Portals and Intutitions

If you haven’t yet heard, Valve announced Teach With Portals, a new initiative to help students learn about physics by playing Portal 2.

Let me just take a moment to point out that they’re getting some basic but highly non-obvious stuff right. They’ve considered the issue of distribution and maintenance, for example; installing software on school machines is a non-trivial problem. They’re also distributing lesson plans. As with Dread, asking teachers to write their own lesson plans means you’re talking to a much smaller population of potential adopters. Having lessons available on the site also means the kit doesn’t have to add lots of hours to a busy teacher’s day.

There’s been some discussion about the limits of Portal, and yes, I won’t argue that it’s not a perfect representation of physics. One of the things that games seem to do well, though, is help people develop intuitions about physics. Even if a representation isn’t entirely accurate, it can help people develop better heuristics and models for thinking about the problem space as a whole. For example, Squire, Barnett, Grant & Higginbotham asked kids to play with an electromagnetism-simulating game. Kids who played didn’t have a good grasp on the terms and notations of electromagnetism, but they did get a sense of the forces and dynamics involved.

Of course, the lesson plans on the site suggest kids won’t exactly be playing Portal – they’ll be participating in structured, inquiry-based lab activities using Portal. It still sounds like more fun than my high-school physics class, but playing and using a game for not-playing aren’t quite the same thing. I wonder whether players are more or less likely to form usable intuitions when they know their play has a serious purpose.

Still, as someone who believes games prepare you for future learning, I love that the project supports both open-ended play, and also supports connecting that play to formal physics concepts. They’re getting at both the preparation and the future learning.

In related news, I just watched the new Miegakure video. Miegakure is a four-dimensional puzzle-platformer. You, the player, can only ever see three dimensions of the game at any given moment – but by controlling which three, and using the fourth dimension cleverly, you can solve the complex spatial puzzles of play. It sounds like a four-dimensional version of Crush, which I thought was a great and underrated game, and is explicitly inspired by Flatland. Even though the player can’t experience the fourth dimension directly, the player can intuit how it works from using it as a tool to solve problems.

I’ve heard mathematicians talk about having intuitions about the way higher dimensions behave. I’ve always wondered how they managed it, when I can barely understand the concept without making my head hurt. Miegakure makes me think that the problem is that I’ve had things backwards. If I could find a way to grasp the intuitions – for example, by playing a game – then the concept would be much less difficult for my conscious brain to grasp.

A four-dimensional game, though, might provide very different intuitions from a three-dimensional game. Maybe we average folks don’t have enough basic knowledge of what four-dimensional space feels like to build useful mental representations. On the other hand, maybe the intuitive effects would be much stronger than with three-dimensional physics games; after all, we have tons of everyday experiences with three dimensions, so the game provides much less additional benefit.

I can’t wait for Miegakure to come out so I can play it. I also can’t wait to find out to what extent it’ll change the way I think about space – and what that means for how we develop intuitions from games.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *