Education As Deception: The Logical Journey

By RPS on July 22nd, 2009 at 9:00 am.


Today’s guest emblogginator is the aubergine-educated Phill “The Poisoned Sponge” Cameron, who fills us on on the obscure annex of edutainment that defined his childhood: The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis.

In the book of my life, an entire chapter would be given to aubergines wearing sunglasses.

I was their Moses, the ferryman of their salvation, bringing them from the hellish confines of their old home, riddled with evil ‘Bloats’, helping them cross great trials and tribulations to finally reach their mecca, the promised land, resplendent with schools, hospitals, a town hall, and beautiful, straight roads. A modern Rome, just waiting for them to populate. And I was the one to bring all thousand of their sorry, idiotic, blissfully ignorant arses all the way there.

This was The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, the game that took up two years of my childish life, the only game I owned until Age of Empires years later. Gracing the box cover was the tag line ‘Building Advanced Maths Thinking Skills’, indicating that some misguided belief from my parents that games could be used to catapult me into a respectable, well paying job was still present. I’m sure that instead of being responsible for my B in GSCE Maths, it was the cause of missed homework and hogging the computer from my equally deluded brother.

The game knew how to grab attention, too. It tapped in to the hiding ‘let’s play dressup’ side of young boys by letting you pick how your Zoombinis look, and then throwing you, a puzzle in, against choosing the toppings of Pizza. Pizza, the holy food of the 10 year old. The greasy, meaty, cheesy deliciousness that was the only thing asked for when my mother asked for supper suggestions. Here I was, able to pick the toppings, anything I’d like.

It was cruel, though. The pizza wasn’t for me. It was for anthropomorphic trees, the ‘Pizza Trolls’. And, should they not be happy with the delicious banquet I picked for them, they’d send one of my delicate Zoombinis flying with a backhanded slap. It was insult over injury over insult. I grew to loathe them further when they were allowed ice cream too. It was almost too much to bear.

They were just one hurdle of many. None grated quite so much, even if they frustrated, annoyed, and bored me in equal measure. The Didimension Hotel in particular, was one of the ones I avoided if I could. Arbitrary restrictions placed upon who could go where, based on how they looked, with a far too unforgiving lock out mechanism, I’d be lucky to get four or five out of my sixteen past. Looking back, I’m amazed my young mind could get around some of it; I must’ve guessed my way past a good majority.

I’m surprised it wasn’t a genesis into adventure games. The Lucasarts masterpieces were undoubtedly available, and my father was hardly ignorant of what was going on in games. Instead, it’s merely served to colour my approach to strategy, or action, or any relatable game. A rudimentary system of rock, paper, scissors was established, figuring that if something didn’t work against one thing, it’d work against another. Of course, this has led to me blindly sending many virtual men to their virtual deaths, falsly believing in their omnipotent power against some obscure enemy.

No, instead of springboarding me into a life of analytical thought, Zoombinis interested and enraptured me so because of the simplistic and iconic nature of their plight. Here they were, uprooted from their home by outside forces beyond their peaceful and inward facing powers, forced to embark upon a great journey, desperate to get somewhere that no one would hurt them anymore. It’s almost Homeric.

My English teacher at School told me there were four aspects to every story. To begin with, you have status quo, which is soon disturbed, leading to a journey, and a resolution. Four components that can be twisted and turned to apply to almost any story, but here, with Zoombinis, they don’t need to be altered in any way. They happen exactly as said, with the Zoombinis having their status quo disrupted, being forced to go on an epic journey, to finally come to the resolution and safety of Zoombiniton. It may well have just been the writers being lazy, but when your ten, you don’t have the skills to see that. Hell, you’re still reading Harry Potter.

Wrapping the legs of the game with sinuous muscle, lending it longevity and strength over the long term, is the way it changes to keep itself fresh, and prevent the puzzles from becoming stagnantly easy. You’ve developed systems of dealing with each one, and it creates ways to disrupt those systems. The Pizza Trolls now demand desert for their brattish meal, and you must pick the right ice cream toppings to pass. And you have to pass, or that constant reminder, the number counter in the top of the screen that lets you know just how many are left in turmoil and exile, will remain static forever.

So you whittle it down, 16 at a time, watching as the map grows angry and violent, each route changing from an easy green through the colour spectrum to angry, difficult oranges, and murderous, impossible reds. I don’t know if I ever did fully deplete that number, a part of me half remembering finding the final section, after the last checkpoint in disguise campfire was reached, near impossible, beating one puzzle only to have the next boot me all the way back. But I also remember the City Hall, supposedly only achieved when the last of the peaceful Zoombinis made it to the new home.

