Portal 2: Reflection and Cooperation

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This first article on Portal 2 aims to present the game ‘technically’ by pointing out interest in its use in therapeutic mediation. This will be the subject of future articles detailing aspects of it which are relevant to therapeutic work.

Appearing at the practice in June 2014, Portal 2 established itself very well with 45 clients and about a hundred sessions. This was as many clients as with Minecraft but there were three times fewer sessions. In an initial analysis, I thought that Portal 2 should be suggested to clients older than those using Minecraft and that the use of the video game mediator allowed a quicker use of speech. More work needs to be done, but this is not impossible as Portal 2 is capable of precisely pointing out or revealing an aspect of the client’s psychological functioning.

During an oral presentation of Portal 2 at a meeting of The Guild (a working group on psychology and video games) in 2015, I realised that it was not easy to represent oneself and therefore to understand how Portal 2 works for neophytes; in this case it was difficult to have full access to the therapeutic interest of the game in mediation.


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P-Body (left) and Atlas (right), the two robots that the players embody in the Coop version of Portal 2

Portal 2 is a puzzle game which was released in 2011. It can be played alone in story mode or as a pair in a cooperative mode, either online with each player taking part at home, or both players side by side with a split screen.

I use the cooperation mode in the office with a horizontally split screen.

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The screen is split in two horizontally. In the top half there is an image of the Atlas robot and in the bottom half an image of P-Body.

The principle is extremely simple: the game is presented as a succession of rooms from which you have to exit, using your reasoning, logic, and a certain capacity for visualisation in space.

The players play as two robots, P-Body and Atlas, each equipped with a ‘portal gun’ allowing them to pass through the walls and move easily from one end of the room to the other. Each portal gun can generate two portals, one ‘entrance’ and one ‘exit’. They each have a different colour to distinguish their own entrance and exit and those of their partner : it will be light blue and dark blue for Atlas, orange and red for P-Body.

The gates are only on the white parts of the walls, floor, or ceiling, with no distance limitation.

The order of the gates does not matter—the first gate through which a robot passes will always be the entrance gate.

The gates are not reserved for the player who made them, both robots can use either their own gates or those of the other.

There are four courses of increasing difficulty, each consisting of several test rooms (six to nine) sometimes cut into two or three parts. Having finished the game in its Cooperation mode, I have access to all four courses in their entirety; I can choose the test room in which we are going to play (usually the next room from the previous session).

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At the top you can see the access to route 1 and route 4 and in the lower part of the screen you can see the access to route 2 and route 3.

Thus, I can choose any room on any course. For the moment I have decided that for each client to whom I offer the game, it is more appropriate to start it in the first room of the first course, in order to benefit from the learning stages set up by the game (a point I will come back to in a future article).

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At the beginning of each course, a control screen allows you to choose the test room you want. This way, you do not have to do everything over again from the beginning from one session to the next.


As usual, I take notes during the whole game session, but the operation is made more difficult because, as a participant in the game, I have a joystick in my hands. The challenge is to note down and record what was said or done, the reactions to this or that situation, to the difficulty, to the notion of learning, to the interactions provoked in the game between the two robots, and so forth.

The arrival in the test room is always the same: the robots come out of their transport tube into a small room acting as an entrance and a light panel in front of them lights up, showing the number of the room as well as symbols representing the different elements to which the player is going to be subjected. This panel is generally neglected; it is rare for clients to linger on it and even rarer for them to return to it to study it if they have difficulty understanding the mechanisms of the test room.

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To activate the launch of the test room, the robots are placed in a tube in which they must be disassembled and then reassembled. This operation provokes a questioning in some clients caused by an emerging anguish that must not be forgotten to resume later.


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Arrival at the destination and exit of the tube. This is opposite the luminous panel with the technical indications of the test room. The access to the room is immediately on the left.


Once past this entrance, the robots enter the test room. The exit door is always easy to spot and when it is not at first glance because it is located further away (when the room is large), there are arrows that indicate the path to follow.

In Portal 2 it is not a question of finding ‘where we are going’, but ‘how we are going’. The exit door opens thanks to a mechanism that must be engaged, it is connected to the door by blue dotted lines that turn orange when activation occurs. We know what will happen, but how should we proceed?

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The first room allows me to present the gameplay, to test the joystick’s keys, and to make the first portals. In the top screen, on the left, you can clearly see the exit door but it is unreachable because it is located behind a window.


