Valve, the Bellevue company behind the Steam video-game platform and hit games such as Portal and Half-Life, is developing a new educational game to help middle-school students learn physics. It’s an outgrowth of the company’s Learn With Portals initiative, and it’s slated to debut in about six weeks.

“We’re trying to put our money where our mouth is and build a non-sucky educational game that we’re going to make available to teachers and students,” said Valve co-founder Gabe Newell, who was one of the speakers today at the Washington Technology Industry Association’s TechNW 2011 event.

“If we’re right, we should be able to make a high-quality educational experience, and if we’re wrong we’re about to get really embarrassed,” he said. “We’ll find out out if game developers have anything intelligent to say — or at least if Valve has anything intelligent to say — about education in about six weeks.”

More info on the overall initiative is at

Newell said afterward that the company plans to offer a set of tools that can be used by students to learn such principles as acceleration and friction by building their own custom levels of Portal 2, with students able to get off the ground in less than 5 minutes. The company will also offer teachers a variety of curriculum tools to assign content, track progress, and control access, among other things.

Valve is also involved in the “Digital Promise” education technology initiative recently rolled out by the U.S. Department of Education.

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  • Scott Windsor

    Love it! This was exactly our pitch at Startup weekend for DeathMath.

    We need more less sucky and lame educational games for kids.

  • Guest

    Maybe I’m a Luddite, but I’m not sure that five minute instant gratification is really the right way to learn physics. Until you work through the messy algebra (and later calculus, and later differential equations, etc…) and devise ways to check your own work with alternate formulations of the problem, you don’t really get the critical insights that lead to understanding. These are the skills that help you solve real technical challenges later. Sure, digital tools can help along the way, but there’s no real substitute for putting in the hours grinding through the equations. It’s not as sexy as a video game, but that’s what we need more of.

  • FrankCatalano

    Gabe provided more detail at TechNW about Valve’s education efforts than I’d heard before, and also one of best quotes from the WTIA game panel: “The quality of educational titles is jaw-droppingly terrible.”

    As if only to illustrate how terrible (or weird) some educational games can be, the site Dorkly recently published a list of the seven most bizarre educational video games ever released ( Valve definitely will do better.

  • Kathy E Gill

    Agree with Frank that the bar is low — have questions about yet another gov’t initiative: — and there is *great* work already underway on teaching physics at the university level. From Science Magazine:

    “We compared the amounts of learning achieved using two different instructional approaches under controlled conditions. We measured the learning of a specific set of topics and objectives when taught by 3 hours of traditional lecture given by an experienced highly rated instructor and 3 hours of instruction given by a trained but inexperienced instructor using instruction based on research in cognitive psychology and physics education. The comparison was made between two large sections (N = 267 and N = 271) of an introductory undergraduate physics course. We found increased student attendance, higher engagement, and more than twice the learning in the section taught using research-based instruction.”

    I would argue that part of the problem is the fact that most professors teaching at research universities are *researchers* first. Teaching is not the thing that gets you tenure. 

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