The Portal universe has inspired incredible consumer engagement and self-expression: costumes, detailed replicas of portal guns, music videos and more. But it can also inspire learning and engagement in the classroom, says Valve, which has been working with educators and receiving some surprising feedback.
Valve interaction designer Yasser Malaika and colleague Leslie Redd, director of educational programs, were at the 2012 Games for Change event in New York to tell an audience of educators, philanthropists and game designers about Teach With Portals, the company's new classroom initiative.
The company has long offered Portal's robust tools for free, but few people created actual puzzles because the tool, Hammer, is complicated enough to be prohibitive to your average person.
Anyone would have to spend a lot of time digging through "esoteric technical things" to generate their own content, says Malaika. Even after Valve developed a wiki it hoped would help modders, it saw little uptick toward the wider community adoption it hoped for.
"Turns out there was still a lot to learn, and it was really off-putting for a lot of folks," he says.
That realization led to the development and recent release of Puzzle Maker, a stand-alone level-making tool based around a simple interface that anyone who has played Portal could understand.
"One of our goals for this was to have absolutely zero tutorial time, being that it's part of the game, and that turned out to be handy for other purposes as well," says Malaika.
"It's designed to be very malleable and very quick to play with ideas... under the hood it's using the same tools that we use to make the game, but all of the irrelevant bits have been hidden," he continues.
A primary goal was to have almost immediate connection for users between building blocks and the full-quality experience; it was also essential to let users transition seamlessly between a player's view and an editor's view.
Teachers and students can be a useful source of feedback data, part of why Valve was so enthusiastic about the mutual reward relationship with education programs. The company is already heavily involved with local schools, recently hosting a 7th grade field trip and partnering with educators on various programs associated with core STEM skills.
One thing that Valve noticed as soon as any student sat down with Puzzle Maker was how engaging it was for them to have so much agency and immediate feedback, says Redd.
And since the availability of Puzzle Maker, eucators have come out of the woodwork to share how they've been using Portal as part of their curriculums.
"We had some very powerful anecdotes come our way," Redd says. For example, one teacher reported that a student that struggled in other areas was gratified and motivated to discover he had a savant-like aptitude for Portal 2's logic -- which he then could apply to great effect to the areas that challenged him. Sometimes helping a student is just a matter of finding a language they can understand.
Students who learn they can design their own experiments and complete difficult puzzles feel smart, and in turn become interested in challenging themselves and others further, Valve has learned.
Valve also released its Steam Workshop in the fall of last year -- a place where users can upload, share and rate one another's creations.
"It makes the next levels of Portal more about listening and about empathy," says Malaika. "You're building on all of your gameplay skills, but in a socially-relevant way."
Since Portal support was added to the Workshop, it's seen 12,000 uploads in its first 24 hours, and as of now it's up to 150,000. And Puzzle Maker saw 35,000 puzzles made in just its first few days of availability.
In contrast, over "months and months," users only created about 200 puzzles using Hammer alone, proving how essential simple, democratic tools are to driving creative community.
Now, the company's seeing a trend of players uploading things done by kids that demonstrate an interest in teaching other players.
The Teach With Portals site, just launched last Friday, will offer an infrastructure and a framework for educators to use Portal 2 and Puzzle Maker in their lesson plans.
Valve won't create content for the program itself, but aims to provide the infrastructure, with particular attention to material being in step with standardized requirements -- something the company learned is essential to teachers.
The power of success a student feels when they master complicated concepts through simple, accessible tools is something games can excel in offering, Valve believes.