plunk everyone in the same classroom and teach them at the same rate because people can’t learn on their own and games are just distracting kids stuff. If only there was a way for people to learn on their own, but games definitely cannot be the answer because games are just trivial kids stuff. That was the RATHER STUPID THINKING that led to our current state of affairs.

  22. RegisteredUser says:

    I don’t know about all of this replacement or games being ideal for education stuff.

    But damned if I didn’t think to myself “I wish I had subtitles and more replies for this” while playing Men of War while constantly hearing “Yagdoshna!”.

    If you play a RTS with unit acknowledgements, you are bound to hear words repeated up to 3-500 times in a session. How is that not THE ideal precondition for learning a language?

    Now just use that idea and run with it. Please?
    I would love to learn more languages.

  23. Yar says:

    Our brains are wired to learn from playing. Biologically, that’s what playing is. Is what kids do to learn skills for adulthood. And what adults do to keep in practice.

    Somewhere along the way, we went backwards with this, and began to believe that playing was the opposite of learning. That learning must be as little fun as possible, and that fun is bad for your capacity to learn. We’ve all adapted to this more or less, but it’s insane.

    I think very few people really grasp how revolutionary eduction in gaming could be if we got it right.