Torrie Cannon

EDT 460


October 23, 2014

Critical Analysis: Portal

Portal is one of many puzzle video games out there for the world to play. Much of Gee’s Learning Principles for video games do show up during this game. You start out with minimal information given, just that you have to do this experiment for Aperture, a science company. You are supposed to navigate your way through a multitude of mazes with the promise of cake at the end if you survive. This essay gives my own experience with the game along with how this game could work in a classroom setting and finally, ideological issues the game brings to light.

Here’s my first experience. I start the game, and I’m in some room with a radio playing and I hear GLaDOS talking to me and telling me what to do. What’s with the radio? I don’t understand why I’m here or what I’m supposed to do until I notice the portal and think, “duh go through the portal.” so I go through the portal and start to follow the game. I keep wondering if and when it’s going to tell me why I’m here and how I got here and how this benefits science. Really, how do I pretending to be a lab rat, risking my virtual life to use a portal gun benefit science in any real way? This question followed me throughout the game. I continue through the game and I am granted my own portal gun to get through the mazes now. I really think the game is pretty easy and that I could finish the game within two hours. Man I was wrong, the game progresses very quickly and becomes challenging even faster than I predicted. I start to use and play with it and for me portals have always been something I wish we already had, I was very enthused. I begin to struggle with figuring out the portals and the method I have to use to get through the maze, I’m probably on level 7 or 8 at this point and I am already getting frustrated. Luckily, my boyfriend is a big gamer and having played the game before was able to help me. I kept having to ask him questions about the game because I didn’t see a plot and was confused and he told me to wait. I am a true novice when it comes to video games and it’s like he’s my tutor for the video game world. I see the radio again on and off and start to wonder about it’s significance. I never did figure that out actually. I begin to see the walls saying “the cake is a lie” and I was already questioning my characters motives, I now begin to question GLaDOS and the companies motives. I have also noticed by now I never seen any employee’s or other human life in the building and it strikes me as odd but I brushed it off because I figured no one besides me was allowed in the testing center. I reach level 12 when my first hour of gameplay ends.

For my second experience playing this game I had a lot more difficulties, The game and the challenges got more and more complicated and I got frustrated pretty quickly. This is part of my problem with video games, once I get stuck I tend to stop playing the game. But I knew this was an assignment so I kept going and began asking my boyfriend for help because he had played and beaten the game beforehand. He gave me clues to figure out the level and when I just couldn’t figure it out he would show me. I think that’s technically cheating but I wanted to be thorough. I still didn’t understand the significance of the radio that was playing from time to time and I don’t think I ever will.

I had a hard time with the game and understanding it because I have never taken a physics class and I realized a little late that a bit of knowledge about physics is required to understand and complete the game. Trying to learn to portal jump with momentum and use physics in the game was nightmare for me. I struggled quite a bit with portal jumping, because I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get enough speed, and all the while my boyfriend was laughing and asking if I needed help because I was getting frustrated. I actually spent a good twenty minutes of my game play trying to figure it out until finally I gave in and asked for help. Once he explained it to me and showed me how to do it, it made perfect sense, but I never would have figured out how to portal jump on my own. I also still don’t understand why they would offer cake to a person to risk their life over and over in maze after maze like a lab rat. Why would anyone do that to begin with? I understand it’s a game and you never find out how you ended up in the facility but it does leave the player questioning the characters motives. I guess I should stick to more humanity based games that involve more social issues. I think I would understand them a lot more than I understood Portal.  Even still I didn’t finish the game so I looked up the ending on YouTube.

