Video Game Portal Enters the Classroom

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 9 years old.


By Andrew Miller

Video game company Valve is going deep into the education world with a new initiative using Steam, their free online game platform where users can download games and communicate and play with other players. The initiative is called Steam for Schools, and a free educational version is now available to teachers to use in the classroom.

What makes it unique for schools is that all functionality unrelated to education is disabled and only certain games are made available for teachers and students.

The first major games used in Steam for Schools are Portal and Portal 2. In the games, the main character solves puzzles and problems in a three-dimensional world. As it's explained on the site: “Players primarily interact with the world by using a hand-held portal device to place interconnected portals on walls, floors, or ceilings. Once a pair of portals is positioned any object entering through one portal will exit though the other.” In addition to these two versions of the game, there's also a Portal Puzzle Maker, whereby teachers can make their own puzzles for students to solve.

For those willing to experiment with games in class, some ideas on how to use Portal:

PHYSICS: One of the most obvious targets of Portal is the use of concepts in physics. From exploring gravity and friction, to terminal velocity and conservation of mass, there's a wealth of specific sub-topics within general physics that can be targeted explicitly. In addition to learning and exploring these concepts through playing the game, students can create their own games.


MATH: With the puzzle-maker, students learn about parabolas, volume, and even statistics. Students can play games created by other students and collect and chart data on a research question . Even spatial reasoning, an early-years math target, can be learned through both playing Portal and creating puzzles. It’s all about targeting a specific math learning objective, and creating a lesson plan that uncovers that target through the gameplay and game creation.

LANGUAGE ARTS: Portal has a narrative arc and story. There's a protagonist, setting, plot, and other literary elements. Teachers can focus on one or many of these elements and have students track and analyze, for instance, how the choices they make as the character affects the story; or perhaps creating a plot map for the first few levels of the game. In this way, Portal can be used to support lessons crafted by teachers, engage students in a different way of thinking about these elements, and help teachers scaffold learning for look at a text later.

CRITICAL THINKING, PROBLEM SOLVING: Portal is a puzzle game, so players are continually thinking critically about solving problems. In addition, students work together to play and design games.

Valve has set up a site called Teach With Portals where teachers can not only submit their own ideas, but look for others.

Have you tried teaching with Portal? Tell us about lessons plans and challenges in classroom implementation.

Check out the video showing how the company promotes the use of the game for learning.

Andrew Miller (@betamiller on Twitter) is a National Faculty member for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning, as well as for ASCD, an organization providing expertise in a variety of professional development needs. He is also a regular blogger for Edutopia.