Oscillate Wildly: Teaching Physics with Portal 2

While I’m more interested in incidental learning from video games, as opposed to teaching with them in more formal ways, I recently had the opportunity to go into a local school (through the STEM Ambassador programme) and try using Valve’s Portal 2 to teach Physics to a group of secondary school students.

The students were in year S2 (around 14 years old in Scottish schools) and were all girls: this was part of a ‘Girls into Physics’ event co-ordinated by the Institute of Physics. Such events are intended to help address the gender imbalance in Physics at all levels, from school through to university and into industry. The girls here were approaching the point where they must decide which subjects to pursue, and the event was designed to help ensure Physics is on that list of subjects.

Teaching Physics with Portal 2

My Portal 2 set-up. The projector would not have looked out of place in the game’s Aperture Laboratories.

The way the event ran was as follows. The students moved between demonstrators in groups of around 12 at 20 minute intervals. Aside from my own Portal set-up the event featured all sorts of interesting experiments and displays, each manned by suitably knowledgeable and enthusiastic demonstrators from the Institute of Physics and the STEM Ambassadors programme. I came prepared with an educational copy of Portal 2 already installed on my laptop and a lesson plan adapted from those offered by US-based Physics teacher Cameron Pittman on collisions, momentum, and oscillations (see http://physicswithportals.com). My laptop was plugged into an impressive-looking projector and I awaited my first group of students.

While I had prepared the exercise, built a custom ‘test chamber’ in which to conduct experiments, and become familiar with the editing tools that ship with the educational version of the game, I was nervous about my lack of a Physics background. When I say I lack a background in Physics, I mean to say I haven’t studied it for nearly 20 years and even then it was competing with Chemistry and Maths for the coveted title of My Most Hated Subject. These fears were not entirely unfounded.

Portal 2 Companion Cube

A Portal 2 Companion Cube

Overall, the experience was fairly positive. Feedback from the students was good (they seemed to have fun, at least) but I have doubts about what the teachers thought of the endeavour. While I had crammed just enough Physics theory to get through the exercises, I feel I could have done more with a proper command of the subject. While 20 minutes seemed like a short amount of time to play with, both of my groups finished working through the lesson plan before time was up: a real Physics teacher could have used the few minutes that remained to ad lib a little, while I had essentially reached the limit of my knowledge of Science. As with most teaching, too, I think that I could have conveyed what little I did attempt to cover rather better if I had a deeper understanding of the material. You can almost always tell when a teacher is slightly winging it.

Another observation I would make is that my laptop and projector set-up was not ideal for a group activity of this sort. While the students for the most part were quite engaged with what was happening on screen, it was inevitable that those furthest from the keyboard and mouse would eventually feel somewhat disconnected. The more confident students were also able to dominate to some degree. We changed up who was ‘in the driving seat’ a number of times per session but in 20 minutes it is impossible to allow 12 people to get some hands-on time – especially when factoring in some time for each student to master the game’s controls. A better approach, hardware availability permitting, might be to have the students work on their own machines, probably in pairs. If I did something like this again, I’d probably also try and learn some more Physics in advance of the class or, better still, run it in collaboration with an actual physicist. Finally, while I did make the point that it took somebody with a grasp of STEM subjects like Physics and Maths to make a game like Portal 2 happen, I think I could make this point all the more convincingly if I allocated some time to talk about how these subjects relate to work in the video games industry. For example, a few words about the success of Kim Swift, lead designer on the original Portal, might be of particular interest to secondary school girls thinking about their subject choices.

The Smiths

The Smiths: not relevant to 14 year old girls in 2013?

An aside: my Portal 2 test chamber was entitled ‘Oscillate Wildly’. Turns out 2013’s 14 year old girls don’t pick up on references to The Smiths.