I watched the ending and I think fortunately for me I didn’t play it because I never would have figured it out. It was interesting to notice how much and how fast things changed. GLaDOS changed her attitude rather rapidly and the plot explains itself rather simply. GLaDOS explains that she killed everyone with a neurotoxin but they put a morality chip in her to stop killing people. One author and player of the game noticed that GLaDOS has small malfunctions throughout the game that show “GLaDOS was programmed to respond empathetically but doesn’t actually feel emotions the way a human being does.” (McNeilly 3) Somehow she still justifies killing people by putting them through these mazes and tests because to her, its all for science, which I find rather intriguing on Valve’s point of view of what big corporate science is capable of. During the final we end up destroying her morality chip and she tries to kill us with that same neurotoxin so the job of the player is to kill GLaDOS to survive. You have to portal to individual pieces of her and destroy each individual piece within a short time limit. The time limit creates pressure, which I hate, thus making the player have to work and think fast to solve the problem that GLaDOS has created for you once again. I also noticed how sloppy everything became at the end when GLaDOS didn’t control the player anymore or anything around her. She was sloppy, her body was in multiple pieces but what caught my eye was how angry she was. In my understanding science is all about control, control over the variables, the test etc. When GLaDOS lost control she felt that she had lost everything, I sat wondering if this is similar in large science corporations like Aperture.  GLaDOS motive’s are for the benefit of science yet she loses it when she loses control over the player.

Speaking of motives and character, GLaDOS is very interesting; throughout most of the game while you are in the mazes she sounds very scientific and detached, she just wants results from the tests that the player goes through. But as the game progresses she becomes more and more humanized and reminded me of a snobby teenager or even a child. She begins to insult you, threaten you and is incredibly sarcastic and demeaning. Maybe in a sense a life lesson could be about bullying, GLaDOS could represent a terrible bully, one that insults you and says terrible things to you but through the game you learn to ignore these things and deal with the real situation at hand, whether that be school or something else.

Overall for me personally I didn’t see Gee’s principles very well at first, I had to have help seeing them. After having a week to think about plus talking to others about the game I started to put into a new perspective that I could understand; a classroom.  I am beginning to see the similarities, For example, the many ways a student can learn through the game. While Portal doesn’t give too many audio cues for learning it’s great for visual learners to learn and understand physics. Even though it’s only buttons on a controller, its still more hands on then a book so it could also be great for hands on learning.  For me I barely understand physics and not sure I could explain what I have learned from the game to someone else but I know I now understand momentum to a degree as well as an object in motion stays in motion. What’s interesting is how they teach you, they give you a puzzle, so it doesn’t feel like an assignment or a test, you just have to work your way through the problem on your own and begin to understand in your own experience.

After passing through the first couple of challenges they give you a portal gun so that you can start creating your own portals to get through the mazes. GLaDOS tells you what to expect and what to do and promises cake at the end when all of the mazes are completed. This is a prime example of Gee’s “Bottom-Up Basic Skills principle;” your skill set is learned as play the game and that contributes to the core elements of the game. This is a classroom at an elementary level; elementary school is to set up the core basic knowledge students need to move into higher grades. So this also happens in every game as well in either the tutorial or the beginning of the game. You have to have a basic understanding of the game, its mechanics and how to use the controls in order to truly understand the game.

As you play the mazes continue to get harder and the player has to start experimenting with the portal gun to get through the game. This is the “Discovery Principle” that Gee mentions; the learner has ample opportunity to experiment and make new discoveries in the game. We find out very little information as we continue through the game, the plot is very quiet and the game has a bit of a cold science feel to it, particularly because it is in a science lab and it’s all about completing the test. Once again relating it back to a classroom experience; this is when a student would learn something new, such as a science experiment with temperature. They learn how this affects their own life and they discover a new experience; for players in portal they get the experience of learning physics and how they could use something like momentum in real life. This is where the “Situated Meaning Principle” makes itself known;  the student now has value on what they have learned and it’s something they will remember. The meaning of the game isn’t general and the setting of the game helps contribute to the meaning of the overall game. It’s a giant science test that you have to pass.

Once again the game continues to get more and more complicated, make portals faster, learning how to portal jump we still don’t know much about ourselves or the plot of the game but we are starting to transfer our previous knowledge of the game into where we currently are. This is Gee’s “Transfer Principle.” Throughout the entire game we are practicing, and transferring knowledge from previous levels into the one we are currently playing to get to the next level. This particular principle is very crucial to the game play and its fundamentals, if the player doesn’t take their previous knowledge and apply to new levels, they won’t be able to get through the game. This is also true of learning and teaching in a classroom, if a student doesn’t have prior knowledge of a subject, or a foundation of similar knowledge, they won’t be able to understand the content you’re trying to teach them. I never saw the similarity between these two things before and it’s actually quite interesting how well they could be interchanged.