Zoombinis gave birth to both the completest and the obsessive within me. It was the simplest number crunch I could imagine; make this one smaller while making that one bigger. I was rigging the scales, slowly pulling weights from one side to another until a whole side came crashing down to earth. Knowing that each digit was a person, another I’d saved or left behind, made each move important, to save me doing it all again with the same Zoombinis, if nothing else.

I can’t get the idea of aubergines in sunglasses out of my head. Here I was at ten, finding myself utterly engrossed in this game, but when looking back at it a decade later, I find it all absurd. Singing sunflower in sunglasses absurd. I’m not sure whether it was endearing or tasteless, or just a shallow trick my parents pulled to get me to enjoy maths. The problem is, regardless, it worked. I did enjoy doing algebra, years later, like the sick freak they wanted me to be. I still enjoy working through the facts and coming to a conclusion. I do still look back at Zoombinis with a mix of nostalgia and pity at my younger self. Going back to it now, I’m sure I’d hate it, but for two years, it was an escape from homework while pretending to still be doing homework. My parents couldn’t argue because it was educational, and I couldn’t argue because it was fun.

I always knew the game was called The Logical Journey.., but I never really realised, at least while playing, that it was supposed to be educational. There weren’t any numbers, and all the problem solving was open to a level of guesswork and trial and error. Everything I had to learn was right there, ready to be clicked and manipulated, but it fostered a way of thinking that was useful to my academic work. It was education as deception, and, like with all things, it was better to deceive and entertain rather than be honest and dull. Perhaps it’s the way forward, and parents just need to trick their children into learning. With consoles or computers in nearly every house, I’m sure we can get a few more kids playing Bookworm Adventures, or Typing of the Dead. Y’know, for the children.

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53 Comments »

  1. Lewis says:

    A splendid retrospective, Phill.

  2. TheArmyOfNone says:

    I loved games like this when I was a wee tyke. Math mountain (or some such name) was so amazing to me at the time… That massive mountain to be scaled, with only the best child mathmeticians being allowed to reach the summit… That or I was just really abysmal at the game.

  3. Jayt says:

    Ahh memories, loved the article.

  4. Inigo says:

    Games like Gizmos & Gadgets and James Pond: Running Water were what got me into PC gaming in the first place.
    As opposed to <a href="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/5f/Granny%27sGardenWitch.gif"Granny's Garden, which got me into hiding under the table screaming in horror and left me terrified of computers for years.

  5. Steven says:

    Holy shit, I just dug this game out and started playing it again myself! For me, both then and now, there was a lot of joy had in the sorting that most of the puzzles require. “You go here and you over there and there we go! Some semblance of order imposed on these 16 odd little things. My reward is both satisfaction and progress.” In hindsight, this game is probably at genesis of my more OCD-like tendencies, heh.

  6. Alaphic says:

    Wow, I thought I was the only one that had ever played this game…

  7. Garreett says:

    Nay, Alaphic. EVERYONE played it. EVERYONE. If you haven’t, you’re lying.

  8. Jon says:

    Zoombini’s was hogged at out school by the special needs kid. I got to play it once. I loved every minute of it

  9. HidesHisEyes says:

    10 years on, my flatmate is still trying to save every single one of her little aubergines.

    2 of every appearance to zoombiniville. That is all they ask. You must provide.

  10. vanarbulax says:

    I still love zoombinis and I must have started playing it as a kid at least 10 years ago.

    The thing which I think makes it great as an “educational” game is that unlike most games the logic and puzzle solving is entrenched and inseparable from the game and the fun. Most (well many) educational games are your standard platformer/rpg/whatever which at random intervals will ask you to do time tables or ask you to spell words, the educational part was a hindrance to your progression a break in your fun.

    Zoombinis on the other hand has its core in logic and puzzle solving what you’d call deceptive educational content I’d call intrinsic. The game would be no fun if you just started with the zoombinis and dragged them one at a time to the end. So obviously the obstacles are what got us hooked, the desire not only to just progress but also the conquer the zoombinis opponents, cleverly (at least for a kid) coming up with strategies and routines which could outsmart the challenges laid before you. I remember with the pizza trolls that I had learnt on a very young age to use a very precise, ordered and rigorous system to work out what the pizza trolls based on as little tries as possible in order to save my zoombinis to be cast back to the beginning. Of course the second genius of the game is that if I became too reliant on a particular system, or too reliant on using one particular route to avoid a particular puzzle, then the game would make the puzzle more difficult forcing me to change my approach or take a previously discarded route.

    I think this type of learning and logical thinking is more important (or at least more fundamental) than learning a specific times table or that the plural of ox is oxen. Maybe as you allude to before, zoombinis generated a desire for learning new approaches to problems and understanding underlying systems. This same desire which gives reward in puzzle/adventure games and when learning about a new or interesting subject (even occasionally -shock horror- learning in school!)

