Think Of All The Things We Learned In Portal 2


Have you ever idly wondered whether GLaDOS might have been up to more research and testing than the Portal games let on? A study from Florida State University into the effects of playing Portal 2 on a variety of skills won’t do much to ease your fears, then.

According to the study, spending eight hours playing Portal 2 is more effective at improving a range of cognitive skills than a dedicated brain training program called Lumosity.

Lumosity is actually a suite of games designed to improve cognitive abilities through play and has a whole section on its site where you can find research papers talking about the program’s efficacy. Portal 2, on the other hand, is a puzzle-platform game developed by Valve.

According to the paper, participants played either Portal 2 or Lumosity for eight hours, completing a battery of tests before and after their gaming session. As the study notes:

Results revealed that participants who were assigned to play Portal 2 showed a statistically significant advantage over Lumosity on each of the three composite measures—problem solving, spatial skill, and persistence. Portal 2 players also showed significant increases from pretest to posttest on specific small- and large-scale spatial tests while those in the Lumosity condition did not show any pretest to posttest differences on any measure.

What, you've never heard of learning fluid before?

Sounds like good news for non-brain-training video games, no? Well, sooooort of. The research team advise caution when generalising from the study results. The length of time participants spent on the games was relatively short, as were the assessment tests – reliability increases with longer tests.

I’d also add that it might be tricky to generalise from Portal 2 to other video games. Portal 2 is a game which has already been linked to education. The Teach With Portals program aimed to help teach physics and critical thinking skills in schools through the game. It also gave teachers access to an educational version of Puzzle Maker and the Valve Education forum. You can find lesson plans on that site too which cover subjects like oscillation, simple harmonic motion and Hooke’s law, terminal velocity, and using geometric reasoning to fix broken test chambers.

That said, the study is an interesting addition to a growing body of research into how playing games affects our cognitive skills.


  1. Philopoemen says:

    I’d say that says more about Lumosity (and the people who spruik it) than it does about Portal 2 – I’m pretty sure you could have Lumosity vs (Insert favourite game) and it would have similar results.

  2. Orija says:

    Could have just gone into Sunday Papers.

  3. Faxanadu says:

    Well, I’ve finished portal 2 already. Is there perchance a community made campaign or something I could play? Doing the same puzzles again doesn’t sound ideal for meh brain activeteh.

    • mineshaft says:

      Portal 2 on PC has an essentially bottomless well of user designed levels, using a very slick level editor, that are shared through Steam Workshop.

      link to

      Some of them are more brain twisting than the originals. And some of them are designed for co op.

      Happy testing!

    • kaer says:

      In addition to what mineshaft said:
      start with this one:
      link to
      link to
      I haven’t played it yet (going through another portal 2 playthrough first), but it’s apparently so good that it’s been made standalone (you still have to own portal 2, but you don’t have to have it installed)

  4. Geebs says:

    A player already needs a lot of spatial fps-playing skills to even begin to navigate a Portal game – or was this 8 hours of some fps novices staring at a wall and spinning in circles?

    • Morlock says:

      My wife has little to no experience with FPS (she shot one Combine in HL2 to find out how it feels like) and played through most of Portal 1 without any help. She didn’t dare face the more turret-heavy sequences, which I had to play for her :)

      • Premium User Badge

        magnificent octopus says:

        It’s surprising how many game-related skills you pick up without noticing, though. A friend who rarely played videogames wanted to try Portal 2, so I set it up for her, and we kept having conversations like this: “Why can’t I move forward?” “You’re caught on the door. move sideways a bit” “How can you tell?” “I just can.” She also looked at the ceiling instead of the floor while walking for the first half hour or so, which drove me slightly crazy.

        • Ryuuga says:

          I can’t speak for you, but a more full reply for me woulda been “because I’ve been stuck on more doors, minor floor dents, boxes, explosive barrels etc than I’d care to know, so I sort of default to that explanation when I can’t move for no apparent reason”.

