Teaching with Portals: Valve Announces Educational Steam Platform

Video game development and digital distribution company Valve has announced Steam for Schools, an educational version of the popular PC game distribution platform. Educators can now sign up to be part of the beta program which includes a bare-bones version of Steam. The limited platform features Portal 2, the game’s level editor and its workshop which supports user-created levels. Last year Valve invited Washington middle school students to their company headquarters to explore the educational and creative opportunities of their famous puzzle game.

To access the Steam for Schools beta, educators can visit Teach with Portals and sign up in the top-right corner for the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker Education Beta. While there, teachers can also download physics and geometry lesson plans.

The beauty of the Portal games is their clandestine educational value. The first time I played the game I was drawn in by the puzzle elements, the black humor and the absorbing atmosphere. What I didn’t immediately realize was the game was educating me on a spatial level, imparting points of knowledge on physics, a subject I fervently avoided in high school, and geometry, a subject I think I got a C+ in.

A few details regarding Portal for the uninitiated: Portal and its sequel are first-person video games that focus on the idea of creating portals through solid objects in order to manipulate your surroundings and solve spatial puzzles. A classic puzzle involves falling from a great height into a Y-axis portal and using your momentum to propel you across a room through an X-axis portal. In other words: Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.

In the lesson plan “Portal ‘Bouncing’ and Oscillations”, written by Belmont University’s Dr. Scott H. Hawley, students can measure and graph the oscillation that occurs when dropping an object through adjacent portals. “Whatever gets dropped in one portal comes out moving upward through the other portal,” writes Dr. Hawley. “Then the object—or you—reaches a maximum height, starts falling, and eventually comes back upward from the original portal. It’s like bouncing off the floor, but you turn upside down each time you bounce!”

Can you see the seventh graders scratching their heads? This is where the video game comes in. Imagine the educational benefit of being able to perfectly present that otherwise confusing concept to students with a game rather than just words. Students get the benefit of interacting with a fun game and grasping a concept of physics at the same time. Other lesson plans include “Terminal Velocity,” “Introduction to Parabolas,” “Spatial Visualization and Perspectives” and “Conservation of Momentum.”

The “Conservation of Momentum” lesson plan is a perfect example of how to use the beta platform Steam for Schools and the Portal 2 level editor. Students are instructed to build a level that includes cubes colliding in midair by way of catapults (otherwise known as Aerial Faith Plates for the Portal fans). Students must create instances where cubes collide at the same speed, at variable speeds and lastly instances where one cube is larger than the other. Valve’s game engine Source is responsible for simulating real-world physics and is a perfect interactive environment in which to learn these concepts.

Valve is providing Steam for Schools for free, receiving no outside funding or grants for the program. A commercially successful company, Valve is able to facilitate such a program and is in talks with other publishers to provide additional games. Valve is rather skilled at attracting the talents of other companies and a wide player population. As of January 2012 there are over 1500 games available through Steam, when in 2003 the platform launched with just a couple. It has a user-base of over 40 million, and is largely credited with the PC gaming industry generating $18.6 billion last year.*

The company has the clout to launch an educational platform and the PR chops to inspire other game developers to participate. As of now, Steam for Schools includes Portal 2 and no other games. The educational benefits of using video games in the classroom and the popularity of the Steam platform may convince other companies to offer their games for free as well.

Consider a game like Quantum Conundrum, another first-person puzzle game designed by Portal lead designer and former Valve member Kim Swift. Players must manipulate space, time and weight through various dimensions to solve puzzles. Such a game is suited perfectly for Steam for Schools. Consider also Microsoft Flight, a free-to-play title for the aerospace-inclined students out there, or even Universe Sandbox, a mind-blowing space simulator that would capture the attention of any student interested in astronomy. Steam for Schools could also be an option for as-yet uncreated games too, such as the ones that appear out of the Institute of Play’s GLASS Lab, (covered on Technapex last month) which draws from top Silicon Valley talent to produce innovative games for use in educational environments.

There is educational value in many games, and Portal is an example of one that educates in the background, occurring during periods of fun and problem solving. It is exciting to see such a game enter into the educational space and inspiring to see a big-name video game company like Valve take the time to offer solutions for teachers and students. We’ll be watching Steam for Schools with great interest.

* http://www.forbes.com/sites/johngaudiosi/2012/03/06/gdc-2012-pc-games-raked-in-18-6-billion-in-2011/

  • Jesse Ciccone

    great article.

  • Mstrnix

    Great article all around!