February 17, 2014

Using Portal to Explore Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

It is written somewhere that every generation lives the dream of their parents. According to this approach, the dream’s realization lies in the development of our ability to think critically about the world around us. In such a case, what populates these dreams are expressions of a culture – its books, works of art, its architecture, television, music, games, etc.. I teach three courses in Humanities at LaSalle College (Knowledge, World Views and Ethics). These are courses in which students are introduced to critical thinking by studying various themes and topics ranging from the different types of intelligences (emotional intelligence, multiple intelligence and intelligence quotient), to the difference between belief and knowledge, theories on communication and linguistics, psychology and  media literacy. For the last three years, one of the main tools that I use in my teachings for my Knowledge course is a video game called Portal.

Paradoxical? Risky? This is the opinion of some of my colleagues in the field. That said, the results are there: student motivation and academic achievement are inching noticeably upwards in my courses.

Beyond the fact that the game is well suited to the content and reflection targeted ​​in the Humanities 101 course (Knowledge), the integration of Portal was, for me, a way to stimulate student motivation while making the abstract concepts we discuss more concrete. Ultimately, by asking my students to play a video game, I allow them to take on an active role in their own learning and offer them an opportunity to apply many of the abstract themes and topics we explore in class to a personal and entertaining experience. Based on the feedback I received in the last three years, students think the game is intriguing, fun and attention grabbing.


Portal and its sequel Portal 2 were developed by Valve and are both available in computer and console editions. My course uses the first edition which was released in 2007 and costs only ten dollars which does not pose too much of a financial burden on students.

Trailer of the game highlighting the game mechanics, the player’s viewpoint, the game’s environment, and the types of puzzles to solve

The game’s plot is well suited to the teaching of Humanities. We play in a subjective first-person view where the female character wakes up in an obviously abandoned laboratory. No information is given with the exception of a computerized voice that invites the player – with utmost assurance and apparent sincerity – to solve puzzles with the promise of cake as a reward. However, as the game progresses, the computerized voice constantly tries to justify and explain away the increasingly suspicious clues strewn throughout the levels that indicate that all is not what it seems. Consequently, the players are invited to question everything they see and hear and to start thinking for themselves (i.e. critical thinking) in order to escape the confines of the laboratory. The levels in the game are full of obstacles and logical puzzles that the player can solve through the use of a gun that shoots portals on walls – hence, the title of the videogame.

Plato’s Cave in the Video Game Era

Portal is introduced in the course on the third or fourth week of the semester. Students play this game while keeping in mind the larger implications and themes behind the game’s plot, such as the difference between knowledge and belief, the nature of an opinion and how to decode visual media. The starting point for these reflections is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a text which students are introduced to during class discussions and readings in the first three weeks of the semester. The game allows them to connect the main ideas of the text (i.e. differences between belief and knowledge, problems with perceptions, etc.) and apply them to the videogame.

In short, Portal allows me to touch upon the competencies of the ministerial objectives of the Humanities 101 (Knowledge) course which states that students must learn, to apply a logical and analytical process on how knowledge is organized and used. Specifically, the game allows me to introduce material that students can actively engage with and can experience on a visceral level, while at the same time relating it to several concepts learned in our readings. They learn how to analyse, process and think critically about the information they see and hear in a creative and fun way.

From the Viewpoint of the Teacher

A few months after my course integrated Portal, Valve launched a free service for schools to use Portal : Steam for Schools. This service provides Portal and Portal 2 as well as help for teachers integrating them into their curriculum. Teachers are using it to teach physics, geometry and video game design. In terms of the integration of the videogame in my own course, if for any reason a student cannot play the videogame at home, I allow them to do so at my desk during my office hours. While the game is attractive, some might find the mechanics to control the game difficult In this case, I do offer students the opportunity to do an alternative project which requires them to analyze relevant movies instead of playing the videogame.

What is the overall experience after the project? Since I have started using Portal, I survey my students to see if they are worried about playing the videogame at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester, if they have enjoyed the experience and if they would recommend this experience to other students or not. My findings : women are a little more worried than men. In addition, the great majority of students are satisfied (89% of respondents) with the experience, and the majority would recommend the experience (58% would do so without hesitation, and 42% probably would). Among male students specifically, the reviews are extremely positive! All this is very motivating for me. I am now currently in the process of organizing a larger research that will explore the impact that the integration of videogames in the classroom could have on student motivational levels.

Have you thought about incorporating video games into your class? What problems do you foresee?

About the author

Johnathan Mina

Johnathan Mina (M.A., B.A. Honours.) is a professor in Humanities at College LaSalle in Montreal, Canada. He holds an M.A. in English Literature from Dalhousie University and an Honours B.A. in Liberal Arts and English Literature from Concordia University. He is the recipient of the 2023 CICan Excellence in Teaching Award for Faculty and the LCI Education Network -Teaching Excellence Award in 2018. His research interests are related to game studies, gamification, critical thinking, empathy and the integration of technology in educational spaces.

He is the co-author of a research report on the use of entertainment-based videogames in college classrooms, subsidized by Quebec Ministry of Higher Education (MEES). He also is the recipient of the SALTISE research mini grant in 2018, for the implementation of VR in the classroom, and a SALTISE research mini grant in 2017 for the implementation of smartpens in the classroom.

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