Getting There From Here: Portal 2, Education & Psychotherapy

Portal 2 is an ingenious game with a pretty simple goal:  Figure out how to get from point A to point B.  Ok, so maybe the game, and plot, are a little more complicated than that.  Your character wakes up in the labyrinthian depths of Aperture Industries, now in ruins and abandoned.  Except for a homicidal robot who remembers how you tried to destroy her (in the original game) and plans to return the favor.

For the majority of the game (maybe all of it, I haven’t finished it yet) you don’t know what happened to the people who worked at Aperture.  Everything, the offices, the jargon of the old CEOs recorded voice, is circa the late 1950s-early 1960s.  There are a couple of exceptions, the killer robot GlaDOS, another robot who tries to help you escape, and a wormhole gun.

The wormhole gun is where things get really interesting.  You can shoot two different color wormholes, orange and blue, which connect each other no matter where or how far apart they are.  This effectively allows you to teleport from one part of each room to the other, or teleport tools you need from one place to another.  In some cases there’s a dripping pipe that needs the liquid rerouted through a wormhole to come out somewhere different, or a block that needs to be transported to a lever to hold it down so you can exit the room.  You don’t really die in the game, just return to the last puzzle you were working on.  And so it is that Portal 2 hinges on the ability to analyze the game environment, think in terms of cause and effect, plan a sequence of events, and rethink failed combinations.  In other words, Portal 2 is about problem-solving.

What if our educational system was like that?  No, not in terms of homicidal robots.  But what if, as Seth Priebatsch presented at SXSW, we had a better-designed game?  The current educational system still encourages rote learning over problem-solving, individual work over cooperative goals, and standardized testing like our MCAS over the portfolio option.  In fact, when I was working in school systems more directly, the portfolio option was only considered for students who had been identified as learning disabled.  Students would spend weeks being taught to the test, because student performance evidenced teacher performance evidenced school performance.  The stress level of teachers and students was palpable.  Even in Gr. 4 the kids were picking up on it, and by high school those that still managed to be invested in this educational model made themselves sick in those weeks of testing.  Even the most animated and creative of classes became rows of quietly scribbling individuals trying to regurgitate what the state had determined they needed to know.

People who live outside of the day-to-day experience of public schools may have no clue how Orwellian education has become.  Year after year we see creativity drummed out of students and teachers alike, through no fault of their own.  Administrators become increasingly embattled as well, with test scores putting their jobs on the line.  The images in Portal 2 of rows of office desks with rotary phones have become a chilling metaphor for where our educational system is headed if we continue to focus on grading rather than progress, individual memorization over group problem-solving.  I have seen elementary schools remove recess periods to spend more “time on learning,” thereby depriving many children the one safe place they have to play in their city, and an important milieu to learn social skills.  In high school, parents continue to push their children into Honors and AP classes and emphasize grade point averages in order to get into the “right” school, and an entire industry called the College Board has sprung up to encourage this with SATs, prep courses, handbooks on writing the college essay and “more great products.”

What if progress was really leveling up? What if you completed tasks and solved problems, got a reward or achievement badge, and unlocked a new level.  This is very different than sitting in one “grade” for 180 days and then advancing for time spent there.  But that is what effectively happens in schools.  Retention is rarely considered a good option for a number of reasons, and kids are pushed through.  What would it look like if students stayed with their teachers or group until they were ready to unlock another level, and motivated to do it?  In Portal 2 there is an overarching storyline that unfolds as you progress, a mystery to solve.  Why can’t we have some similar mystery to progress through in school, some storyline other than “to get into a good college” or “to get a good job?”  Is it any wonder why our children are often identified with behavioral difficulties or social skills deficits?  They’re bored and frustrated!

And what if cheating weren’t cheating? Why is it in the age of Google we still artificially force children to cram in and rely on information only in their heads?  And what is wrong with children copying from each other, with working in a group and helping each other?  When was the last day you went to work and didn’t allow yourself to get help from a co-worker, calculator, website or an answer that was not “in your head?”  Cheating is directly tied to trust and fun, any gamer knows that.  If the game is fun and the rules are clear, and people are given the option to work together and at their own pace, I predict you’ll see a lot less cheating.  I did get stuck in Portal 2 a few times, and truth be told I looked up the solutions on the web, but most of the time I wanted to succeed within the unnecessary obstacles of the game mechanics, and I turned off the solution video the instant the immediate problem was solved so as not to “spoil” the game.  If we can begin to present education as more intrinsically rewarding, we will see a lot more persistence.  And if we can begin to present learning as group problem-solving we will see a lot more trust and teamwork, which will set kids up for succeeding in a global Web 2.0 world.

