Scaffolding Portal 2 for Game Design Thinking.

As mentioned in earlier posts, I've been using Gamestar Mechanic to facilitate technology fluency and systems based thinking in my Computer Information Technology class. Gamestar Mechanic is an online tool from my heroes over at the Institute of Play, that gamifies the process of game design, which is essentially game based learning (for more on those terms click here). Game design is just as it sounds. It's is the process of planning the components, goals, mechanics, environment, and rules of a game, as well as considerations, in many cases, of storyline and characters. Its the consideration of user interaction with your design. It is the process of responding to user feedback and creating iterations on your design. [Video] Game design can also include coding, programming, and digital art, but in this case, I'm simply focusing on game mechanics and user experience.

My Classroom Door Sign
At the 2012, Jeff Mummert introduced me to Teach with Portals, an initiative of Steam for Schools. I was able to register my class for a free educational version of Portal 2 and the Puzzle Creator (sometimes referred to as Puzzle Maker). In terms of approaching Game design from the perspective of game mechanics, particularly the five elements discussed in Gamestar Mechanic, Portal 2 with the Puzzle Maker is a natural extension of the activities begun in Gamestar. It simply requires some additional scaffolding. I'd like to share some of the scaffolding resources I created with you here.

Making Connections

Okay, so the first task I found to be necessary, particularly for middle school students, was making the connections obvious between the lessons learned in Gamestar Mechanic and students' experience in Portal 2. As a prerequisite for beginning the Portal Project in my class, students must earn the Apprentice Badge in GameStar Mechanic. As a part of this badge, students have the opportunity to analyze the 5 elements of game design as a system, evaluate games for balance (flow), participate in the iteration feedback loop, and consider end user experience. I wanted to extend this experience to Portal 2. Steam for Schools is quite limited in that it provides no method for sharing projects between students or community for students. In order to provide some opportunity for community, I've had to use blogging and Edmodo.  First, I require students to blog throughout the project during play and Test Chamber creation. Students may blog as an analysis of game play (focusing on the 5 Elements) or as fanfiction from the perspective of Chell.

My first blog assignment, for example, is play through the Prologue and Courtesy Call. I encourage them to stop every now and then to jot down notes on any thoughts they have in the blog. Then, students write a blog post either:
  • Analyzing the Core Design Elements of the Prologue and Courtesy Call, using the questions (mostly from Gamestar) below.
    • “What did you do in the game?” (mechanics: jumping, collecting)
    • “How do you win the game?” (goal)
    • “What are the rules of the game?”
    • “Describe the game space.” (open, narrow pathways, maze-like)
    • "Consider the dynamics of being able to make your own portals. How does the game guide you to a solution?"
  • or a Fanfiction accounting of their adventure as Chell in this first part of the game.
I typically check these and provide feedback based on the ideas on my Plogging wiki page and my Fanfiction wiki page (both of which are works in progress).


Experience, Challenge, & Complexity 


Again, I'm returning to GameStar Mechanic because my students began this journey there. The Introductory Quest, Addison Joins the League, introduces the five elements piece by piece, giving players increasing degrees of creative responsibility until they have a repertoire of sprites, backgrounds, and other tools as well as a license to publish.

The core mechanics available in the Puzzle Creator are overwhelming. In order to avoid having students create unplayable or simply confusing test chambers, I decided to use the model, explained above. I limit the elements that students can use in each test chamber they create, based upon where they are in the game. For example, after playing the Prologue and Courtesy call, students can create a chamber using only the following elements:


Iteration & Feedback

Now we need an engine for iteration and feedback. There is no way for students to share their chambers with the community online, and there is no built in forums for steam. Currently, I have found that the most efficient means for this to take place is the blogs the students are already using.  I have the students blog about the process of creation. What tools did they use? What was their core mechanic? They must include some screenshots. of their chamber in their blog post. Then, the students get someone to play the test chamber and review it in a comment on under the blog post. In order to guide the reviewing process, I provided this rubric, I decided to make it one to four "companion cubes" instead of "thumbs up" or "stars" for thematic fun.

Another option would be to use Edmodo to accomplish this task. I've even had students, who are averse to writing, screencast their chamber and reviews, using Screencastomatic, and embed it in their blog or Edmodo post. 

Stuff for you to steal

in one easy place.


  1. So I'm following your trail of crumbs - stealing your stuff so thank you.

    I proposed a game design class last November and got approval. Enough kids signed up for three sections next year!

    I used Portal in my computer science class last month. I had students rotate through my lab and play through each other's chambers. It was more of an experiment in just getting a group of kids into Portal than a structured game design centered lesson. But it went well.

    In a digital media class currently I'm doing a unit using your stuff for a bit of Gamestar then Portal.

  2. Sounds awesome. Let me know if you want to get our classes together on Edmodo sometime.

  3. Greetings Clint! I am using Portal 2 in my game design and development class as well. I use it with my 8th graders and follow a similar format. I give students 3 days to play the game to get the basics. Then we work through the 'broken levels' lesson created by Lisa Castaneda and Geoff Moore ( and then my Iterative Design lesson (

    Other tools I use with students include Gamestar Mechanic and Looking Glass with my 7th graders and GameMaker and MineCraft with my 8th graders. In 7th grade I teach a 6 week cycle in game design and digital storytelling and 8th grade is a full semester game design and development course. Nice to meet you. Hopefully we can share additional ideas.

    I am adding your blog post to my video game design and development diigo group ( Feel free to email ( or follow me on twitter (@mr_isaacs).


    1. Awesome, Steve. I followed you on Twitter. I also have a games Diigo group. We'll have to get our resources together. I'm stoke to find another Middle level CIT teacher doing this stuff instead of keyboarding and MS Office!

      Are your students on Edmodo?


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Hey, Computer Teachers, stop wasting students' time! (Part 1)

3d Resurrection - Getting your Cube 3 Working again

Classcraft and ARIS