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Portal becomes “required reading” at the Wabash College

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We all know how amazing Portal is, since we operate a fansite dedicated to it and all, and while we (well, to be honest, only I) have read some of the interesting essays that attempt to show some of the subtexts and themes that can be found within Portal’s narrative, but who thought such discussions would make it out of the gaming blog or website?

Meet Michael Abbott, owner of the video game blog “The Brainy Gamer”, and a teacher at the Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, a liberal arts college founded in 1832. This may be, in fact, not only the first time this has happened inside the Wabash College, but the first time a video game has ever been on the syllabus of a college course.

Portal becomes “required reading” at the Wabash College

Alongside Gilgamesh, Aristotle’s Politics, John Donne’s poetry, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the Tao Te Ching, students will also encounter Valve’s Portal, at the new course “Enduring Questions”, with this description:

Enduring Questions is a required freshman seminar offered during the spring semester. It is devoted to engaging students with fundamental questions of humanity from multiple perspectives and fostering a sense of community. Each section of the course includes a small group (approximately 15) of students who consider together classic and contemporary works from multiple disciplines. In so doing, students confront what it means to be human and how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and our world.

The daily activity of the course most often involves discussion, and students complete multiple writing assignments for the course. As such, assessment of student performance emphasizes written and oral expression of ideas.

Students may not withdraw from the course. All students must pass the course to graduate from Wabash.

Michael explains how he was charged to apply a broad definition to the readings required for this course, helping students identify films, music, art, and other ‘non-textual’ sources, so they can think hard about the questions raised within the course, and identify them in different non-textual forms.

And as you can expect, a light went off in his head, a 60-watt lightbulb produced by the corporation “What About A Game Inc.”, to be precise.

My very first thought was Portal. Accessible, smart, cross-platform, relatively short, full of big ideas worth exploring. I played it again to be sure my impressions still held. No problem there. If anything, I admire the game more now than when it first appeared. A beautiful design.

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

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

This tension between backstage machination and onstage performance is precisely what Portal depicts so perfectly – and, no small detail, so interactively. Goffman would have found a perfect test subject in GLaDOS. Bingo! Assign students Goffman’s Presentation of Self and follow it up with a collective playthrough of Portal.

Perhaps you’ve read that essay, or others with it. Perhaps some of you have read into the whole “trapped mother sends daughter to euthanize her” subtexts, subtexts which, in my opinion, are far more visible and meaningful than anything linked to Goffman’s study.

I sure hope you have, cause I had just busted my theory that YT commenters aren’t reading this.

Michael pitched the idea to his colleagues (who don’t seem to be avid gamers), and they agreed to try Portal. After some installation issues, they finished the game, and, in Michael’s words:

…we enjoyed the first meaningful discussion about a video game I’ve ever had with a group of colleagues across disciplines. They got it. They made the connections, and they enjoyed the game. Most importantly, they saw how Portal could provoke thoughtful reflection and vigorous conversation on questions germane to the course.

How is it going now, you ask? Michael explains:

Deploying a game for an entire cohort to play at the same time requires more problem-solving than you might expect. We ultimately decided that hardware, installation, and licensing issues were complex enough to dissuade us from teaching Portal in all sections of the course this year; so I and a group of eager colleagues will play the game in our sections to work out the kinks. I don’t want our first college-wide experience with a game to be plagued with problems.

I also need time to help acclimate some of my colleagues to “reading” a modern game. They’re less resistant than you might think, but they need more than my speechifying. They need sound pedagogy. They need to taste it for themselves. We’ll get there. I’ll let you know how it goes.

We can’t wait to hear how it goes. Hopefully it’s a success.

Since I’ve been hearing how my humor is great, which quite frankly, is something I doubt severely, hopefully this will be a revolution in the educational system, and soon we get Portal 2 in high school, HL2 in middle school, L4D in grade school, and Episode Three in kindergardens.

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