The issues of gender doesn’t seem to be an issue the game wants to teach, at least on the surface aspects of the game. It’s a first person shooter game and its actually a feminist criticism of the entire first person shooter genre. The average first person shooter game is a man with an oversized gun that he shoots and kills the enemy with. These are games such as Destiny or Borderlands where the main goal is to kill all the enemies and gain power; normally masculine and violent. Portal on the other hand is the exact opposite, you play as a woman in what looks like a prison jump suit and you only know this by catching rare glimpses of yourself through the portals you create. The game offers no backstory so there is no gender perspective to start the game with. This is very different from normal first person shooters because they normally show you right at the beginning or the tutorial that you will be playing as a guy. Portal wanted all of it’s players to go into the game with no idea of the gender they played as to give them a new perspective on gender in video games; gender doesn’t matter in the game, it’s what the game is trying to teach you that’s important.

The interesting part is how feminism in this game is portrayed through portal gun. The normal first person shooter deals with bullets but in this dystopian game we use portals It’s a symbol of new beginnings and connections between old and new places. In “The Rules of Play” by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, on chapter focuses on design. They begin to talk about the semiotics of a game and how they create meaning for the player. “Semiotically speaking, people use signs to designate objects or ideas. Because a sign represents something other than itself, we take the representation as the meaning  of the sign.” (Salen & Zimmerman 42) Through this concept we can relate the Portal Gun to be a symbol of connectivity.The same author I mentioned earlier makes an interesting comment about this; “The Portal Gun creates connections rather than destroying life. it is through innovative placement of these connections, or portals, that goals are achieved or enemies overcome.” (McNielly 3) McNielly also says that we could relate the Portal Gun to a “metaphorical birth canal through which the protagonist is constantly being born into new trials.” This is a bit of a stretch for me but I do see the sense behind it. Essentially this game does have an undertone of feminism to it but I think there are more important issues the game is trying to address.

I had a hard time trying to figure out what the game wanted me to know besides physics and I spent about two days trying to figure it out. I think the critical issue that does show up in this game is maybe the lack of trust in corporations, your promised something if you do your part and then in the end they don’t give it to you; to make matters even worse they try to kill you. I think this idea is a bit obscure but has merit. After digging a bit deeper and researching Aperture science I’ve discovered that the developers Valve are definitely making a political point with this game. When looking at Valve’s video’s on YouTube about Aperture science they are unquestionably bringing acknowledgement to this matter through this game, to paraphrase the director Cave Johnson; my father’s principles on farming are the backbone of this company. The company has nothing to do with farming so that eliminates everything he just said. Going even further he says that this is how the company has been run for generations and that’s why they are bankrupt so they devised a plan to trick the world into paying them enormous amounts of money. To quote the video “We are about to run the greatest con game in the history of the multiverse.” (Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative) Clearly Valve is trying to reinforce this idea to their viewers. The game itself as well it’s video’s also contest the idea of science being purely sterile. Looking at  GLaDOS once again, she had that  morality chip that supposedly kept her from killing people after she killed most of the people in the science company. How can science be neutral or sterile if the computer has to have a morality chip? Valve wants their viewers to see that science and big corporations are anything but neutral or sterile, they are comprised of humans. Human nature is flawed and anything but perfect.    I think the overall lesson could be take everything with a grain of salt and be careful who you trust. That sounds incredibly pessimistic of a game but I think the foundation for it is definitely there. Portal is a life lesson in its own way because of this idea.