SimCity (2013) Review

Will Wright’s original SimCity (1989) and its isometric sequel, SimCity 2000 (1994), are perhaps the games that first made me consider the educational possibilities of my favourite pastime. The original SimCity I played somewhat vicariously over my Amiga-owning friend’s shoulder. SimCity 2000, however, I had all to myself and I played it for hours on end on our Mac at home. At school, my forward-thinking geography teacher also allowed me to install it on the department’s Mac. He could probably see the potential in it as a learning tool and certainly recognised that the game could engage the teenage me in a way that some of his colleagues could not. It was never going to find its way on to the curriculum, of course, but it was an exciting possibility for the future.

New Mattsville in 2013

New Mattsville in 2013

The 2013 version of SimCity marks the return of a series which has lain dormant since the release of SimCity 4 in 2003 (excluding spin-offs such as the Nintendo DS version, the less successful SimCity Societies and the myriad versions of the wildly popular The Sims franchise). At its core, SimCity is exactly what the name implies: a city simulator, wherein you assume the role of major, albeit with some unconventional leanings towards omnipotence not usually associated with City Hall. It’s a kind of civic sandbox, featuring all the toys with which a budding mayor might expect to be able to play. While this new iteration introduces a steady stream of mayoral objectives, the game has traditionally set few fixed goals. Instead, the player is free to craft their city as they see fit: adjusting taxes, investing in public services, building essential infrastructure such as roads, and so on. Perhaps the most important tool in your repertoire is that which allows you to designate areas of your city as residential, commercial or industrial zones, determining what your citizens – known as Sims – can build there.

Tinkering with your city and watching it grow is strangely addictive stuff. Like its predecessors, SimCity offers feedback to the player in countless forms, from the often quite beautiful picture the game paints of your living, breathing city, to the multitude of tables, reports and graphs you can pull up on your city’s finances, crime levels, educational performance and other social statistics. All of these feedback mechanisms, coupled with the ability to play the game at your own pace – both in the literal sense (you can slow and speed up time) and in the sense that there’s no real need to gallop ahead and build a sprawling metropolis if you’d rather cultivate a bustling hamlet – encourage the player to set their own personal goals. Because there’s nobody telling you what to do or when to do it as in, say, a school classroom, the motivation to meet these goals is entirely intrinsic.

Downtown Mattsville

Downtown Mattsville

This new SimCity, however, makes one significant departure for the series: it is designed to be played online as a multiplayer experience. This is important for a number of reasons. First, of course, it introduces the prospect of a rather more extrinsic form of motivation: competition. Second, because the game insists on connecting to servers operated by the game’s publisher, EA, every time you play – even if you have no intention of interacting with other players – those servers have to be up-and-running. However, in the few days since the US launch of the game, and to a lesser extent in the hours since it was released in Europe, EA’s servers have not been up to the task. Thousands of disgruntled would-be mayors cannot play the game for which they just paid around £40, after a decade-long wait, simply because the servers are unable to cope with the volume of people attempting to log in. The publisher’s motivation for this arrangement (known as ‘digital rights management’, or DRM) is to protect against piracy. Their servers, as well as proving the ability to save your game to the ‘cloud’, and, apparently, crunching some of the complex numbers required by the city simulation, are also used to check your copy of the game is legitimate.

This debacle has overshadowed the launch of the game to such an extent that it is impossible to ignore in any review. The rights and wrongs of DRM are better covered elsewhere, but the situation raises some significant questions about the game’s suitability for use in a classroom. First, online connectivity requires EA’s Origin software to be installed and able to connect to the internet, introducing an additional hurdle for getting the game installed on a school, college or university network in the first place. Second, if the servers are down when you are scheduled to teach a SimCity-based class, that class isn’t going to happen. Of course, it’s likely that EA will have remedied the server situation by the time the game filters into classrooms but there is a larger question here: what happens when EA turns the servers off? As players of many of the same publisher’s sports titles will know, once those servers become unprofitable to run, or there’s a new version of the title they want to push, the server that facilitates online play is canned. So, whereas a school that invested in 30 copies of SimCity 4 a decade ago can still use that software, there’s every chance that the same will not apply to the new game in 2023.

