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PLAYMAKERS is an exploration of the experiences and innovations that are leading the way for learning design in the twenty-first century. The videos in this series introduce you to a range of people working at the intersection of games and learning, from teachers who happened on the power of play through trial and error, to commercial game designers who set out to make one great game and ended up empowering millions of users to make their own.
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Portal 2 Puzzle Maker
Making Space for Physics

The game developers at Valve didn’t set out to create a game that captured the imagination of math and science teachers from across the country. But soon after the release of Portal, they began receiving emails from teachers who were using the game in their classrooms. Some worked at private high schools, others at urban middle schools. A few taught at the college level. All were eager to share their enthusiasm for Portal with the development team.

Valve had never thought of itself as being in the education business, and the company wasn’t sure how it could support teachers. Their expertise was in game development, not in learning, they thought. But Valve has always been inspired as much by conversations happening outside of the field of video games as within it, so they started talking to educators to find out more. How did students think about motivation and engagement? What did teachers consider to be qualities of optimal learning environments? What did schools think of student-directed learning? 

The conversations that ensued led Valve to conclude two things: a) a good education researcher would probably make a damn fine game designer, and b) they could do better when it came to making tools for educators.

Two of the original members of the Portal team, Joshua Weier and Yasser Malaika, formed a small team at Valve interested in exploring the educational potential of Portal 2. They chose the game partly because it seemed that there were a lot of teachers already using it, and partly because it had a strong model for skill acquisition already built in, along with tools for social engagement. But what made Portal 2 the best candidate for this project was the ongoing development work on what would eventually become the Puzzle Maker, which took the professional level tools used by the Portal development team and transformed them into a level editor for the community of Portal 2 players. 

The Puzzle Maker took what was already a powerful toolset technologically, and made it more expressive so that young people, while using it, would feel fully capable of producing content. Along the way, Valve worked with Lisa Castaneda, a middle school math teacher at a local school, and brought in students early and often to get feedback on the toolset during its development. They also launched the Teach with Portals initiative, where teachers can find lesson plans and community-created resources to support integrating Portal 2 and the Puzzle Maker into their curricula.

Today, the Teach with Portals initiative has brought the Puzzle Maker to over 2,500 teachers worldwide. And while Valve still doesn’t consider itself as being in the education business, the Puzzle Maker is a great example of a commercial game with crossover appeal.

PLAYMAKERS is an exploration of the experiences and innovations that are leading the way for learning design in the twenty-first century.

This series is made possible through the generous support of the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.