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Intro to GLaDOS 101: A Professor's Decision to Teach Portal

Wabash College professor Michael Abbott gambled on teaching Portal in a classroom.

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You're a new student at the all-male Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. As a freshman, you're required to enroll in a course called "Enduring Questions." No choices here.

Professor Michael Abbott. Spring 2011. MWF. 11:20. Hey, bonus: at least you can sleep in. And then you see the always-dreaded syllabus.

"This is a course about what it means to be human, focused on some of the enduring questions our existence inevitably raises for us. The goals of this course reflect this focus."

You roll your eyes, figuring the next four (or five (or six)) years were supposed to be about shaping your own destiny, learning how to drink alcohol without throwing up and playing a bunch of games until some ungodly hour in the morning. Grudgingly, you look at the reading list. Gilgamesh, Aristotle, Goffman, Donne, Portal.

...Portal. No, you haven't misread. But understandably, you look closer.

    Week 4
  • February 7: Montaigne, Essays, selected
  • February 9: Goffman, Presentation of Self, Introduction and Ch. 1
  • February 11: Portal (video game developed by Valve Software)

If you follow video game criticism, you know who Michael Abbott is, though perhaps by his alter go, Brainy Gamer. In addition to offering insightful commentary about video games, Abbott's a theater professor at Wabash College, and after suggesting video games could be a useful teaching tool on his blog, he put his money where his mouth was and proposed getting Portal on a reading list. This spring, it was.

The class just wrapped, actually. Final papers were due on May 3.

"I was betting the farm," said Abbott during a Skype conversation last week, the second time we've talked about this project. "This is the first time we've done it. I'm obviously trying to push this forward as a legitimate kind of content to be a part of our curriculum. I was nervous. I gotta say I was nervous about it."

== TEASER ==

I last spoke to Abbott in October, as part of a piece for EGM called "Aperture Science University."

Video games are just part of Abbott's teaching career, which largely focuses on theater.
Video games are just part of Abbott's teaching career, which largely focuses on theater.

"I wanted to provoke the students with some ideas and I wanted it to be a very well-designed game," he said at the time, months before the idea became reality, "something that I felt that was about as perfectly designed as a game that I could think off. [...] If you can just get the group of people playing the game through how to navigate a 3D space, ultimately it just becomes about solving puzzles and making your way through the narrative that emerges. I just thought that mountain was climbable."

The mountain was climbable, though not without lessons along the way. Valve lent Abbott a hand, providing licenses for PC and Mac versions of the game. Coincidentally, that spurred the first errant assumption, in which Abbott discovered today's college students haven't been fed a steady diet of keyboard and mouse.

"These guys are mostly console players," he said. "They're just not PC gamers--for the most part. [...] It never occurred to me that it would be a problem. It was a problem. A bigger problem than I expected. They are adaptable, they got over it, and it turns out that a couple of guys did get a hold of console versions and they shared their Xbox version with a couple of the other guys or whatever."

Prior to playing and discussing Portal, Abbott set the stage with Dr. Erving Goffman's A Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, wherein Goffman dissects our desire to present different versions of ourselves, showing one (our public face), while hiding a very different one (our private one). It's a facet of villainess GLaDOS, a bit that's especially elaborated on during the events of Portal 2, but one very much part of the original.

"She's got her forestage and she's got her backstage, the stuff she doesn't want you to see," he said. "The game does an amazing job of slowly peeling back her veneer, and the stuff she doesn't want you to see or know is so slowly revealed. Those students started to exchange stories about what they saw behind the scenes or writing on the walls, little stuff they would find, little artifacts. That really provoked a lot of interesting connections between the Goffman text and GLaDOS as a character, as a personality, and the way that the environment is an extension of her and her personality. That really clicked."

And while you may have smiled at the prospect of participating in a class where one discusses a video game, remember that not everyone is even aware video games are capable of telling a decent story.

Try to remember when Portal went off the rails. Imagine not knowing games were capable of that.
Try to remember when Portal went off the rails. Imagine not knowing games were capable of that.

