Thinking with Portals

There are a few things about me which will come apparent during the general chit-chat of this blog. One of these things is that I like video games. A lot. My brother (he might also be mentioned a lot in my blog) used to play games and I would sit and spend hours watching him, I still do enjoy doing this to this day. I love video games so much, I actually presented about this  love in my interview to get into Moray House. I didn’t realise at the time that although it was stated that you could do the presentation on whatever you wanted, I probably should have done something on Physics. Oh well, I did something right! I mentioned in this presentation work that I have done in the past, before my PGDE began with using video games as an educational tool and I’m going to explain in further detail below what I did, and why I think it worked very well. You will need to know a little about the game itself. It seems a little out there, but trust me, it is fantastic. 

ImageAbove: Chelle and GlaDOS, the protagonist and antagonist.

Portal 2

For those people who know a thing or two about video games, you will have heard about this game, and have almost definitely played it ten thousand times. For those who have never heard of it before, let me explain. Portal is a first-person shooter where you play as Chelle, a test subject who has to make her way through a different number of test chambers using the only “gun” that you are given: a Portal Gun. It shoots an orange portal and a blue portal. You can place these portals on certain surfaces and when you walk through one, you come out of the other. The test chambers are run by GlaDOS who provides commentary and very little help. (GlaDOS is also definitely evil, but also quite lovely all in the same and SPOILER you throw her into a fire at the end of the game). Portal 2 is the sequel where you end up reviving her by accident and you are STILL trying to escape, but anyway, this isn’t important.

The actual plot doesn’t matter much towards the educational value, but it gives you an insight to what makes me amused. Anyway, the most important thing in the game is this portal gun where conservation of mass, and conservation of momentum are held. This is where you can use Physics to your advantage. The test chambers which you are in increase in difficultly each time, and you need to use a number of different problem solving skills to get through each one. The physics engine is completely amazing in this game, and you regularly have to use your knowledge of momentum and mechanics to get to different stages of the game. 

The Physics engine in the game is truly phenomenal and programmed beautifully. You use momentum, gravity, pressure, projectiles and even reflection and refraction to help you get through different levels of the game and you barely even realise that you are doing it. If you like Physics, I would recommend that you try and see what it is all about.  It is all very well and good me describing it, but you cannot understand fully until you have played it yourself.

ImageAbove: How you can use the conservation of momentum to your advantage in game.

But, how can this be used in a classroom? There are many different ways these games can be used. The game can be purchased on Steam, powered by Valve (from Half-life fame fellow video game nerds) and have made deals with schools before to make the price a little cheaper. They understand how these games can be beneficial for school pupils. This is something that you could do if you have decent laptops within the school so that it could be installed on each one, and then the entire class could work through it together. There is also a level-making mechanic so you can always create your own level to try and show a particular concept, and then set the pupils on it. Or they could always do this themselves! 

When I worked with Portal 2 over a year ago, the resources that I had was an X-Box 360 and a copy of the game. This can still be useful. Although it wouldn’t work to have all the pupils working with the game at the same time, it is possible to set groups of four/five to play through a level with the one controller. This is what I did. The groups would take turns controlling the game on a level from the game that I had picked out previously and discussed what Physics concepts they could see in action. Group discussion was very beneficial in this exercise. If one person saw a Physics concept, they had to explain to the others what they saw, how it ties in with their previous knowledge and how it works in the gam

ImageAbove: Example to show how the portal works. The orange portal is behind the turret and it can be seen through the blue portal to the left. 

The level that I set for them contained good examples of manipulating the portal’s conservation of momentum; there are pitfalls which show gravity; catapults which fire you into the air and shows projectile motion and even a box which contains a sphere of glass which reflects the laser in the level. The worksheet that the groups were given was designed in such a way that the amount of detail that they put into their answers was up to them. When I did this in class, I worked with groups of Access Science 3, Intermediate 2 Physics and Higher Physics pupils. The first question asked them to pick out as many Physics concepts that they could see in this level. The Access Science 3 pupils didn’t pick up on the idea of momentum or the reflection that occurred in the level. They focused more on using gravity and how the speed into a portal is the same as the speed coming out of the other portal. The Highers picked up on most of the Physics in the level, as well as the Intermediate 2s. 

When I was using this method, I used in in such a way as not to teach them new concepts but to reinforce the Physics that the pupils already knew. It is good for pupils to see Physics in a whole range of different situations, and to see the Physics that they learnt in class in a new and different environment. 

Feedback on the whole was good. Most of the pupils that took part seemed to enjoy the activity. When I did this task, I was still in my undergraduate Physics degree, and hadn’t yet begun my PGDE. I know now that this activity contains a good amount of active learning, engagement and feedback.  If I was to do this activity again, I would probably change a few things. Firstly, I would try with single-sex groups. I found that during the activity, if the girl was in the minority, they tended to let the boys do all the “playing” and were self-conscious about playing the game in front of them. Also, I think that more time would be needed for the groups to get comfortable with the controls and thus working on a laptop with the game might be better. Also, if they were to work by themselves, it would be easier to give them easier or harder levels based on their ability and to really differentiate with the tasks that they would be given.

There is now a fantastic website ( which I would have loved to have as a resource when I was doing this activity, but it contains some more ideas about lesson plans and what you can do with the game. 


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