Video Games, Wisdom, and Cake
Video games have taught me a lot. History, science, and strategy are all things I have grappled with n virtual worlds. Video games have even taught me people skills, despite the stereotype of the isolated gamer. One of the greatest lessons I learned from video games came from the puzzle/shooter Portal. Portal taught me the meaning of the age old phrase, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” More importantly, the game Portal taught me to question whether the cake even exists at all, and what it means if it doesn’t.
Portal was released in 2007 by Valve software. In the game, you play as a test subject under the constant watch of an overbearing Artificial Intelligence. You proceed from test chamber to test chamber, solving puzzles along the way. The majority of these puzzles require the use of a device called a portal gun. By shooting the portal gun, you can create portals on any flat surface. One orange portal, and one blue portal. When both portals are placed, it creates an instantaneous passage between them.
There are a lot of interesting things that can be done with the portals. For example, if you place a on portal on the ceiling, and another on the floor beneath the first, then anything that falls through the bottom portal will just keep falling forever.
It is important to understand the physics of portals to play the game. In order to get the point of the game, all you need to know is that the machine intelligence is constantly tempting you with cake.
Throughout the game the machine intelligence, GLADOS, will speak to the player. GLADOS promises there will eventually be an end to the testing, and she will reward you with cake when you finish all the puzzles. This can give a dejected or discourages test subject a reason to continue. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded with cake after a long day of solving physics problems? But all is not as it appears at Aperture Industries.
In certain test chambers, there are places where you can get behind the sterile façade of the test chambers and into the guts of the building. In these spaces you find little camps where a crazy person was living. Scrawled all over the walls are cryptic messages. And at least one message that isn’t cryptic at all: The cake is a lie!”
After solving many puzzles, and finding several crazy-camps, you reach the first turning point in the game. There is a test chamber with nothing to do but stand on a conveyor belt. This belt conveys whatever is on it straight into a furnace.
As you stand on the doom-conveyor GLADOS chimes in over the speakers and gleefully informs the player that they have reached the final test. She promises, if you stay on the conveyor, you will finally be rewarded with the coveted cake. This leaves the player with two choices. You can listen to the machine and go for the cake. Maybe it is a test of faith. Then again, you have already been warned that the cake is a lie, and you are in possession of powerful technology you can use to escape. What do you do?
It makes me sad to say, but I am sure there are players who got to this point in the game and just went into the furnace. Maybe they thought it really was the end. Maybe there was really cake on the other side. I wouldn’t know, because I always chose to use the portal gun to escape. Forget cake. I want to solve more puzzles!
In real life, we don’t have portal guns or intelligent machines watching over us. At least not that I am aware of. But all of us have our own puzzles to solve. Our own challenges to face. And sometimes we are even offered rewards for completing them.
If anyone ever says you must go through a furnace to get a reward, metaphorical or otherwise, keep in mind that said reward might not actually exist. The cake may be a lie. Or maybe it’s not. That sort of becomes a different discussion on faith.
Before you decide to pursue the cake, remember that your mind is your portal gun. You might be able to use it to find a different solution. No, there probably won’t be cake, but might be able to move on to a whole new part of the game.