This is something of a dilemma for educators considering SimCity as a potential learning tool. On the one hand, the game’s publishers are actively courting the educational market – apparently drawing inspiration from Valve’s seemingly more altruistic efforts with the physics-based Portal 2 game – via the simcityedu.org website, which offers lesson plans and other resources to kick-start teaching around the game. On the other, how many schools or colleges can afford to invest in multiple copies of a game that may become unplayable at the publisher’s whim? One must also add to the equation the cost of purchasing suitable hardware – the new SimCity is beautifully realised, to be sure, but it requires modern technology to render all of that stunning detail in real time.

In the end, and bearing in mind it’s only been out a day or two, it’s fair to say that SimCity will almost certainly gobble up what little spare time I can muster, and I’ll quickly forget my objections to what I consider to be Draconian DRM measures. From a learning point-of-view, however, I’ve yet to see anything in the game that couldn’t be done to some degree in its considerably more affordable predecessor, if not the version I showed to my geography teacher nearly 20 years ago. Either of these is rather more likely to run on the average school’s computers, which in some cases might actually be 20 years old.

This review was written as part of my coursework for the excellent Introduction to digital game-based learning course, headed up by Dr Hamish Macleod.

Bartle Test

Update: The GamerDNA version of the Bartle test is now offline, so I’ve implemented my own version here.

As part of my literature review, I am, inevitably, reading up on some of Richard Bartle’s work. Also inevitably, I became distracted by the prospect of taking the Bartle Test to determine which of the MUD co-creator’s four player types I most closely resemble. Turns out I am explorer at heart, with leanings towards being an achiever and something of a killer. In the context of multi-player games (and perhaps more generally!), I am not much of a socializer.

bartle_test_results_explorerInteresting that I fall under the category of perhaps the most ‘learning focussed’ player type. Here’s the full blurb (from http://matthewbarr.gamerdna.com/quiz_result/PoA1hnuG/bartle-test-of-gamer-psychology):

The Explorer:

It’s not so much the wandering around and poking about, but that euphoric eureka moment the Explorer strives for. The joys of discovery do not necessarily involve geography, real or virtual. They may derive from the mental road less traveled, the uncovering of esoteric or hidden knowledge and it’s creative application. Explorers make great theory crafters. The most infinitesimal bit of newness can deliver the most delicious zing to an Explorer.


Secondary influences

  • Explorer Killers enjoy seeing the world, meeting interesting people…and killing them. EKs love all discovery, but finding an edge over the competition is best. Always seeking new opportunity, an EK likely knows the ten best places to find certain types of opponents, as well as ten different ways for taking them down.
  • Explorer Achievers have been there, done that and have the t-shirt…in fact they have a plethora of t-shirts, badges, trophies and other rewards. EAs are the completionists of the gamer world. They like to find new places, quests, easter eggs, unlocks, maps etc. and check them off as have, visited or beaten. Like real world travelers, EAs enjoy collecting memorabilia that helps them relive their experiences later.
  • Explorer Socializers are the glue of the online world. Not only do they like to delve in to find all the cool stuff, but they also enjoy sharing that knowledge with others. Explorer socializers power the wikis, maps, forums and theory craft sites of the gamer world.

Motto: “No stone unturned!”

Norwegian terrorist ‘trained’ for shooting attacks by playing Call of Duty

I’m not sure what to make of this, and I’m loath to give this man any sort of publicity, however minor. That said, there is no doubt that rather more well-read websites than this will jump on the opportunity to highlight the horrendous implication that someone like Breivik could ‘learn’ to kill using a video game.

A World of Warcraft wedding

A World of Warcraft wedding - while the MMORPG has been responsible for its fair share of marriages and divorces, it does not seem like a training ground for mass murderers.

I confess that Call of Duty, which Breivik claims to have used to “develop [his] target acquisition”, is not to my tastes but to suggest that it could be in some way responsible for what happened in Norway (as some quarters of the press seem to imply) is ridiculous. Breivik’s interest in the fantastical World of Warcraft is also dredged up, as if playing a game featuring orcs, gnomes and night elves could somehow prepare him for the very real and truly horrifying act of mass murder. That the 10 million other WoW subscribers aren’t using the game as some sort of murderous training simulator suggests that it has little to do with the actions of an evil, deluded man.

