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. http://www.gamesradar.com/portal-is-the-most-subversive-game-ever/
Zimmerman, E., & Salen, K. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. London: MIT Press.
Valve. Portal 2 Perpetual Testing Initiative. April 27, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7rZO2ACP3A