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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.

No Caption Provided

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!)

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Patrick Klepek on Google+

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Edited By patrickklepek • 
No Caption Provided

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!)

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Vexxan

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Edited By Vexxan • 

nice



EDIT: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD YEEEES
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slantedwindows

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Edited By slantedwindows • 

second time seeing climbable today... still seems wrong.


KLEPEK! the word you want is Veneer, nor Venire.
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Edited By litrock • 

The idea of being a nongamer exposed to Portal for the first time seems kind of amazing to me. I don't know if it'd click or just drive people away forever. You don't start people on movies with Casablanca, you know? But Portal probably gets by due to being much more modern.

I am kind of surprised so few people noticed Chell, though. The very first portal you go through, if you're observant, will give you a glimpse of yourself.

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UnsolvedParadox

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Edited By UnsolvedParadox • 

This sounds pretty awesome, hopefully more educators embrace this approach in Canada.

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crazyleaves

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Edited By crazyleaves • 

@patrickklepek: Cool story Patrick. My wife and I were talking about our son probably taking a Video Game Appreciation class for college credit. Probably not so far away...




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Edited By klamity • 

it would behooves me to take this class


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Edited By HairyMike87 • 

Interesting. Too bad none of my professors at my university will adapt any of what he is doing. 

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Edited By DaBuddaDa • 

KLEPEK DROPIN' A TEXT BOMB ON US!

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Edited By ShaggE • 

I always feel jealous of these folks, getting to experience Portal (and maybe even modern gaming as a whole) for the first time. 

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Edited By Zeemod • 

Awesome! just fucking awesome!

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Edited By RagingLion • 

Great and thorough article.

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Edited By Brendan • 
@Vegsen said:
nice


EDIT: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD YEEEES
Aren't you the guy you made that same comment on the article where a bunch of people lost their jobs?  You're classy.
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Edited By JoshS • 

Loving the news stories Patrick. Keep this sort of stuff coming. <3

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Edited By FlyingRat • 

I know you joined a while back, but i still wanted to say you're  a great addition to the team, Patrick. Looking forward to more of your articles in the future.

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Edited By Kyreo • 

Wow.  Glad to see games being used as tools for knowledge.

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Edited By BronzDragon • 
@litrock: Portal is not Casablanca. I would rather compare it to an Pixar animated short. It's awesome, it's extremely well made and it's surprisingly deep.
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Edited By StrikerObi • 

Great article. Working in academia myself, I love reading about this kind of stuff.

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Edited By Video_Game_King • 

Yes, yes, effing YES! Proof that video games have some artistic and cultural value, and that we can break the years old thinking that it's a waste of time! Now then, somebody jam Fragile Dreams in there. I want that game to be far more popular than it currently is.

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Edited By chogi • 

I read through the whole thing. I usually don't do that so good job!

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Edited By JamesKond • 

Great read Patrick :) Stuff like this is a great addition to Giantbomb.

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Edited By chilibean_3 • 

Very interesting article, Patrick.


I realized I was playing as Chell on my play through but never really identified with her.  She isn't much of a character in that first game making it easy to treat her as just an avatar for yourself.   

Portal is definitely one of those games I'd love to share with everybody, gamer or not.  
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Olymp1c

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Edited By Olymp1c • 

Also on the syllabus,  Moore and Gibbons - The Watchmen. Wish I had him as a professor when I was in college.

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Edited By DG991 • 

Great article!

And I agree with that professor... Portal 1 left more to the imagination and imo was a more interesting game. It probably is easier to use it in the class because it is shorter also.

Portal 2 was more of a complete modern game, and that is fine. 

And btw, I love this. I really want games to eventually become the mainstream medium for telling stories. It can do more then books, it can do more then movies. 

Also, I agree with anyone else who has said this. Patrick your a great addition to the team, fine work!
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Edited By Mumrik • 

""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. "

Interesting that it has gone so far in America. I don't think it's nearly that extreme over here (Europe).

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Edited By birdspanker • 

Posturing? Perhaps you mean positing? As in "…after positing that 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."

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Edited By I_smell • 

I can see what the guy's doing and how it could work, but come on-- You're playing with people's education here. For you it's an experiment, but these students are makin life decisions on this course. I think this whole thing was more for him than for the class, and when you're a teacher that's like the worst place to do that.