    Gah! You’ve made me reminisce and I think this isn’t going to fit into one post. Anyway I’ll finish this with one last thing:

    ZOOOOMMMMMMBBIIINIIIVIILLLLEEE!!!

  11. Matt says:

    The sound of the fat pizza troll’s footsteps haunts me to this day.

  12. vanarbulax says:

    Oh I forgot to mention that this is an awesome retrospective, accurately describing the sheer epicness that zoombinis held for me as a kid which I doubt anyone who didn’t grow up with it would understand. Oh and I always though of them as antropomorphic blueberrys, or blue defective Mr. Potatoheads.

  13. Clovus says:

    I actually spent a few months playing the strangely adult version of this: Brain Age. Of course, adults apparently don’t need a storyline or to have their education hidden behind a “game”. I found the whole thing surprisingly fun even though it was just straightforward math and stuff.

  14. The Sombrero Kid says:

    the tangential learning of games is grossly underestimated, even amoung gamers, even in shit ‘adult’ games like COD4, who here can’t name a gun in that game, name a gun in the game, name it in life, without games i would know a lot less about the world, even as an adult they still teach which is an important thing to realise.

  15. Lanster27 says:

    Great review. I forgot the name of this game and I kept wanting to find it. Thanks!

  16. MrBejeebus says:

    This game, is the best game ever.

  17. Kelron says:

    We used to play this in groups on the class computer in primary school. Boys vs girls to see who could get the most Zoombinis to the end. Except I used to cheat with my friends by sneaking in at lunch time instead of playing outside.

  18. SlappyBag says:

    I remember this, my school had it and I played it all the damn time =P Gotta aquire another copy.

  19. Some Guy says:

    This is the second game i oned, the first was big bears birthday suprise. They are both brilliant educational games as they trick you into learning, they hide it in the game rather than have it pop out and get you. I think there also was a sequal to this game that was just as good.

  20. Pani says:

    I feel left out, never heard of this game until this point.

    I wish you’d have talked about the game’s mechanics, your “review” (or retrospective) made no sense to me most of the time because I couldn’t relate.

  21. Kelron says:

    @Pani

    It’s basically a series of minigame puzzles. I struggle to remember the details, as it’s been about 10 years since I last played it. The objective was to get as many Zoombinis as you could past the puzzles to the village at the end. Wikipedia has more details, as always.

  22. MrBejeebus says:

    Yea my year 3/4 class (which had one computer) had this on it, we were all quite into it, although the novelty wore off after the 50th try at getting the damn pizza’s right, I never got far.

  23. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    @Pani

    It’s pretty much as Kelron says. A series of logic puzzles that mostly followed a Mastermind kind of game (a series of trial and error with clues given if you’re partly right), to slowly advance a group of 16 from one end of the map to the other.

  24. zipdrive says:

    Great write-up. Sounds like a cool game for kids, too.
    I only had a stupid game that required solving simple addition/subtraction/multiplication in order to zap alien ships.

    Go Eggplants!

  25. Nurdbot says:

    ARRRRGGH, those Pizza Trolls!

  26. JonFitt says:

    Gosh, you’re all so young. When I was ten games looked like this:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/5f/Granny%27sGardenWitch.gif
    or for the colonials:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OregonTrailScreenshot.png
    We would take turns in pairs on the school BBC Micro which would be rolled in on a cart a few times a year.

  27. Inigo says:

    Their six children have been taken away and hidden by the Witch!
    Would you like to help the King and Queen?
    >No
    That’s not very nice!

    Their six children have been taken away and hidden by the Witch!
    Would you like to help the King and Queen?
    >No
    That’s not very nice!

    Their six children have been taken away and hidden by the Witch!
    Would you like to help the King and Queen?
    >No
    That’s not very nice!

    Their six children have been taken away and hidden by the Witch!
    Would you like to help the King and Queen?
    >No
    That’s not very nice!

    Their six children have been taken away and hidden by the Witch!
    Would you like to help the King and Queen?
    >PISS OFF
    SYNTAX ERROR AT LINE 573

  28. Scot says:

    As one of the creators of the game, it’s gratifying to read the article and comments. I’m glad you enjoyed playing it. The only thing I’d take issue with is the idea of “hiding” education. While we fought against the marketing department’s decision to put “Logical” in the title, and we imagined Zoombins as an adventure game for 8 to adult (since the puzzles can get really hard), we also assumed people would feel good about solving problems, and didn’t need to be tricked into it. I think when done right, all worthwhile learning is immensely engaging. The only kind of education that needs to be hidden is the boring kind: memorizing useless facts. But I would agree that engaging, immersive learning shouldn’t have to scream “education” from the box either. That term is used to seduce parents who don’t realize how much learning occurs in any good play.

  29. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    @Scot: Glad you liked the article, and concerning the whole ‘education through deception’, that was mostly a sensationalist way of saying that you didn’t really think about the learning aspect, because it was fun. But you still learnt stuff, which was great.