"It's fair to say that a couple of the guys [were hesitant]," he said. "Their resistance was mainly before they ever played it, and it had to do with 'why are we taking this so seriously? So we're going to play a video game and read into that?' They have a built-in resistance because they think they've grown up with their parents and basically American popular culture saying video games equals waste of time."

"The reality is that is what they think," he added, "and it's a valid response because you're hit over the head so many times. You're just going to avoid getting hit again and it hurts and it's bad. How do you address that expectation and get them to open their minds? I think Portal and a few other games might have done it. [...] We talk about all these games all the time because this is our cannon when we talk about this stuff, but a lot of these guys haven't played these games. A bunch of my students haven't played BioShock. Only a few had played Portal. They've played Call of Duty, they play sports games."

Abbott said most students came around. Most them did not end up playing Portal by themselves, instead playing it like many of us sometimes did, with over-the-shoulder co-op. There was an online discussion board for students to talk amongst themselves. Abbott pressed the students to ask one another for help when they became stuck, rather than running towards GameFAQs at the first sign of some frustration.

When it came time to talk about the experience, there were surprising responses. Who didn't want to know the fate of Chell at the end of Portal, before we knew she was dragged away? As it turns out, a number of Abbott's students never managed to figure out they were playing as a defined character. They never discovered Chell, so when it came time to talk about their own feelings playing the game, it varied. Some identified as Chell, hoping to escape this bizarre, sadistic facility. Others figured they were escaping. The breakdown was roughly one-third identifying as Chell, the rest never bonding with the character.

"There were a couple of students who just somehow missed or never got that glimpse of Chell going through a portal and you can see yourself," he explained. "They really never saw her. I think it's possible to play the game--if you just blow through it or aren't playing real close attention, especially that first moment, when you go through the opening portal and you go through it and don't look--it's possible you might not see her. It came as a surprise to a couple of the guys--'What, what? A chick?'"

Can you imagine finishing Portal and not knowing who Chell was? For many students, it happened.
Can you imagine finishing Portal and not knowing who Chell was? For many students, it happened.

The reaction to the game largely resulted from each student's perspective, as well, with some of the math whizzes running wild with the possibilities the portal gun afforded, ignoring the "right" solution. On the flip side, the Call of Duty crowd had no problem pointing out they wished portals weren't the only option.

"A few of the guys really wanted that gun to be more destructive," laughed Abbott.

Not all students who were part of the "Enduring Questions" course played Portal. In was required in Abbott's section, consisting of 16 students, but that was not the case across all sections. He wasn't sure how many students were ultimately exposed to Portal through this ("a fair number"), but from early conversations with other professors who included Portal on the required list, the feedback's been positive. It means Portal should be taught in semesters to come, a huge weight off Abbott's back; the experiment was a success. Plus, he now has a tiny army of students ready to evangelize games in the classroom.

Abbott intends to continue teaching Portal at Wabash College. As for other games? Perhaps!
Abbott intends to continue teaching Portal at Wabash College. As for other games? Perhaps!

By the end, Abbott felt like he'd helped Valve sell some copies of Portal 2, with many students excited at the prospect of playing co-operatively with their friends. And while it might be natural to assume Portal 2 could work equally well for teaching via gameplay, Abbott wasn't so sure.

"Portal 2 may be a little less interesting because, in terms of its narrative, it gives you so much more," he said. "It tells you so much more. I think the whole middle section in Cave Johnson's old facility is basically like a travelogue. There's not much to interpret there. In Portal, there's enough ambiguity about it it's primitive compared to the second game in a kind of beautiful way. There's enough left to your imagination that, I think, it makes a bit more fun to use as a teaching tool."

When I asked Abbott to summarize the most useful lesson out of the experience, besides simple logistics of what did and din't work, there was a long pause, as he collected his thoughts.

"I learned that the students, if you treat them with respect," he said, "and you give them something provocative to think about, that they're naturally inclined to do that and make it feel like it's worth doing. I learned that they're not really any different from any of the rest of us, hardcore gamers or otherwise. They can love something just as much as we do, even if they don't come to it from the same kind of fanboy background that some of us do. Does that make any sense?"

I'd say so.

(If you'd like to scope the entire syllabus for Abbott's course, I've included it below!)

Patrick Klepek on Google+