Portal on the booklist
August 20, 2010
This year, for the first time, a video game will appear on the syllabus of a course required for all students at Wabash College, where I teach. For me - and for a traditional liberal arts college founded in 1832 - this is a big deal.
Alongside Gilgamesh, Aristotle's Politics, John Donne's poetry, Shakespeare's Hamlet, and the Tao Te Ching, freshmen at Wabash will also encounter a video game called Portal. If you're curious to know how it happened, read on.
Last spring Wabash faculty approved a new all-college course and charged a small committee to design it over the following summer and fall semester. I was elected to the committee as a representative of the Humanities.
We titled the new course "Enduring Questions," and we agreed on this description:
Enduring Questions is a required freshman seminar offered during the spring semester. It is devoted to engaging students with fundamental questions of humanity from multiple perspectives and fostering a sense of community. Each section of the course includes a small group (approximately 15) of students who consider together classic and contemporary works from multiple disciplines. In so doing, students confront what it means to be human and how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and our world.
The daily activity of the course most often involves discussion, and students complete multiple writing assignments for the course. As such, assessment of student performance emphasizes written and oral expression of ideas.
Students may not withdraw from the course. All students must pass the course to graduate from Wabash.
Our charge from the faculty made it clear that we should apply a broad definition to "readings," and I believe my special purpose on the committee was to help identify films, music, art, and other 'non-textual' sources to challenge our students to think hard about the questions raised in the course.
And so, as you might expect, a little light went off in my head. What about a game? Why not? Which one? Will they bite on this? Who knows? Let's try.
My very first thought was Portal. Accessible, smart, cross-platform, relatively short, full of big ideas worth exploring. I played it again to be sure my impressions still held. No problem there. If anything, I admire the game more now than when it first appeared. A beautiful design.
I recalled reading Daniel Johnson's recent essay on the game and its strong connections to Erving Goffman's seminal Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. One of the central questions of our new course, "Who am I?" is the focus of Goffman's study. He contends we strive to control how we're perceived by others, and he uses the metaphor of an actor performing on a stage to illustrate his ideas. Johnson describes it this way:
…we're acting out a role that requires constant management…of the interaction. The front stage is the grounds of the performance. The backstage is a place we rarely ever want to reveal to others, it contains the truth of our obstruction and to reveal it would be to defraud our identity in front of the audience - it simply spoils the illusion of where we're placing ourself in the interaction.
This tension between backstage machination and onstage performance is precisely what Portal depicts so perfectly - and, no small detail, so interactively. Goffman would have found a perfect test subject in GLaDOS. Bingo! Assign students Goffman's Presentation of Self and follow it up with a collective playthrough of Portal.
I pitched the idea to my colleagues on the committee (decidedly not a collection of gamers), and they agreed to try Portal and read selections from Goffman's book. After plowing through some installation issues ("What does this Steam do? Will it expose me to viruses?"), we enjoyed the first meaningful discussion about a video game I've ever had with a group of colleagues across disciplines. They got it. They made the connections, and they enjoyed the game. Most importantly, they saw how Portal could provoke thoughtful reflection and vigorous conversation on questions germane to the course.
And so we're playing Portal at Wabash College.
Could I have chosen a game to stand by itself, with no accompanying text assignment? Maybe. I thought about Bioshock. I thought about Planescape: Torment. In the end, I chose Portal because I thought it would make a good start. A good first impression. A lead-off hitter, if you will.
Deploying a game for an entire cohort to play at the same time requires more problem-solving than you might expect. We ultimately decided that hardware, installation, and licensing issues were complex enough to dissuade us from teaching Portal in all sections of the course this year; so I and a group of eager colleagues will play the game in our sections to work out the kinks. I don't want our first college-wide experience with a game to be plagued with problems.
I also need time to help acclimate some of my colleagues to "reading" a modern game. They're less resistant than you might think, but they need more than my speechifying. They need sound pedagogy. They need to taste it for themselves. We'll get there. I'll let you know how it goes.