  30. Scot says:

    Absolutely, the term is catchy, and a good lead for a good article. And I didn’t mean to sound disagreeable. I was just using it as an springboard to get on my soapbox about how learning should be fun, about which I assume we are in total agreement.

  31. Haroshi says:

    Oh wow we used to have this on our school computer (just 1) when I was in primary school. Although due to this each of us didn’t get to play it for very long.

    So I convinced my dad to buy it for our computer.

    At the time I thought it was the best purchase ever,
    maybe I should crack it out again for a nostalgia hit.

  32. superking208 says:

    Holy fucking shit, I just NOSTALGIA’d all over my keyboard

  33. Kanamit says:

    Man I remember this. This is what “edutainment” games should aspire to. Though I must admit the pizza troll usually made me quit in anger.

  34. Ray says:

    Wow, this brings back memories. I used to absolutely love the game, one of the few educational games that is actually any good.

  35. Heliocentric says:

    I need to make a left 4 dead mod where you have to ferry the horde to with rts micromanagement around puzzles, from the immune shooting at you with sniper rifles or a tantruming tank… Only infected with an odd numbers of different coloured clothes won’t startle the witch.

    Hide place enough pills in the route of louis that the other immune shoot at him, he will take left at junctions, except prime numbered junctions where he will go forward. Pills.

  36. DarkNoghri says:

    I’ve never heard of this either.

    When I was younger, I did play a lot of Gizmos and Gadgets, a bunch of the Super Solvers games, and Oregon and Amazon Trails. Also toss in SimCity 2000 for educational value.

  37. abigbat says:

    HOLY SHIT I LOVED THAT GAME!

    Many try. Few succeed.

  38. Lambchops says:

    Haha, glad I’m not the only one to remember playing this back at school, where it was the only game on our Mac along with Shufflepuck Cafe. While Shufflepuck was throwaway fun it was Zoombinis that enthralled a few of us, like Kieron I remember playing it in groups and trying to outdo each other.

    Me and a couple of my mates must have saved tons of the little guys.

    nostalgia tells me it was great fun and we all know nostalgia never lies!

  39. Wildbluesun says:

    I got a free version in a cereal packet…my cousins and I played it obsessively for an entire holiday.

    Yes, we were in Italy, and begging our parents/aunts to let us stay in and rescue aubergines instead of going to the beach and having ice cream.

  40. Colin Hansen says:

    HOLY SHIT I PLAYED THIS GAME EVERY DAY FOR THREE YEARS

  41. Tony says:

    Some of the matching puzzles were piss easy if you just made all of the zoombinis in sequence. S’what I always did.

    Also WELL DONE OH WISE AND TRUSTED GUIDE

  42. pimorte says:

    @Tony – that’s what I realised too. Make all the Zoombinis as similar as possible at the start and you have much less combinations to deal with.
    It’s a shame even optimal solutions on some of the puzzles still depended on random chance.

  43. Rei Onryou says:

    I’ve never heard of this before, but I feel like a piece of my childhood was denied from me. I never got to play on the edutainment Pee-Cees. :(

  44. Eschatos says:

    I loved this game. It had a sequel too, though it wasn’t as good.

  45. Pie21 says:

    Oh shit, I completely forgot about Zoombinis! I was a total sucker for stuff like this as a kid. Problem solving made fun – anything that pulls that off has me utterly hooked. These days that’s programming, and I very possibly have Zoombinis to blame for making me a programmer. The idea is to write a program, going from zero to 100% functionality, and all the way taking one step after another adding new functions, learning the rules and figuring out how to reduce the number of bugs. It’s a constant battle to understand all the rules at once inside your head, applying them in new situations with every new step.

    I remember being really good at the Pizza level. It was my favourite, right up with Mudball Wall. The Fleens never really made sense to me, similar to Dimension Hotel. The harder levels of the Abyss were just impossible. Such a wonderfully-put-together game!

    You’re a hero, Scot!

  46. Daniel says:

    This game along with the other Broderbund educational games were the “Best” education I received during my Primary school years.

    Anyone remember “Write, Camera, Action” or “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”?

    Thanks Scott you’re probably one of the many reasons why me and my sisters received a good education. Well that and an unhealthy habit of pretending to be a Pizza troll.

    “FLEENS?! YOU’RE NOT FLEENS! Well whatever you are… MAKE ME A PIZZA!”

  47. George says:

    So that sequence of “Gaming made me” articles made me scratch my head: what were those games for me. Zoombinis was one, for definite. Scot, thank you.

  48. Simon says:

    this was the game that started it for me as well, i will never forget finally making it to safety and the “voice of god”ish guy saying congradulation, but now maybe turn off the computer and you can go outside and play!

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