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Review of
Logical Journey of the Zoombinis

Zoombinis screen shot Published by: Brøderbund (Developed at TERC)
Year: 1996
Age Range: 8-12
Glass Wall-Suggested Age Range: 6-adult
Platform Information: Mac or PC
Reviewer: Megan Murray and Brian King
Image © the Learning Company. Used with permission.

Is the Game Mathematical?

Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is built around a varied set of 12 puzzles that draw from topics in discrete mathematics -- sorting, organizing and analyzing data, hypothesis formation, set theory, logical reasoning, pattern finding, attribute comparison, and algebraic thinking. These subjects are integrated so successfully into the narrative of the game that engagement with the story and the characters (very common among children we have observed playing this game), naturally leads to engagement with the mathematics.

An example of a puzzle is Allergic Cliffs. When your band of Zoombinis gets to the Cliffs, you must find a way to get as many as possible across a chasm spanned by two bridges. Players must notice that each of two bridges accepts (or doesn't accept) Zoombinis based on some rule (for example, Zoombinis with sunglasses go over the bottom bridge, all others over the top bridge). Zoombinis that do not fit the rule are sneezed back by the cliffs. At Pizza Pass, another favorite, the player must figure out which toppings (cheese, mushrooms, peppers, pepperoni, and/or sausage) Arno the troll wants on his pizza. Arno gives feedback about which pizzas he likes and dislikes, but there are a limited number of tries in which to figure out his logical rule for "the perfect pizza."

Each puzzle in Zoombinis is introduced by a narrative screen (which can be clicked through) which gives you some hint about the upcoming puzzle. A small oval of light also appears when a Zoombini is moved over the spot where it is to be placed. Other than that, it is up to the player to investigate the screen and figure out what is being asked and how s/he might go about getting all the Zoombinis safely through. Although this can be somewhat disconcerting to those who are used to games with few (if any) unknowns, the quality and quantity of the feedback given by the game is extremely helpful. There is also a Help Button that gives written advice (but not answers) to the Zoombinis' guides (for example, "The Allergic Cliffs play by certain rules. What one cliff accepts, the other is allergic to. Look for one feature, such as a red nose, that does not cause an allergic reaction.").

Is the Game Equitable?

There are many ways for children of all kinds to become involved in and excited about Zoombinis. Some children love designing the characters and become very invested in the narrative of shepherding and protecting those characters. Others are immediately drawn into the challenge of making sense of the puzzles. Because puzzles can be solved in many different ways, using a variety of strategies, Zoombinis also welcomes different types of thinkers and learners.

Zoombini puzzles have four levels, from "not so easy" to "very very hard." As players experience success with sets of three puzzles, they are bumped up to a more challenging level of difficulty. Not only does this keep children engaged with the game by providing an appropriate level of challenge, it allows for different levels in different portions of the game -- at a more challenging level on the first leg, and easier level on the third.

Another positive in terms of the equity of this game is that there are many layers of goals to work towards -- from getting as many Zoombinis as possible through one puzzle to getting all 625 possible Zoombinis to Zoombiniville. Because you can make partial progress, getting only some Zoombinis through each puzzle, the game accommodates both extremes and everything in between. It is easy to feel successful, and to communicate about your progress in the game -- for example, "I saved almost half the Zoombinis this time," "I've gotten to (or mastered) a particular puzzle," "I'm on a particular level," or "I've gotten X Zoombinis to Zoombiniville."

There are 625 possible Zoombinis, as well as a large cast of supporting characters (represented in a gender-fair manner) who populate and mediate the puzzles in Logical Journey of the Zoombinis. Also of importance is the fact that players design each Zoombini they are to bring on the journey using their own preferences (although players can also click on a die to randomly generate Zoombinis). (Research suggests that games with strong narratives and multiple characters are appealing to girls, as is software with design activities.) We have seen this lead to a rich and imaginative interaction with the game and its story and characters, from children of both genders. For example, Zoombinis are called girls and boys, babies, dudes, geeks and dorks; kids have favorite Zoombinis, ones they particularly want to save from being sneezed by a bridge or bonked by a pizza troll. Players also plead with, imitate, and respond to the characters who mediate the puzzles -- scolding them for rebuffing Zoombinis, or establishing imaginative relationships among them like king, queen, son, daughter, and grampy. Finally, this game can be played with another person, another characteristic that research suggests makes a game more attractive to girls.

There is a level of slapstick violence in Zoombinis that one should consider before buying this game. Although Zoombinis never die, Zoombinis who cannot go across the bridge or on a particular path or in a room at the hotel are blown back or dropped with a thud. The Fleens chase Zoombinis around a tree, the Boatman sends them flying into the water, and Arno the pizza troll bonks them back to Zoombini Isle to wait for the next group of travelers. Many of the children we observed playing this game cared a great deal about their Zoombinis and wanted to protect them from these acts, but were not frightened or turned off by them. In fact, protecting Zoombinis successfully prompts many players to develop more and more efficient strategies.

Is the Game a Good Game?

Many of the characteristics noted above make this game particularly engaging for children: a strong and interesting narrative that is linked to an overarching game goal, many ways to make and communicate progress, useful feedback and a help button, and a level of difficulty that adjusts with success with the game. in addition, the game is characterized by beautiful graphics and illustrations, and interesting sound (music, directions, Zoombini "talk") that can be turned off.

One small interface issue we noted involved the campsites or rest areas. These are safe havens for Zoombinis, particularly small groups that have been sent back after an unsuccessful attempt with a puzzle. If you arrive with less than 16 Zoombinis, you need to return to Zoombini Isle to recruit some more -- you can only leave a campsite with a complete band of 16. Without the manual, this can be tricky for some players to figure out, and therefore frustrating.

The children we observed playing this game were clearly engaged with and invested in it. In one study children in grades 3 to 5 played twice a week for a month, for up to two hours a session. In another study in which eight games were freely available, Zoombinis ranked third in the number of times and in the total amount of time it was played for both girls and boys. When asked to rank order all eight games, Zoombinis came out top for the girls, third for the boys, and third overall.

Because of the reasons (and the evidence) cited above, children are willing to invest much time, thought, and effort in this game. Because there is always a new puzzle to be solved even if you know the more global rule of the puzzle, because there are many layers of goals and ways to make and communicate about progress, because there are many Zoombinis to be saved and harder levels to investigate, Zoombinis is to be an easy game for children to invest and reinvest in.

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