Psychotherapists are often uniquely positioned to help with this, but many of us have not embraced the technology and mindset to do this.  We continue to set up sticker charts and give out stars when we could be using Chore Wars or the WoW Achievement Generator.  We could educate teachers and parents about the amazing work John Lester is doing which can allow virtual field trips to explore learning about Paris or the Orbiter Shuttle.  We could help adolescent patients problem-solve and learn how to use Facebook to enhance their social skills or use Twitter for school projects.  We could model taking learning out of the classroom by taking therapy out of the office sometimes, using Skype to get a tour of where the patient lives.

Last month I did a learning exercise on Twitter, called the “DBTgame.”  For one day I tweeted every hour an exercise and it looked like this:

MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
Today I’ll show how #Twitter #DBT & #gamification can work. Each hr you’ll get a Tweet, do what it says & RT. Game begins @ 9! #dbtgame
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
ACCEPTS: Activities..Think of an enjoyable activity you can do within the next hour. NOW DO IT, RT your accomplishment! #dbtgame
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
ACCEPTS: Contribute. Name one person you can help this hour & do it! RT your accomplishment when you’ve finished helping! #dbtgame
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
ACCEPTS: Comparisons. This hour, recall one historical figure who’s less fortunate than you. RT why you’re more fortunate. #dbtgame
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
@LovEternal is playing the #dbtgame well!! Are you?
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
ACCEPTS: Emotions: Make yourself feel differently! Do an activity that provokes a different (enjoyable) feeling. RT what you did! #dbtgame
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
ACCEPTS: Push away.This hr choose 1 situation to think abt instead of your current 1& think abt it for 5 mins. RT when done #dbtgame
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
ACCEPTS: Thoughts (other). Force your mind to think of something else funny & creative within this hour, then RT what it is. #dbtgame
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
ACCEPTS: Sensations pick & give yourself a intense sensation other than the one you are feeling (spicy,cold,etc.) RT results #dbtgame
MikeLICSW Mike Langlois, LICSW
#dbtgame CONGRATS! In less than a standard workday you learned and practiced distress tolerance skills! Social Media, games & mental health!
We can use social media to help patients, to educate our students, and we can use it to do those things better in many cases.  Of course to do that we have to try being playful and creative, not angst about getting sued for using Twitter.  This is where our continuing education programming as therapists is lacking.
Psychotherapy and Education in the 21st century do not have to atrophy and become vacant like Aperture Industries.  We can get there from here.  There are already thousands of good psychotherapists and teachers out there,  who could be Epic if we changed the systems they work in.  Education needs to become more playful and less standardized.  Psychotherapy needs to become more open to learning about technology and Web 2.0 other than as a liability.  Healthcare and Education both need to expand the definition of what they consider research and “evidence-based.”  Portal 2 satirizes wonderfully the perils of being data-driven:
“GLaDOS: Well done. Here are the test results: You are a horrible person. I’m serious, that’s what it says: A horrible person. We weren’t even testing for that. Don’t let that “horrible person” thing discourage you. It’s just a data point. If it makes you feel any better, science has now validated your birth mother’s decision to abandon you on a doorstep.”
The parallels in Education and Psychotherapy should be clear by now:  We are cranking out students who either conform or feel bad about themselves, and we are training therapists to memorize the criteria for DSM-IV rather than think critically about them when they make a clinical formulation.  We need to reintroduce playfulness and critical thinking into the systems that have been shaping us for decades, and to do that we will need to change the very infrastructure of these systems.


  1. Another insightful post Mike. I had not considered the disconnect from learning in our shcools and how people work. I rely on others to help me with difficult problems! It would be exciting to see schools adopt an achievement (as in WoW achievements) and leveling system. As you pointed out motivation would increase. Learning would also become more meaningful, personal, and worthwhile for all those involved.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Sean, if we could get every teacher to play Portal 2 for a little while I am convinced that they would see the value it can bring to educating students about critical thinking, physics, and even ethics!

  2. These are great ideas, Mike…

    It would be great if you could have the opportunity to present them at some big educational conference for educators. However, realistically, you need the backing of someone big/powerful…Maybe Bill Gates could be helpful? I think he has an interest in reforming the educational system.

    Even if you don’t go that far, I think that at the end of the day, things are slowly heading in the direction of true reform. I think the higher-ups are recognizing that the old ways of teaching don’t work with the new models of work and the new expectations of what we need to do to succeed career-wise.

    Furthermore, the new and current generations of children are growing up from the beginning with far more interesting and stimulating forms of entertainment – in essence forcing school to be better than it has been in the past in order to even have a chance at holding their attention, much less at providing them with important problem-solving skills.

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Thanks, Dorlee! I love traveling and giving talks and workshops on this stuff, so I hope that you’ll advocate for me to come to your school or local NASW Chapter!


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