Among many talks at Games for Change was one by some Valve representatives about education. Specifically, they have begun to advocate usage of their Perpetual Testing Initiative in classrooms.
The Perpetual Testing Initiative, to summarize the hyperlink, is a mod tool for Portal 2 that allows you to build your own custom levels, or “test chambers”. This tool is notable for how it is easy to use and delivers immediate, playable results. Unlike other mod tools, such as Hammer, which it replaced, no knowledge of technical computer nerdy stuff is needed—using this tool is about as intuitive as building with Legos.
Students, the speakers at Games for Change explained, can one-up the traditional lecture-style classroom structure via modding. Rather than learn how to graph a parabola, a student can set up a zone that will catapult them into the air in a parabolic arc–and then tweak it such that they land in certain target locations. Portal 2 can not teach the math of the parabola, but can teach the intuition behind it in a way that no amount of lecturing can.
Sounds cool. But there are two big problems.
First: Valve’s announcement is not economically viable. When I am not writing on this blog or working on this game, I teach in an urban middle school. That school has one computer lab with twenty-some computers. Fourteen of those computers work. We are not expecting replacements. None of those computers can run Portal 2 because their hardware is inadequate. And this situation is not the exception—it’s probably the opposite of the exception. As gee-wiz as Portal 2’s sorcery is, it is disingenuous to advocate its usage in public schools because very few schools can utilize it, and those that do have such assets are probably not the ones that stand to benefit the most from innovative curriculum. I have heard people talk about how educational games operate under twice as many constraints as regular games—not only do they have to be fun, but they also have to be meaningful. But there is actually a third constraint that people do not talk about enough: an educational game must endeavor to reach as many people as possible, and therefore must have light system requirements.
Second: Educational games should supplement existing curriculum but not replace. Games are fundamentally simplified models of the Real World, often heavily abstracted and quantified. I would like to think that my game could be a useful tool in understanding macroeconomics, but should never be used as a stand-in for a serious economic analysis.
So: let’s put games in classrooms! Let’s make fun games that kids want to play and that they learn something from! Hell, let’s do that for adult games too! BUT we should do this knowing that games are not cure-alls, and that some games are more easily accessed than others.