Overall this was an interesting experience for me; Now when I watch a video game being played I see new aspects of the game I never considered; what is the game trying to tell me, what does it want to audience to know? I look at the bigger issues that the game teaches rather than the small surface aspects. Portal is a great game for a copious amount of reasons; the knowledge of physics that is mastered, the issue of big science corporations that is addressed as well just being able to have fun going through a maze while using a portal gun. I do like this game, I’ll probably never finish it on my own but I think it had a lot great aspects and insight for me as I look forward to my career as a teacher or school counselor. I hope that I can end up recommending this game to a kid that is struggling with physics and this helps them understand.

Joe McNielly. Portal is the Most Subversive Game Ever. December 7, 2007.

Zimmerman, E., & Salen, K. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. London: MIT Press.

Valve. Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative. April 27, 2012.



Sam Robison

EDT 460

Prof. Ingram-Goble

October 8, 2014

Civilization 5 analysis

Civilization 5 is a popular role-playing strategy game. In the game you play as a famous historical leader and try beat the other characters to one of 5 victories. Civilization is a fun game that also has some relevancy outside of itself, it uses gee’s principals, makes claims about society and possible claims about race.

Civilization V does a great job of instantiating many of Gee’s 36 principals. In my opinion the one it does the best job of doing is #36, Insider principal. You can customize pretty much everything in the game, from which leader you are to what kind of environment you want to play in. You can also change how people see you through out the game by the choices you make while playing. Other players will often be hostile toward you if you have gone to war with them in the past or if you are aggressive toward many other players. You can also mold how the game reacts to you in other ways besides being aggressive. Other characters in the game will react to almost any power play you make, from befriending city-states, to help you chances at a diplomatic victory, to founding a large amount of cities and taking up land that other players could take.

In civilization you can win in 5 different ways. Domination, by taking everyone’s capital city, Diplomacy, by getting enough votes to make you the leader of the UN, Cultural, by more tourism than all of the other nations culture, Science, by getting to Alpha Centarti, and Time by getting to the year 2050 with no one winning another ways and having the highest score. Because there are so many ways to win this game I think it brings in the Multiple Routes principal rather nicely. It allows for the player to choose which way they are most comfortable winning or which way they can formulate the best strategy but they can also try to find other ways if they feel like challenging themselves a little bit more. Because I personally like to stay on the defensive in this game and avoid conflict at all costs I chose to be Venice. Venice can only create one city but they get double the amounts of trade routes. Because they can make so much money I wanted to aim for a diplomatic victory. How this is achieved will be explained later in this paper. The fact that you choose a civilization to play with and then adopt all of their style of play bring in the Identity Principal. This is in play because you take on the role of someone and then have to make choices and interact with other players as that character

The discovery principal is in play in this game too; the game gives you some basic direction in the beginning then lets you loose. You can tell what kind of victories each player would be good for but the game does not tell you. It tells you how to do everything you need to know then lets you formulate your own strategy to win.

Here is my experience playing the game. Civilization lets you choose how you want your environment to be. You can pick what kind of terrain you want the world to be. You can choose how big you want it to be and how many other player you would like to play with you and can decide how good the other player are going to be. That’s one of the cool things about this game; you can have whatever game you want. I chose to play as Venice as stated earlier. You can tell what kind of victory each player would be good for by what perks the character gets.  For instance Venice’s perks are the ability to buy city-states with great merchants and double the normal number of trade routes (the most beneficial perk they get) but they cannot annex or create new cities. Because Venice is able to make much more money than the average player they are best suited toward a diplomatic victory, money does run politics after all.

I wanted a sea based game because other civilizations tend to be less aggressive if you are not on the same piece of land as them so I played an fractal based map. Snaky islands around the map characterize fractal maps.  I played on a small map because MacBook pros are not meant to play civilization and a smaller map helps the computer. Something about the graphics card makes it crash periodically while playing.

