Friday, July 24, 2015

The Cake is Not a Lie: A Critique of Portal 2 Puzzle Maker "Making Space for Physics"

As part of the continued practice in digital storytelling, in INTE 5340 MA ILT at CU Denver, I will consume a digital stories and offer critiques. Until now the course has focused on Jason Ohler’s assessment traits as criterions to assess stories. For the remainder of the critiques in the course, I will focus on “everyday remix practices” as described in the Lankshear and Knobel text New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Social Learning Third Ed by Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, on pages 127-140.

To coincide with my theme, ‘the importance of creative arts in education,’ I’ve reviewed and critiqued some everyday remix practices of teachers in creative curriculum settings. This week I wanted to look at another creative way students ‘remix’ learnt material. I was inspired to look at Institute of Play after reading chapter 8 in Lankshear & Knobel “New Literacies.” Chapter 8 describes in some detail how Institute of Play creates ways for K-12 students to engage in creative and social learning that utilizes ‘new literacies.’ As can be seen in the video, using game mods in an excellent way to solve problems and experiment with practical applications of math and social learning.

Kind of Remix: Modding video games

From modding video games: “Likely to involve lots of trial and error and retrial, etc..”

Math students use Portal 2 Puzzle Maker, a mod of portal 2, to create scenarios that can demonstrate learnt knowledge such as solutions to mathematical problems. Lisa Castaneda, a teacher at The Evergreen School describes how she used Portal 2 Puzzle Maker to demonstrate parabolas and vertical motion. However, the process of creating this was not directly shown in the video, I can imagine it took several tries to successfully create a level that operated correctly and applied mathematical problems. Joshua Weier, Project Lead at Valve,goes on to describe how Portal 2 lends itself to the creation of these levels and puzzles by mod communities. What was done in puzzle maker reduced the barrier to entry easy so that any student or teacher can create their own puzzles. Although accessibility makes the mod and game easy to create with, it still take lots of trial and error to make a fun and functional mod level that makes sense. Yasser Malaika,Developer at Valve talks about playtesting, iterating, and implementing as processes that Valve uses to create levels and how Valve wanted to give this process to the creators in the puzzle maker mod community.

From modding video games: “May involve sharing tips and problem-solving advice on forums.”
Joshua Weier talks about how a week after Portal 2 Puzzle Maker launched they received nearly 120,000 level submissions. He then talks about how it’s exciting because people are sharing their maps. Today there are several communities where ‘puzzle makers’ can contribute tutorials and commentary about level creation. For instance, on the Steam Community (Steam is a platform utilized by Valve to download and play video games, chat with other gamers, share achievements, etc.) web site for Portal 2 there are 88 guides to ‘modding.’ There are wikis, blogs, YouTube videos, and a website dedicated to teaching with portal called The product was such a success there are many social learning communities to engage with.

From modding video games: “Paying attention to design, layout, what can and cannot be done within the terms of the original game to make the mod workable or user friendly, etc.”
The primary way to interact as a player in Portal 2 is to create portals in the walls to move from an area to another. The level creator will design levels to make moving from area to area a challenge. Leslie Redd, Director of Education Programs at Valve talks about a “low threshhold” and being able to transfer from the tools to build a level to actually playing the level within seconds. This makes the mod user friendly and relatively easy to engage creators and players. This promotes engagement with ease, which is why this mod is so appealing to learners and educators.

Overall, Valve created a really inspiring product that just so happened to be useful as an educational tool. It’s nice to see that once Valve learned how their product was being used in schools they developed programs to support this learning. I really enjoyed learning about how this mod was used in educational settings. I just wish the video demonstrated more clearly the practical applications such as the parabola example given in the first part of the video. How was this problem given to the students and how did they solve it?