[Via The Guardian]


Learning with Sam & Max: Who’s John Muir?

Some early ’90s video game humour, which serves mainly to highlight the apparent preposterousness of the idea of learning from video games, or ‘edutainment’ as this unholy alliance was referred to at the time.

Sam & Max Hit the Road

You really shouldn't tell fibs about dead animals, Max

Of course, this is LucasArts‘ legendary 1993 point and click adventure, Sam & Max Hit The Road, based on the characters created by Steve Purcell. The ‘edutainment’ (I don’t seem able to type that without the scare quotes) dig is just one of many brilliant jokes to be found in this classic game’s script (delivered, for the first time, entirely by voice actors). Still, I didn’t know who John Muir was until I was inspired to look him up after enjoying this clip. What a nin-cow-poop!

[Via Kotaku]

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education

Sugata Mitra’s work was brought to my attention by one (or possibly both, I can’t quite remember now) of my supervisors. On the surface, it might not seem so closely related to video games and learning, but there are actually (I think) many interesting ideas and questions contained in Mitra’s work that connect it to the area in which I am interested. Not least, there is strong evidence of self-directed learning here and – perhaps even more significantly – the children involved in the learning are having fun.

Sugata Mitra's Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning

Sugata Mitra's Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning

The video below is short, but I am currently reading have just read Mitra’s TED book, Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning, which also details the author’s efforts to educate children in rural India by simply placing an ATM-like, Internet-connected PC in the middle of the street. Local children – entirely unsupervised – first taught themselves how to use the computer, then began using the web browser to educate themselves about various topics (in English, it should be noted – not their native tongue). Mitra went on to expand on this idea, which the video illustrates.

While the book is also quite brief, it’s a really interesting read. I do wonder about how ‘deep’ some of the learning described by Mitra really is (would these children be able to apply Pythagoras’ theorem outside of the learning environment?*), but the results are impressive and the ‘Granny Cloud’ idea that followed on from the original Hole in the Wall work seems rather inspiredsee the video below, or check out the book, for more.

If I thought anyone was reading this blog, I would ask what others thought of Mitra’s approach. Am I being overly sceptical when I query the ‘deep learning’ on display here?

* I would be unable to apply Pythagoras’ theorem anywhere.

Nostalgia, and learning from video games

There are some slightly problematic statements in this article, but it’s interesting none-the-less.

An American sophomore student (presumably at college) makes this comment regarding Assassin’s Creed:

“It’s set in Renaissance Italy. The attention to detail is so great you honestly pick up the layout of Florence and interacting with real historical figures and real events that happened.”

Assassin’s Creed II

Assassin’s Creed II does, indeed, feature impressive reconstructions of Renaissance Italy. Also, killing people.

Now, it’s not clear from this slightly vague statement what – of value – the student feels he has learned from playing Assassin’s Creed, but it’s clear he believes he has gained something from the experience. What might be interesting to find out is whether he subsequently sought any more authoritative information on the “historical figures and real events” encountered in the game, from alternative sources.

The rest of the article deals mostly with Pokémon (presenting the series of Manga-inspired games as something of a Nineties phenomenon, although a Western-friendly version of the game was not released in the US until the tail end of the decade). I had not considered the educational value of Pokémon until now (it’s one of the few Nintendo franchises I’ve never really become obsessed with), but perhaps it warrants some investigation. From the article:

“Marquez [the student in question] said there’s a lot of intelligence and patience that goes into Pokémon games. He researches stats, some of which involve complex math equations, before compiling a Pokémon team.”

Marquez continues:

“I will sit down with a pen and paper… and make sure my team is well-balanced. You can breed Pokémon to battle.”


Pokémon: it's educational!

My main issue with the article, however, probably lies with the fact that late-Nineties games such as Pokémon are considered retro. Contrary to what the seems to sophomore think (and I may be reading more into his comments than is strictly sane), his is not the first generation of adults (if we can be called that) to have grown up with video games.