Definitions of the word game elude standardization and universal acceptance, but that has not kept many a scholar from trying. Among the more prominent attempts of late come from Jesper Juul and Jane McGonigal. According to Juul, “A game is a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.” McGonigal’s definition is simpler; she claims all games have “a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation” (21). Both of these definitions highlight obstacles and rewards—supposedly, the fun of a game comes from the player “exerting effort” toward the goal and receiving the feedback indicative of the higher-valued outcome. Portal 2, the first-person puzzle-platform game released by Valve Corporation in 2011, actively challenges traditional game reward and motivations systems, and openly questions what motivates not only gamers but humanity in general. Time and again, Portal 2 invites the player to consider exactly what drives him or her both in and outside of the game circle.
By McGonigal’s analysis, feedback loops are one of the main features of games that keep players engaged for extended periods of time. Her prime example of a feedback loop in games is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. She quotes a friend in labeling the game as the “single most powerful IV drip of productivity ever created” (60), explaining that the clarity of each quest explaining not only a story but outlining a specific reward—as well as the feedback of immediately receiving the promised reward upon the completion of the quest—is essential to keeping the player engaged and “working” on the game for hours on end. In many ways, her analysis captures exactly what makes game feedback so powerful: clarity, immediacy, quantification, and reliability. McGonigal argues that life lacks all of those traits in its feedback systems and so players turn to games to feel that sense of concentrated productivity. While this argument is sound enough, Portal 2 presents an entirely alternate system of feedback while remaining highly engrossing for players.
|A promotional poster found in Portal 2 promoting|
Cave Johnson's promised $60
|The robot Wheatley "freeing" Chell in Portal 2|
All these questions Portal 2 poses for the player about motivation and reward come to their most interesting head as the game finally does reward the player for completing the game. Chell survives, yes, and is set free from testing, but the true reward of the game takes the form not of freedom, survival, or any sort of “happy ending,” but instead with song and dance. As Chell goes up the final elevator, the robots she leaves behind sing her a song in Italian asking why she must go, and as the final credits roll, GLaDOS sings a snarky and sarcastic song about “I only want you gone.” The dissonance of such frivolous and friendly acts compared to the constant antagonism of the game is designed to provide a rush of both relief and nostalgia for the player, creating a desire to immediately jump back in and continue playing. The final reward for the player of Portal 2, then, is none of the promised rewards of the game, but simply the relationship created between the player and the game’s non-player characters. GLaDOS’s song is a reward because GLaDOS, despite her denial of the fact, is the player’s friend by the end of the hours spent together teasing and outwitting each other. The bittersweet good-bye turns all discussion of feedback loops, valued outcomes, and quantifiable measures of success on its head because, lacking all of these, Portal 2 remains engaging for the player simply because of relationships built with fictional characters. One could argue that the development of these relationships is itself a feedback loop, but even so, it calls for a reevaluation of what kind of feedback is most valuable in a game—and life. Ultimately, Portal 2 suggests to the player that beyond winning, points, money, survival, or freedom, what we as humans value most is strong relationships with other individuals; or, to put it bluntly, love.
Portal 2 is a game by any definition, but its genius lies in questioning just what a game can do, what within and without of a game is truly valuable to a player, and what promises and rewards can really keep people going despite adversity. Portal 2 serves to prove that while life might benefit from adapting lessons from videogames, videogames can learn from and implement lessons from real life as well. Feedback loops do not necessarily have to take the form of points, levels, coins, and loot. Other value systems from the human experience can also be leveraged through videogames—and perhaps they should be leveraged, if the success of Portal 2 means anything for the medium as a whole.