Could playing Portal 2 make you smarter?

Karl Is WrightConsole Games, Future of Education, Games, PC Games

While Portal 2 pushes player’s mental capability for problem solving to a new level, can playing it actually make you smarter?

The Portal series from video game company, Valve Inc. demonstrates just how widely different games can be from the standard FPS format. One of the game’s most inspiring aspects, is it’s ability to take something as complicated as physics and explain it to us in the form of, well,’ fun’.

The way the game works may sound complicated, but in fact it’s actually quite simple, the environment you find yourself in, in both Portal 1 & 2, is an abandoned underground facility controlled by a robotic mega-brain called GLADIUS, a cleverly scripted & perfectly witty character, who manages to insult and compliment you at the same time in almost everything you do. Perhaps it’s a bit ominous that the word gladius, just happens to be the Latin word for a short sword.1

In order to escape this massive testing facility, you must find your way through a series of mazes, or labyrinths. To aid you in your quest to seek the Holy Grail, the game features a revolutionary new type of gun, a portal gun. The gun is capable of firing two types of portals, a blue one and an orange one. The opening of each portal leads directly to the next. The best way to describe would be to imagine 3d space on a sheet of paper, now take a pencil and make two dots on the paper, now fold the paper so that the two dots are touching; that’s how the portals in portal work.

When you enter into either the blue or the orange portal, you emerge from the corresponding portal, at the same angle & velocity with which you entered  the first portal. Although, to be honest here, GLADIUS says it best, “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.”

Working with portals sounds extremely complex, and yet, it’s not. As complex as the process is, Portal, makes it fun. Portal manages to do what most of the rest of the educational games you saw stacked up in your 1st grade classroom could never do, by taking complicated aspects in physics and letting you discover it for yourself.

Classic example of the conservation of motion, being taught to you, by Portal, without your even realizing it; suppose you come to a cliff, too far for you to jump across, and the platform on the opposite side is higher up than the one on which you currently stand. First, you aim the gun, and fire a blue portal on the wall behind you, up towards the ceiling. You then leap down below and, just before you hit the ground, you open up an orange portal directly over where you are about to impact. Now, instead of falling into the pit below, you, along with your current momentum, are transported into the orange portal, and out through the blue portal, flying across the canyon, and onto the opposite platform. I can assure you it is far easier done, than said. Nonetheless, you have now just been introduced to the conservation of motion in physics, all while having actual fun.

Physics does not need to be entirely taught in a classroom. A lot of it can be learned through observation& interaction with reality. One need not be a physics major to understand that, when driving a car, greater speed, requires greater stopping time. Or perhaps you have either observed or can recall that, when air resistance is neglected, all objects fall at the same rate. Another classic example might be the difference, when playing catch with a friend, between a ball thrown lightly thrown underhanded, and a ball thrown overhand at 100mph; the main difference being one of pain should the ball make contact with your face.

All Portal does, is set you up in a virtual world, places a portal gun in your hand, and says, go! There are of course, hints from GLADIUS, to help you along in the beginning, such as not pointing the device at your face.

But can playing games like actually make you, smarter? Well, according to Ray Perez, the program officer for the Office of Naval Research’s Warfighter Performance Department,

“We have discovered that video game players perform 10 to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than normal people that are non-game players,”2

Perez explains how, in order to describe a person’s ability to adapt to new situations, problems and to develop new tactics & counter tactics, he uses the term, “fluid intelligence”. What makes this find significant is that, until this study, was conducted, “fluid intelligence” was previously thought to be unchanging & unchangeable, regardless of received training. What this study does is now call that old theory into question. Commenting further of the research being collected by the Office of Naval Research, Perez states,

“We know that video games can increase perceptual abilities and short-term memory,”2

Perhaps the most significant long-term impact that this study has, is that it encourages further effort to explore video-gaming technology’s potential as an educational tool.

For clarification sake, I have not yet played Portal 2, but it is, essentially, the same type of game; using physics to accomplish the seemingly impossible. The major differences being the addition of 2 new robot characters, who kind of look a bit like the little round balls which fall out of GLADIUS, which you must destroy, in the ending level of the first Portal… which of course, they are the parts from GLADIUS which you were supposed to destroy in the first game.
Portal 2 also features a nifty second campaign for players to do co-op together. Then of course there’s the usual, almost obligatory, graphics update one would expect to find in a sequel, not to mention lots more new labyrinths to solve.

On a more personal note, it is my hope that people realize Portals value as not only a fun brain teaser but also as a low-level introduction to physics. Too often video games that attempt to be education, don’t know how to merge the educational aspect with their virtual nature, so, in favor of guaranteeing that the player (assumed to be ages 7-10) learns something, the virtual nature is neglected, and the whole experience transforms itself into a virtual lecture, not much different from what the child already receives in class (save for the occasional space alien or talking dog).

Another area where education games sabotage themselves is in their assumed audience. The game assumes the audience is always a young child and that the customer is always the Public School System. The result is that entertainment is reserved for games like Gears of War, and education is reserved for a format like Math Blasters 2000; a game that so utterly doesn’t know what to do with itself that spends the entire time just handing you math problems…and fun, is if you can do the problems faster.

Portal is a game so brilliant is it possible, and indeed very likely, that we will not see another franchise that so elegantly combines fun with an intro to physics, for a very, very, long time.

 

Portal 2 links

Get it on Amazon

Think Geek (Portal Gear)

Get it from GameStop, Inc.

Find it on Buy.com

Further reading

1 Gladius

2 Adults Benefit from Playing Video Games [PODCAST]

3 Physics, With Wormholes by You

4 A Video Gaming Legacy to Live Up To

5 Title Image credit goes to zeptozephyr on deviant art.