        • kael13 says:

          It is certainly odd… My girlfriend, who’d never touched a game before, managed to fall immediately into Diablo 3 with its simple point and click mechanics. Games in first person, controlled with a mouse, were a whole other ball game. However, she is now picking up how to play Deus Ex, which even flicks between first and third.

          I remember trying Portal on my mum many years ago. It was an odd experience, she couldn’t grasp the physics of a window in space that led to another place whatsoever. And I would say she prides herself on fairly logical reasoning!

          • Deadly Sinner says:

            I’m an experienced FPS player, and the portal mechanics broke my brain for a little while. But the genius of it is that it is both mind bending and simple, so after learning about them, I have no problem thinking with portals.

  5. Caenorhabditis says:

    Fun study. Brain training games have been debunked before, but it’s ok to do again.

    Obligatory critical remark:
    One is obviously much more entertaining than the other. It might be an effect of attention etc. Any control measures, such as reaction time?

  6. iRaphi says:

    no wonder you can’t concentrate enough after 8 hours continious learning

  7. subedii says:

    Gabe Newell actually talked on this topic some years back:

    link to

    “The interesting thing about Portal 2 is it doesn’t sort of fit the traditional simplistic model of what a game is. It’s not a collection of weapons. It’s not a collection of monsters. It’s really about science. It’s about spatial reasoning, it’s about learning physics, it’s about problem solving. And often, during the course of the game, you’re going to be solving problems with somebody else. The social model inside of it is collaborative and not competitive.”

    “I just don’t believe in this distinction between games and educational games. A lot of times [the label] ‘educational games’ is a way of being an excuse for bad game design or poor production values.”

    “Games are becoming increasingly useful as educational tools. From our perspective, it’s one of the things we always think about — we always think about games as a learning experience. You can’t design a game without thinking about the progression of experiences and skills that a person is gonna have. The value that we have is that they’re self-directed. Rather than that being a problem — rather than resisting the chaotic nature of an individual one-on-one play experience that people have, we embrace it.”

    There’s a lot I agree with in that. The vast majority of games teach you completely useless and non-transferable skills, definitely. The key issue is though that good game design DOES teach core (gameplay or otherwise) concepts in a manner that allows the player to learn them, experiment, and move on to more complex applications of said concepts.

    Most ‘educational’ games I ever played seemed to be more along the lines of ‘rubbish gameplay segment that comes to a screeching halt to ask direct questions’. Rinse, repeat.

    • kipue says:

      Non-transferable skills?
      Have you not played ARMA 3?
      but seriously, I agree with that in the sense that one can definitely learn about spatial awareness with this game

  8. bill says:

    I’ve actually been using Lumosity on and off for the last few months. I’m rather skeptical about it, and my attempts to research it before starting lead to different people claiming that it worked or that it was a load of bunk.

    (I’m mainly using it with a focus on trying to improve my memory, which has gone to hell since baby = lots of sleepless nights. (seriously, before being a parent my health was fine, 2 years of being a parent and my back and memory are shot). )

    It’s a reasonably fun way to pass 10 minutes a day though, so I figure it can’t hurt.
    It’s worth pointing out a few things about it though:

    1 – It’s been totally “gamified”, which might make you more likely to continue using it, but it also makes it harder to judge its worth. For one thing they lock down a lot of the higher level games at first. I almost gave up at first as many of the games were so basic… but after a few weeks they unlock more challenging levels.

    2 – I didn’t read the details of the study, but was that 8 hours of lumosity in 1 session, or 8 hours as 24 daily sessions of 15 minutes? Because the former would definitely have no effect (for one thing you’d be stuck on the basic levels) and even 24 days doesn’t really seem like it’d be long enough to have a decent effect.

    3 – Some of the lumosity games are better than others. Some are rubbish.

    Does Portal help with things like memory? I’ve finished portal, but maybe I should re-install it and try the fan-made levels.
    It seems a lot of these games, brain-training or otherwise, tend to train up specific game skills, but don’t tend to have a big effect outside of the game. I honestly have no idea if lumosity is having any effect, but I’ll probably keep it up in lieu of doing something similar like a crossword or sudoku.