The first thing to do is to observe, walk around, test, and press the buttons you see. The reflection will be built up from a dynamic exploratory phase, mobilising sight and hearing because when you press a button it is a question of understanding what is happening, for instance is it the sound of a door? A panel that retracts? A timer? An object that falls?

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Atlas climbs on the red knob, which opens the door (you can see a dotted path connecting the knob to the door). The player realises that by pulling away from the knob, the door closes: one of the players will have to stay on the knob to allow the other to pass through the door; this is the first element of reflection in Portal 2 that the client is confronted with.


There is already a lot to observe during this stage in the way the client ventures into the play environment, takes hold of it, or undergoes it. In the practice that I have accumulated on this game, this is the moment that can be the most distressing for some clients; for them, it is an ordeal to be confronted with one’s own capacity to solve a problem with all the psycho-affective mechanisms involved in this task (mobilisation of intellectual resources, low self-esteem, stress of having to find a solution, the weight of the other’s gaze…).

The fact that I use Portal 2 in Cooperation mode gives even more importance to the notion of shared attention. Whereas with the Sims or Minecraft it is in a way ‘passive’, with Portal 2 it becomes ‘active’: by intervening directly in the game, I have the impression that it gives another dimension to this essential notion that we find in therapeutic mediation with video games.

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It is impossible to leave a room alone. Not only are the rooms built in such a way that it is absolutely necessary to use a partner (by pressing a button or by making gates), but the door only opens when both partners face the camera and validate their presence with a logo of a running character; when a robot is missing, the character is static (very similar to the representations of the pedestrian on the pedestrian crossing bollards).


For example: when the emotional tension becomes too great, and when verbal support is no longer sufficient to channel this bad emotional spiral that is starting, I can make the decision to intervene in the game.

I have several possibilities at my disposal:

  • pressing a button to trigger something,
  • carrying an object and putting it in a strategic place,
  • setting up my two portals to visualise the solution’s progress,
  • using a button on the joystick for my character to point to a spot in the room and display a small target that can highlight an object that had not been seen.

On two or three occasions with different clients I have gone to the end of the puzzle to get rid of all the emotional tension. The therapeutic intensity of this moment is of great richness because I have access to the verbalisations and emotional expression of the client, but also – through the therapeutic link that is strongly in place – to other unconscious elements that may have emerged while living the situation and through the words that follow.

The collection of this clinical material will be taken up again in future sessions, using a situation in everyday life for example which produces the same emotional effects. The psychologist and the client will be able to draw on the lived experience, supported by verbal exchange, to make a link with the new situation lived outside the therapeutic context.

As I said before, the riddles in Portal 2 are not ‘static’ or ‘passive’ riddles like finding a code to open a door, but riddles that I will call ‘dynamic’ or ‘active’. It is necessarily by the action of something on something else that the door will open and, to take my example: a cube to be moved so that the laser hits a generator, a ball to be recovered to put in its receptacle, a button to be pushed, and so forth.


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Top of the page: Atlas has made a light blue entrance gate on the wall and the dark blue exit gate on the ceiling; Atlas observes P-Body walking in front of the entrance gate. Below: P-Body looks through the entrance gate and sees from the exit gate. The angle of vision is not the same, this is where you need to be able to visualise in space. He can see Atlas towards the red button and at the bottom right of his screen his own body half-engaged in the entrance gate.


To conclude, Portal 2 has been invested in very well by the clients to whom I offer it (from 10 years old). It is called ‘the game of robots’, ‘the game of riddles’, or ‘the game we play together’.

As the game is not recent and not really up to the standards of adolescents, the majority of my clients discover it and accept it when they are introduced to it during a session.

Recently, there was a very rich moment when a client was practising it cried out as we arrived in a room ‘this is where I am stuck!’. It was a Moment to go through the problem together, to reflect the same dynamic that has animated us for the last few sessions; it was a Moment especially when the solution appeared, followed just after by the crossing of the door which meant the overcoming of the initial blockage, where the client’s reasoning had failed to find the solution.

The following articles will focus on a specific effect, a mechanism, a particular process highlighted by the particular use of Portal 2 that I do not necessarily find with other video games used in therapeutic mediation.

Highlighting these elements is for me a way to share with other practitioners the questions, especially around the issue of learning and the implementation of a certain cooperative logic.

This post is also available in: Français

About Bruno BERTHIER

Psychologue Clinicien en libéral Diplômé en 2001 de l'Ecole de Psychologue Praticiens

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