Skip to Content
Contact Us Now! Click Here

Observing Students’ Emotional Response to the Game Portal

Wabash College might just have the coolest and most innovative professor in the country. Portal was on the syllabus in a 2011 semester at the college, and with good reason. The professor understands that certain games, movies, songs, and books can pique different emotional and human responses.

They can also teach us about life, and give insight into some of life’s most provocative and unanswered questions. Portal is the perfect game for the existentialist.

Professor Michael Abbot used Portal as educational material during his “Enduring Questions” class. During this time, he taught the students while observing their emotional responses to playing as Chell.

With copies of the game from Valve, Abbot’s students ventured into a world of emotional enlightenment. Abbot’s precursor to the game was his demonstration of Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Dr. Goffman’s book explains how humans display different versions of ourselves in various situations. When we’re in social settings, we are not the same as when we are alone. There’s a saying, “he knows me better than I know myself“. While only an expression, the phrase can’t have true meaning because we are always most honest with who we are, when we are alone. Only the closest people in our lives can see into that person, and even then, it’s still not the same.

GLaDOS, as a character, is aligned closely to Goffman’s text about slowly removing the protective layer to get down to one’s true personality. Her position in this created a great example of how we become ourselves once we’re comfortable in our environment. The game displays this by letting you into her personality slowly, test-by-test. Then, in the sequel, you learn even more as you go into the history behind the snide, sassy computer-villain.

Beyond the fan-favorite GLaDOS character, the game puts Chell in a few other emotionally straining situations.

  • Emotional Stress – The pressure to escape or die might leave her with a ton of emotional baggage at the end. Chell has to live in constant “Fight or Flight” mode; the stress will eventually get her if she doesn’t get out.
  • Verbal Abuse – GlaDOS calls Chell a slew of names and ends many tests with a fat joke. Chell will end up with an eating disorder.
  • Loneliness – Chell doesn’t speak; she won’t give Aperture the satisfaction of a response. There are no other humans around, all she has is her companion cube.
  • Manipulation – Giving Chell a companion cube to love, only to make her kill it in the end; it does things to a person
  • Abandonment – Unclear whether it’s true or just a jab, Chell hears repeatedly from GLaDOS that her parents didn’t want her.

During and after playing the game, Abbot used a student forum to create a discussion about the game, and the responses varied. Some students identified with the main character, and said they hoped that they’d escape. Other students felt a sense of accomplishment, as they felt like they were escaping.

The game also inspired creativity for many, and with the comedy, emotion, and suspense going further in the sequel, it has gotten a lot of attention for its impressive storyline. A fan-made film, by Dan Trachtenberg, depicts the emotional responses from Chell, and the events in the test chamber.

It doesn’t have to be Portal, but when you feel overwhelmed by life’s burning questions, escape into an elaborate story, and analyze your feelings afterwards. You’ll be amazed at the wonderful effect it can have. Video games like Portal and Bioshock make effective stories because they’re anecdotes that you interact with, and in some cases, you determine the outcome.