"Momentum, a function of mass and velocity, is conserved between portals. In layman's terms, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing goes out." It's not the most elegant summary of Newton's First Law of Motion, but GLaDOS' recitation does have the advantage of some great visual aids. A high school science teacher could probably do worse than Portal for teaching the basics. Whether players know it or not, by the time they've finished the game they've worked through all three laws of motion, seen demonstrations of both potential and kinetic energy, and learned to redirect both in new directions. The effects of prolonged exposure to the 1500-Megawatt Aperture Science Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button, on the other hand, remain a mystery.
In the case of both the portal and gravity guns, Valve's recent games have been all about turning virtual worlds into a playground for experimentation and interaction. Currently these interactions are still primitive, limited to moving large objects in obvious ways. But I have hope for what this says about the potential of the medium, not just as a fun simulator of explosions and crude construction but also as a teaching tool.
For the last few years, the buzzword for game engine design has been physics, but most games didn't use it for anything more than the most basic eye-candy. HL2 showed that the model itself could actually be fun and interesting as part of the gameplay. I like to imagine doing the same thing for other fields - chemistry, for example, which has never been one of my strong subjects but would almost certainly make for amazing puzzles a la MacGyver. To some degree, this progression is already taking place; what's Spore but an expansive biology toy?
In his book The Demon-Haunted World, scientist Carl Sagan lamented the messages being presented by newspapers, books, radio and other media. Through constant repetition, he wondered, are we teaching the youth only about murder, cruelty, credulity and consumerism? "What kind of society could we create, if instead, we drummed into them science and a sense of hope?" Sagan asked. I doubt very much that he would have seen videogames as the savior to these problems. But I think they have hidden potential. Perhaps Gordon Freeman never gets much personal use out of that expensive MIT education, preferring to send small and large objects hurtling into anything in his way. But if his virtual adventures can inspire more people to look into real-world science, maybe he's not such a bad role model after all.
Thomas Wilburn went to China, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.