Games for Change: Teaching With Portal, Fixing Brains With iPhone

Games for Change: Teaching With Portal, Fixing Brains With iPhone

Portal publisher Valve is encouraging educators to use the physics puzzle game in lesson plans.
Image: Valve

NEW YORK — It is an exciting time to be part of the games-for-change community.

For a few years now, there has been great deal of interest in using videogame technology to improve health and education. So far, there haven’t been any blockbusters in this space outside of “exergaming” titles like Wii Fit. I attended the Games for Change Festival in New York last month, and what I saw there gave me reason to believe that there will be some big hits for education and health videogames in the near future.

Two pieces of software that were just released stood out in particular: Teach With Portals andSuperBetter. One is a system based on an extremely popular commercial game that was modified to advance educational goals. The other was designed from the ground up from a behavioral science model with the express goal of improving health outcomes. I think these two development streams will allow purposeful play to finally enter the mainstream.

At a presentation at Games for Change, Leslie Redd and Yasser Malaika of Valve presented the story of the development of Teach With Portals.

Valve released the game Portal 2 in April 2011. By May of that year, it had already begun developing Puzzle Maker, a tool for making Portal 2 puzzles. Valve co-founder Gabe Newell gave the keynote speech at the Games for Change conference that year, in which he discussed the potential of commercial games as learning tools. He then showed early versions of the Puzzle Maker, which Valve soon began play-testing with teachers and students.

In September of that year Valve went public with the Learn With Portals website. At the time, this was a one-page site declaring that Valve wanted to become involved in the educational community. Valve received hundreds of emails, mostly from educators, some including lesson plans for using Portal to teach concepts about physics and other subjects to students from elementary school to college level.

Valve recruited some of these educators for the Puzzle Maker beta test, and their interactions were key in finalizing the program. In May of this year, Valve released Puzzle Maker as a free Portal 2 update with the new name “Perpetual Testing Initiative.” Within 24 hours, it had over 12,000 user-created levels. Today, the count has increased to over 130,000.

Many of these new level designs were puzzles, but a significant number were demonstrations and tutorials. For example, several uploads taught binary code or how to display binary numbers as decimal numbers. One showed how to add binary numbers together. Another upload provided a demonstration of the thermodynamics of the ideal gas law.

On June 15, Valve went live with its new website Teach With Portals, creating a space and framework for educators to share lesson plans based on the Puzzle Maker. Prior to posting, lesson plans are required to be aligned to recognized educational standards. In addition, there are private forums for teachers to discuss each other’s work. Valve also created Steam for Schools, which allows educators free access to both the Puzzle Maker and Portal 2.

The evolution of Teach With Portals shows that right now, commercial games that have already had their success can be altered to energize educators to use their game mechanics to make students more enthusiastic about math and science lessons, with relatively little additional investment on the part of the game designers.


SuperBetter is a very different creature. It’s a game created by Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken and probably the most recognized face in the games for change community.

Drawing heavily from the field of positive psychology, SuperBetter was designed from the ground up not to entertain, but to improve the resilience of and thereby improve and extend the life of its users.

SuperBetter is a hearty effort to put research on pro-social, pro-health games to use in an interesting and engaging format. Its mechanics allow the player to use the game to achieve whatever health goals they set for themselves. McGonigal decided to create the game after suffering and recovering from a head injury two years ago.

Experts from several academic organizations were involved in its development; McGonigal has provided a bibliography of the research that the game is based on.

SuperBetter completed beta testing with over 35,000 registered users, and became available in the App Store for iPhone in late June. The game is involved in a clinical trial at Ohio State for use in traumatic brain injury and is under corporate testing at Zappos, primarily for the field of weight loss.

These two games show the current state of the games for change community: Commercially successful game publishers are becoming more involved in health and education games without having to change their primary focus of producing entertainment. At the same time, engaging, well-designed games are being created with backing of the medical community, a research-driven development model and a clear health outcome as their goal.

Paul Ballas is a practicing child psychiatrist in the Philadelphia area and serves as a medical adviser and writer of pro-social, pro-health and educational video games for children and adults.

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