The game starts out with a bio about your character. It tells you about what they did to have history remember them. It reads it aloud to you as the map renders and it sets up other thing in the game. This “story” behind the game has no real meaning to how you play. You are almost entirely disconnected from you who choose to be after you click start the game when it is finished loading. The only mention to your character after this is when it randomly pops up the leaderboard for certain areas of game play, presumably so that you can recognize yourself. However knowledge of history it can be helpful in this game. The other characters in the game are programmed to have the personalities of the leaders they are emulating. Alexander the Great is very aggressive and will attack you whenever he feels that you are weak and he can win. The rest of time he is friendly. Siam is very peaceful and will not go to war with you unless you deliberately provoke him to the point of him wanting your gone. Bismarck will act the same as Alexander the Great except that after a war he will hold a grudge against you as opposed to Alexander who will act like nothing happened.

The game started, I got what I wanted and started by a coast on an island all by myself with plenty of city-states around to form trade routes with. I started with making a monument and a church so I could make culture to expand my borders and enough faith to have a healthy religious following (that can make you even more money if you know how to use it correctly and choose the right religious perks). I kept playing without much incident making trade routes with city states and eventually getting to the point where I was making enough money to start buying them into being my allies.

After a while I could no long fly under the radar of other civilizations and I started meeting them. This came at a good point in the game for me because I had already made allies with all of the city-states on my little island and had a surplus of money. When dealing with the other civilizations in the game I have found the best course of action is to have as little to do with them as possible if you are not trying to win a militaristic victory.

This is another interesting point about the game. The best way to keep peace with the other civilizations is to keep as far away from them as possible. You practically have to ignore them. The only thing that you can do with them that will not cause war is trading luxuries. They will often ask for an open borders treaty but these seemingly friendly offer is often just to see how big your military is and if you accept they will often declare war a few turns later. They also ask you to help go to war with them against some other civilization. The other times they talk to you is when you do something like buy land by them or spy on them or settle a city near them. In these cases they will ask you to not do the action again. The game gives you two options to respond to them an aggressive one and an apologetic one. The best way to keep peace is not to do any of the things they ask and reply politely if they tell you to stop doing something. The creator of the game may be saying that the best way for a country to keep peace is by being Switzerland and being neutral in all conflicts and not being a part of any treaties.

Meeting the other civilizations helped open up the map a bit and find more city-states that I could make into allies. City-states will vote for you in the world congress, donate food, give you money, make you troops and donate culture and faith points to your civilization. If you choose the social policies for it, you can have your city-states produce science for you too.  After a while all the other civilizations had been discovered and the world congress could have its first meeting. The person who meets all of the civilizations first becomes the leader of the world congress. Around this point was also when the first civilization hit the renaissance era and espionage was introduced to the game. The game gives you spies and you can either choose to use them as diplomats or spies. As spies they can steal technologies from other civilizations but run the risk of getting killed and possibly having the other civilization find out that you did it, as diplomats they allow you to make diplomatic trades with other civilizations.

I chose to use my spy as a spy and put them in the Chinese capital because they were the most technologically advanced civilization at that time. At the world congress the leader of the congress gets to recommend a bill to be voted on as does the person with the second most number of votes. Since at the first world congress city-states do not get votes I did not get to choose a bill. The bills proposed were banning a luxury and funding the arts, there are many luxuries in the game and they increase the happiness of your nation. Banning them is a political move to try to get someone’s happiness to decrease. If someone you are at war with relies on cotton for happiness banning it would be a good political move. The other one was arts funding which affects how great people are produced. Great people give you certain upgrades in the game. Great scientist help you get a science boost, great engineers help you get a productivity boost. Arts funding takes away from great scientists, engineers, and merchants and gives it to great artists and musicians. The banning luxury bill failed and the arts funding one passes. Some time passed and Rome decided to build a city on my island. They then decided they didn’t like me and declared war. Luckily they were surrounded by my city-states which also declare war if someone declares war against you. They were able to distract Rome long enough for me to build an army and take the city they had on my island. After that Rome was willing to make peace with me. The rest of the game was pretty uneventful. China caught me stealing technologies a few times and then the game ended with me winning a diplomatic victory.

