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Newell sees no distinction 'between games and educational games'


The majority of Valve president and co-founder Gabe Newell's keynote address yesterday at the Games for Change Festival was dedicated to his perception of games as educational tools. And that was fitting for the event, which is dedicated primarily to the educational and socially beneficial elements of gaming, and fitting for Valve Software, a company known most recently for releasing a game steeped in science.

Newell explained: "The interesting thing about Portal 2 is it doesn't sort of fit the traditional simplistic model of what a game is. It's not a collection of weapons. It's not a collection of monsters. It's really about science. It's about spatial reasoning, it's about learning physics, it's about problem solving. And often, during the course of the game, you're going to be solving problems with somebody else. The social model inside of it is collaborative and not competitive."

After rolling a short clip of the game for audience members, Newell went on to profess, "There seems to be this distinction between games that are educational, and games that are going to be commercially successful. I'm not really sure I buy into that." Citing sales of Portal 2 as proof, Newell pointed out that Valve has seen "$165 million dollars in gross revenue" from the game since April 18. "We can do this. We can make educational, commercially successful games, which are gonna help us both on the game side and on the educational side." He reaffirmed this to me in an interview after the speech, saying, "I just don't believe in this distinction between games and educational games. A lot of times [the label] 'educational games' is a way of being an excuse for bad game design or poor production values."

To further push his point during the keynote, Newell provides an anecdote about a two-year-old named Josh whose father emailed Newell recently. Josh's father Dave explains that he saw "something remarkable" happen to his son as of late -- he was miraculously being taught how to use a mouse, and how to navigate the Windows operating system, and how to read.

Newell then rolled a clip several minutes long of an adorable child working his way through the most basic mechanics of Portal 2. While the child isn't exactly solving puzzles with the portal gun, he's able to interpret (and thoroughly enjoy) several of the game's mechanics. Unsurprisingly, when Newell first saw the video, he reacted with similar wonderment as the onlooking crowd, he explained. "Oh my god, Dave's son is playing a video game! And he's two years old!"

Having accepted that his point had been made clear about a lack of separation between commercially successful and educational games, Newell proposed a call to arms. That developers stand up more as the educators they are, and that all games are built with an educational curve as part of the medium. But first, a justification:
"Games are becoming increasingly useful as educational tools. From our perspective, it's one of the things we always think about -- we always think about games as a learning experience. You can't design a game without thinking about the progression of experiences and skills that a person is gonna have. The value that we have is that they're self-directed. Rather than that being a problem -- rather than resisting the chaotic nature of an individual one-on-one play experience that people have, we embrace it."
In his eyes, the experiential nature of games makes them that much easier to embrace as a learning tool. He explained to me in an interview after the speech, "It's a lot easier to get people excited about it [education] if they're on the moon and they get to throw the rock at the piece of glass that breaks the glass that lets all the robots fly out." Similarly, he noted during his keynote that "in Portal 2, you are the mass, you are the thing being accelerated, and that actually ... is one of the keys."

Rather than a teacher explaining the formula for velocity or momentum on a chalkboard, you're learning about it by flying through the air ... perhaps with the assistance of some propulsion gel. And that's exactly the kind of thinking that's going into Valve's Portal 2 education project.

"Someone should write a book, "Everything I Needed to Know to be Successful I Learned From World of Warcraft." And I don't think it would be a parody or sarcastic," Newell told me after his speech. "In terms of what educational psychologists are sort of starting to discover about what are the highest value educational experiences, games are a lot closer to being those things than traditional middle school/high school kinds of curriculum," he added. He said he even sees games as "ahead of traditional methods" in some ways, but that we first "need to agree on how we want to measure outcomes."

A second video during Newell's keynote shows another educational experience that Valve had as of late: a seventh grade class took a field trip to the studio to learn about game development. As evidenced by the room full of grinning adolescents depicted in the clip, and the excited teachers, success may not be so difficult to measure. One teacher excitedly explained at the end of the clip: "Those maps opened up and suddenly they were in a game featuring the room they had built. The whole room was like, '[Gasp!] Ooooh my God!' And that was their 'A-Ha' moment."

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