Friday, March 28, 2014

Portal: A Satire of Life and Education

Marcuse’s reading of Brecht in chapter four brings to question whether or not playwrights “represent [the play] in such a manner that the spectator recognizes the truth which the play is to convey.” (Marcuse).  After playing the entire game I find that Portal is a theatre representation of the difficult task of conveying the truth of what life is like in our society.  The game separates life into two different stages of life, the first being childhood and the second being adulthood.  In each stage, the AI is portraying a different character to the player.
In the first stage representative of childhood, the AI plays the parts of the parent and well as a teacher.  At the beginning of the game, the levels are rather easy and the AI helps the player learn how to use the blocks and one-way portal gun to overcome challenges.  In life this is comparable to the parent potty training a toddler, telling them how to do it, providing them with special toilets and direction to accomplish their tasks.  This process goes on for a few levels; the AI teaches the player the basics of playing the game much like a parent teaches their child the basics of being an acceptable member of society like speaking and being toilet trained.  Once the player progresses beyond the early levels and how the game works, the AI stops helping them and allows them to solve the rooms themselves, but with encouraging words after successful completion.  This part of the game is a clear comparison to early childhood, where the parent gives the child more independence and promotes their success with positive reinforcement.
After a few levels of independence the AI introduces a new factor that challenges the player a little more than the other levels by introducing the player to pessimism.  In this level the AI tells the player to just give up, the level is broken and impossible to complete. Now the AI might not be acting exactly like a parent from this point on but it is teaching the player life lessons within the levels it created, lessons a parent should teach to their children.  The level in the game involving the companion cube is another life lesson to the player being taught by the AI.  Here the player is given the companion cube, being told it is their friend to help solve the level.  The player gets attached to this idea and cannot solve the level without the cube but is forced to destroy it and the end in order to continue on with the game.  By forcing the player to destroy the cube at the end, the AI is teaching actually teaching several life lessons.  For example, sometimes friends, even those that have helped a person get to where they are now need to be left behind in order to move forward.  Another lesson would be that using other people for one’s gains may seem easy while doing it but when the other person has to be discarded it can become a very emotionally difficult thing to do.
Before moving on to the adulthood stage in Portal, let’s examine GLaDOS taking on another role during the childhood phase, the role of an educator.  If we view GLaDOS in this way as two separate entities, a parent and a teacher, it allows us to see her life lessons as those a child would learn from home and her teachings about the Portal Gun as coming from school.  Marcuse argues that education today is not focused on “humanistic and ecological” framework but rather on “an extreme focus on the production of socially “useful” knowledge . . . a result of the full adoption of a militaristic and corporate value framework” (Kellner 12).  Marcuse’s thoughts on education are exaggerated by GLaDOS’s teachings in Portal.  Instead of allowing the player the opportunity for self-exploration, she forces education on the player in the standardized testing environment.  
The standardizing education being presented by GLaDOS in portal is parallel, although satirical, to the standards of education being pressed on students in our society.  Both follow Marcuse’s thoughts that society is only interested in providing knowledge to students that makes them useful to society, not which necessarily benefits the students’ own interests or skills.  Much like GLaDOS is only interested in providing education to the player that allows them to be better test subjects; society is molding students into its more desired fields.  To further this point, examine the education being provided by GLaDOS and the standard education being provided in schools today.  GLaDOS only teaches the player about the Portal Gun’s use and how to use the game mechanic’s to complete the level.  There are no levels in which she teaches the player math principles, history lessons, or other areas of knowledge; she is only interested in educating the player to be useful to her by completing the levels.  Observe, then, this same principle being applied to the education system today.  In a typical general education public school, there are no classes to learn how to fix a computer or a car, knowledge that would benefit the individual.  Instead math, science, history, and English are forced upon the students, all to prepare them to pursue jobs as doctors, engineers, scientists, or other jobs that would be considered useful to society as a whole.
At the last level of the “test” part of the game with the AI in control, the AI resumes its role as a parent.  Here the parent releases the child to the world, this stage in life is symbolically represented by the room filled with fire.   When the child has learned all the lessons and matures, the parent lets them leave their supervision and they can either take what they have learned and survive in the real world or fail miserably and die.  The symbolism here is using the portal gun to escape or accepting the fate of not being prepared to face the real world and burning in the fire.  Concluding the escape of the fire room, the player is now assuming the stage in life of adulthood.  They are not constrained by the test environments and restrictions of the AI and are free to do as they please.  The goal here shifts from completing the tests to escaping the facility. In the analogy with life, the comparable goal is to be successful.  At this point the AI then assumes the role of a figurehead or another person in life who does not wish for the player to succeed by telling them that they’re going the wrong way when they’re not or trying to convince them not to proceed.  The facility itself is throwing all sorts of things at the player too; complicated areas to get through, helpful writings on the walls from others, and the little horror writings in blood of “Help” from others who have attempted the same goal and failed.  These are all comparable to events a person would encounter on their journey to achieve success.
Marcuse would probably argue at this point in the game the player has become exactly who GLaDOS conditioned them to be.  Her teachings of the use of the portal gun allowed the player to survive the fire room and pursue their own knowledge outside of the testing environment.  In Marcuse’s views this could be a satirical attempt to represent pursuing a college degree.  He “insists that higher education could be instrumental in individual and widespread cultural transformation” (Kellner 15).  In other words he supports the idea of pursuing individual interests to break free from the framework students are exposed to in general education.  The player is supporting this point by choosing to explore the facility and learn more about GLaDOS, rather than completing their usefulness to her and being exterminated.
During the end of the game, the player either overcomes all the obstacles thrown at them, which include destroying GLaDOS, to escape or chokes to death wondering what escape would have been like. The same idea applies to becoming successful.  A person either makes it or dreams of what it would be like.  Only once the player finishes the game and they are able to step back from it and truly think about what it meant are they able to realize its representation of the truth of life.  Marcuse refers to this as the “estrangement-effect.”  “. . . the theatre must break the spectator’s identification with the events on stage.  Not empathy and feeling, but distance and reflection are required. “ (Marcuse Chapter 3).  Portal as a video game manages this in perfection.  It is really difficult if not impossible to identify with someone trapped in a testing facility run by a murderous AI, but stepping back and reflecting on the game’s plot allows the player to discover that it is portraying the truth of what life in our society is like.

Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Beacon Press Boston. 1964. Print
Portal. Computer Game.

Kellner, Douglas.  Marcuse’s Challenge to Education. Rowman and Littlefield Publishing, Inc. 2009. Online. Available:

1 comment:

Adam said...

Interestingly, you find Portal to be like a play in two acts, basically. That actually seems pretty fitting to me. I think you could put a little more emphasis on the fact that this stage is *like* parenting a child, though - if anything, you downplay the darkness of the material. I do like the idea, for instance, that GLADOS is teaching us not to rely too much on our friends, and that sometimes we need to move beyond them - but it is really teaching us in an over the top way.

I'm interested in and somewhat troubled by your discussion of education. I want it to work, but I need to ask a basic question: since it's a video game with distinctive mechanics, doesn't it *need* to teach those mechanics to us? I'm not denying that there is some explicit satirization of education going on, but you needed to figure out how to understand where that begins and where the mechanical necessity of teaching us how to play the game ends. If you can demonstrate that part of the purpose of the distinctive mechanics is to satirize education, that's a great idea - but you aren't doing that yet.

Overall: I didn't comment all that much as I was reading for two reasons. First, I was really genuinely interested on what you had to say. Second, you were analyzing the game at a very general level, and therefore all I had to follow was the overarching idea, because there wasn't much in the way of substantive evidence.

I think that your use of Marcuse and Kellner is good. I think that your argument is very interesting, and that you've clearly given it some thought. But I also think that you're struggling to really directly analyze the game itself. Where is the analysis of the directions you receive through the game (all the arrows, etc)? Where is your analysis of how things change after GLADOS tries to bake you (is this a presentation of a true education following a satirized one, for instance?). Where is your use of a transcript of the game? At a high level, I like what you're doing a lot, but you needed to find a way of getting into the relevant *details* of the game, rather than operating impressionistically.