I agree with this though: 
"Portal 2 may be a little less interesting because, in terms of its narrative, it gives you so much more,"
Portal 1 was way more interesting in terms of narrative.

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Edited By NickyDubz  Online • 

I have friend who goes there was pissed he didn't have the class

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Edited By Cirdain • 
@Mumrik said:
""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. "Interesting that it has gone so far in America. I don't think it's nearly that extreme over here (Europe).
I wish it was though
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Edited By Luck3ySe7en • 

Pat K, good stuff! 


Off topic: they got to watch City of God on one of their last weeks, great movie
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Edited By omghisam • 

When I saw the headline in my feed I was going to complain that this was a Kotaku-like nonstory, but it turned out to be a proper feature article. How could I have doubted Klepek?

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CosmicQueso

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Edited By CosmicQueso • 

Hey Klepek,


This is an insightful, well-written, interesting and informative article.  Dude, nice job.
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litrock

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Edited By litrock • 
@I_smell: But half of college is sitting through shitty required courses where the TA is pimping some professor's book that nobody buys outside of the class he teaches and you hate everything about being there and blowing thousands of dollars on that kind of wankshow.

I'll take Portal over that. For real.
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Jimbo

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Edited By Jimbo • 
"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."

For help with packing their bags and getting the fuck out of his college?
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Dingofighter

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Edited By Dingofighter • 

Aristotle versus Mashy spike plate!

I want a course like this in my school. Well, maybe not the parts that are not Portal...

Come to think of it, I think a class in my school was actually playing Minecraft in some course, don't know why though...
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bacongames

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Edited By bacongames • 

You know for as much as college students are stereotyped to be playing video games all day, it's shocking to think so few men in that class played the game before (if any at all).  As a PC gamer I was delighted to see console players squirm at the prospect of playing a PC game for once.  Good stuff :D

Either way, really good stuff Patrick!

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Protonguy

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Edited By Protonguy • 

Really enjoyed the article (typos aside). Great read Patrick.

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spncrrr

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Edited By spncrrr • 

Great to see stuff like this on Giant Bomb. Good work Patrick.

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Deusx

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Edited By Deusx • 

This is a great article, really interesting stuff. Nice job Patrick.

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SSully

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Edited By SSully • 

Such a great article. It is so nice having a dedicated news guys giving us unique content.

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I_smell

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Edited By I_smell • 
@litrock said:
@I_smell: But half of college is sitting through shitty required courses where the TA is pimping some professor's book that nobody buys outside of the class he teaches and you hate everything about being there and blowing thousands of dollars on that kind of wankshow.I'll take Portal over that. For real.
Yeah I guess it's at least better than the professors that pimp their own stuff. I didn't go to college, so I forgot that was a thing.
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Winternet

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Edited By Winternet • 

Good lord, Klepek. I don't have tome for all this.


This is a course about what is it mean to be human, yet, Bladerunner is part of the course. I am confused.
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Crowbear

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Edited By Crowbear • 

I wish more professors were as open minded as this guy.

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Auxin

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Edited By Auxin • 
@I_smell said:

I can see what the guy's doing and how it could work, but come on-- You're playing with people's education here. For you it's an experiment, but these students are makin life decisions on this course. I think this whole thing was more for him than for the class, and when you're a teacher that's like the worst place to do that.

Have you ever discussed curriculum development with an educator before? The whole thing is a process of testing out new methods and trying new approaches, then changing your strategy based on the feedback from that year. I'm not sure what sort of teaching simulator you think professors have access to, but the only way you CAN improve your class is by "experimenting" on your students and paying attention to the results.

It is also fair for him to mix things up for the sake of his own interest. A great way to make a class terrible is by having a teacher who is bored of the material. If he keeps things new and interesting on his end, that enthusiasm is going to spill over into the rest of his interactions with that class. 
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jacksukeru

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Edited By jacksukeru • 

I remember some Gamespot guys talking about this a while ago on the Hotspot when it was first suggested. Neat to get a follow up of sorts.

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coonce

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Edited By coonce • 

Klepek is killing it.... another well organized and interesting article. Very glad you're working with us :)

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gbrading

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Edited By gbrading • 

This is why video games are awesome.

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dropabombonit

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Edited By dropabombonit • 

This is pretty awesome, wish my course was this cool