Portal Image


Games are increasingly being recognized as having educational potential. For example, The Escapist points to an article listing a top 25 sims and games for the classroom. But even games that do not consider themselves “edutainment” can hold real potential to guide learning. Scott Sharkey at 1up.com, for example, has just listed a top 5 things he’s learned from playing video games.

Recently, playing a game helped me solve a real world problem. I needed to change my hosting service for this website, and I had no idea as to how. The transition process from not knowing, to knowing, to doing was paralleled by solving the puzzles in a game called Portal. Though, it is more than likely I could have made the transition without the game’s benefits, playing the game did support the process.

It may seem odd to say that a game relates to something as obscure as the change of website servers, but, as is often the case, the results of learning are not necessarily correlated to a specific application. Instead, learning, when done well, is a process that generalizes across many aspects of a person’s life.

In reflection, I can think of three lessons or frames of mind fostered by the game Portal that supported my venture:


  1. Take a Positive Approach: Adopting the stance “If there is a solution, I will find it” can lead to good results.
  2. Value and Embrace Repetition: Success often takes multiple attempts.
  3. Perspective is Gained by Moving Forward: Taking a next step often presents a new view towards future steps and a goal.


Defining a Puzzle Game

Portal involves moving a character through a series of obstacles, pressing buttons, moving boxes, and connecting routes that at first seem hidden. In this way, Portal is mainly a puzzle game. One definition of “puzzle” suiting our purposes is “a particularly baffling problem that is said to have a correct solution.” These can be games in which a person proceeds through a designed beginning-to-end path in a series of steps that require thought.

Other examples could include many of the first-person shooter games with relatively minimal number of end-game scenarios such as FarCry or Half-Life. Numerous examples in other games and genres exist as well. (This does alter the usual notion of a puzzle game, I am aware.)

We could contrast the puzzle aspect with games that are “sandbox” in nature such as a simulations (Sim City, for example). We can also see a difference between this and other media such as television where one can get to the end of a program simply by sitting there. Here, we call attention to the “interactive” aspect of video games. Without the player, the process would not move forward.


Positive Thinking

The process of advancing through a puzzle game is a series of steps that challenge thought. One needs to apply new ways of thinking in order to continue. Simultaneously, and very importantly, one knows that an end exists. Knowing this can motivate towards moving forward.


Image from game Portal


In playing Portal, progressively more difficult puzzles were placed before me. As soon as I dropped into a new level, I would have to think, how can I get my character from where I am standing to the exit? At first glance, it would seem impossible. Then I would think, I know others have done this – I know the game designers have created a solution – there must be a way.

The difference between a puzzle game and the world outside of games is that in the former one knows that an answer exists. There is a way to get to the end. As such, it provides a space to exercise the belief of one’s capabilities. “If others can do it, so can I.”

Simply having a positive frame of mind can encourage a different way of approaching a problem. Though, in real world situations an answer does not always exist, having practiced this mentality can move one forward towards some solution rather than remain in stasis.



I would proceed to think in several ways: I would systematically run down spatial, movement and jumping paths or timing considerations, or alternately I would sit back and clear my mind to see if a novel answer would arise. I would try and try again. A few times I fell into some radioactive goo that immediately killed my character. Then I’d start over.

The minimal consequences and even assumption of failed attempts the game environment allowed effectively removed the stigma of not succeeding on a first try.



Each time I recognized and took a next step, even if I did not know the complete path until the end, I gained a new perspective on the whole puzzle. Each step gave a stronger and more complete impression of the entire situation. After a while, taking a next step suddenly showed the exit and the solution became one more easy step.


Application of Portal’s Lessons

However, what does playing Portal have to do with changing webservers?

When I first decided to move the site to a new server, I felt defeated, already. I had no idea how to move a website. The last 2 years were spent on one server, with a set up of two WordPress installations. I had only a rudimentary understanding of a mysql database, among other concerns that immediately leapt to mind.

But, I knew that others had done this sort of thing. In fact, it happens quite frequently that people need to move hosting for any number of reasons.

So, I decided if it could be done, then I could do it. I searched numerous sites, I reviewed several providers, asked for opinions and advice. Before purchasing a new service, I backed everything up.

I bought a new service. Then, I experimented with their WordPress installations. I learned how to export and import the databases. Each step was accompanied by a new, “what’s next?”

I continued the steps of moving the server complete with DNS changes, FTP transfers, WordPress installations, etc., each step presented the next step. I would consult forums and administrators of the community when I got stuck. As with Portal, each step I took positioned me differently and gave a new perspective to the “puzzle” of migrating the site.

In this process, I can say that I (1) proceeded with confidence, (2) allowed myself conditions where immediate success was not necessary by backing up everything, and (3) continually gained a new perspective to the problem as I transitioned.

This whole mentality of having the confidence to complete a task, seeing the parallels of each new step granting a new perspective, or allowing myself numerous attempts without success before succeeding can be fostered outside of a game. However, some games can provide a playground in which lessons such as these can readily be practiced. The act of working through these steps, even if in a different realm, can have a very important impact on the mind.