The diplomatic victory in this game is an interesting mechanic. To achieve this feat you have to get the most votes in the world congress. Votes are given for many things being the leader of the congress, building the forbidden palace, discovering globalization, following the world religion, following the world ideology and lastly and most importantly befriending city-states. City-states are the best way of getting votes and they will vote with the person who has the most influence with them. City-states are not the only way of getting votes but they are by far the most effective. The way to get your ideology to be the world ideology, your religion to be the world, and to become the leader of the world congress is to vote on it in the world congress. The ways to get influence are to complete quests for city-states or to give them money. The quests can be difficult and trying to complete them to get enough influence for a victory is not practical. This leaves the best way of getting influence to get votes is by buying the influence. Civilization is probably trying to say that politics is run by money by putting this in their game. Another way this is supported is through the way that diplomats act. The player can put a diplomat in another player’s capital and they will tell the player how that character is going to vote and also make political trades with that person. The game allows the player to pay other players money or really anything you have so that they will vote the way you need the votes to go. No matter how much money the player pays no other civilization will ever vote for them to win the game, so city-states are needed to achieve a diplomatic victory.

Civilization used all races and genders. This can is a rare occurrence in a video game; I think they were able to do this so easily because they use great leaders throughout history. White men mostly dominate our history books, but civilization made sure that all continents were well represented. Africa had leaders from Gao, Ethiopia, Morocco and the Zulus. Asia has Korea, China, Japan and Mongolia. The Americas have Iroquois, Aztecs, Shoshone, Brazil and the United States. The Middle East has a bunch of ancient civilizations. They didn’t exclude women from these either. Russia, China, England, Spain and Portugal are all women.

The African characters are slightly less advantaged in comparison to the others except for the Zulus. Their special traits are significantly worse as a group than any other race. Ethiopia has no real advantage toward any type of victory. They get a 20% attack bonus from civilizations with more cities than them. This serves only for defense because if you want to go for domination you almost have to have more cities than other people. Morocco receives slightly extra gold and a small amount of culture. This is at least based toward one type of victory but does not help much when you get to the middle of the game. As Gao you receive more gold from barbarians and pillaging cities they also get a promotion for their units that help them travel over water. These help but not nearly as much. The Zulus get 50% less unit maintenance and units require 25% less experience to get promotions on military units. The African characters in this game got significantly worse traits than the vast majority of the other characters and they were one of the smallest demographic groups in the game. This may be because western culture does not recognize African history to the extent of other places. There are only two times i can recall learning anything about African history. The first was AP European History, in that class it was look at as something the Europeans conquered and then abused the inhabitants of. It did not show any of the history there only how cruel their European invaders were. The other class I was taught African history in was French. We were taught the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and how the Belgians took over their country and enslaved the inhabitants. In both of these classes Africans are looked to be people to feel pity for. They didn’t tell us about any African empires, any of their great leader or accomplishments of any kind. They are painted like savages. This may be the reason they are not overly available for play in this game. The difference in traits of the African characters versus the rest of the races in civilization can be attributed to a few possible reasons of a mix of them both. One that they are just racist and didn’t want to give the African characters good traits. Another is that they are trying to be historically accurate and those civilizations didn’t have as many advantages and lastly that they are pandering to their audience who have, for the most part, not learned anything about African history.

My experience playing Civilization was a good one. This has been one of my favorite games ever since my aunt bought me it in grade school. It’s a game that just grows on you each time you play. I have been playing it for years and still love it as much as when I got my first copy in grade school. No two games are ever the same you can start with different civilizations, different maps, different starting areas, different AI characters, and different relations with other people, the options are endless.  It’s a game that can be played over and over and has societal value with pointing out some things about the world we live in.

Child of Light

This post is available as a file here: Ziesman-ChildofLight-Final

Child of Light

When I decide to play Child of Light, I expect a good well written story with interesting characters, decent mechanics, and gorgeous visuals. Child of Light was a mix bag for me as I felt like the designers were really pushing to find that middle ground that resulted from the division of video games into boy games and girl games, and trying to incorporate ideas that are traditionally traits for games that were designed towards girls. However, Ubisoft Montreal fell into a pit of generalization with the development of some of the less-technical aspects.

Continue reading