Tue
Aug 24 2010 4:35pm
GLaDOS Goes To College

Starting this year, students at Indiana’s Wabash College will be enrolling in a new, required course entitled “Enduring Questions,” which will feature “classic and contemporary works from multiple disciplines” including the Epic of Gilgamesh, Aristotle, Shakespeare, the Tao Te Ching, and… Portal. Michael Abbott, a professor in Wabash’s Theater Department who blogs as The Brainy Gamer, has a fascinating post about the upcoming course and his suggestion to include a video game in the curriculum, as well as his reasons for ultimately choosing Portal, which will be taught in conjunction with selections of Erving Goffman’s seminal sociology text The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

As much as I’m tempted to start cracking geeky jokes about cakes and lies and the unbelievable falseness of lying lie-cake, I’m just too excited about the prospect of incorporating video games into a conventional liberal arts curriculum as a way for students to engage with legitimate sociological and philosophical issues. As Abbott points out, Wabash was founded in 1832, and this is the very first time a video game has appeared on a syllabus for one of its courses; as he says, “this is a big deal.” Here’s hoping that Abbott and his fellow forward-thinking educators continue to push the academic envelope by integrating gaming with more traditional texts and tools, especially as video games continue to raise the bar in terms of design, scope and complexity. I suppose it might be too much to hope that one day, every college will have their own personal evil AI to thank for widening their students’ educational horizons, but for now we can all rest easy in the knowledge that GLaDOS will be helping to shape impressionable young minds at Wabash for years to come.


Bridget McGovern used to ponder all sorts of enduring questions during marathon sessions of Wolfenstein, Doom and Tekken 3 (mostly pertaining to the existence of a god mode).

6 comments
Richard Fife
2. R.Fife
This was a triumph (I couldn't help myself)
Bridget McGovern
3. BMcGovern
I know, right?!! It's hard to overstate my satisfaction :)
welovetea
4. welovetea
Love this! I make my philosophy students read Lewis Carroll's ALL cakes are NEW cakes but SOME cakes are--wait, how does that go again...right, anyway, I think this rocks. Something about it smacks of Ben Brockner from Queer As Folk teaching his students about modern gay life via comic book superheroes!
Jeff Soules
5. DeepThought
Hrm... of course I think this is pretty cool. And everyone should appreciate that games can be challenging and intriguing works of art, and that instead of looking down on gaming as a vice, people should hold it up as being at least as valuable an intellectual pursuit as literary analysis.

But that said, I'm not really sure I get the inclusion of this game with this particular course -- what are the great identity-related questions that Portal asks? I don't remember any, other than "how can I play with physics" and "Why shouldn't I trust the obviously malicious sugary-sweet computer voice". I think it's a good example of the genre, but it belongs more on a "great works" syllabus than this class as described here (for which BioShock probably would be more appropriate, though unworkable for other reasons).

That said, all in favor of gaming being taken seriously and made a worthwhile subject of academic research. Everyone should have some exposure to it! Just so long as they don't manage to take the joy out of it. . .
Bridget McGovern
6. BMcGovern
@Deep Thought--I haven't read The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, but my impression is that Abbott is planning to use Portal to investigate Goffman's ideas about performance, identity, and social interaction--so the class will focus on these key concepts of dramaturgy and how they play out in the game. It sounds like a great way to introduce a bunch of freshman to a sociological perspective that they probably haven't encountered before (as long as they don't take the joy out of it. *Exactly* :)

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