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Zoombinis: Educational Game Review

Education World is überexcited about TERC’s relaunch of the Logical Journey of the Zoombinis for tablets.  This logic and problem-solving thinker has challenged the minds of youth for nearly two decades.  But how does the relaunch hold up in the 21st century classroom?  Today, Education World takes an in-depth look at the Zoombinis game and its potential in the modern-day educator’s toolbox.

Game Aesthetics

If you’ve never played a Zoombinis game before, the first thing you’ll note is its charming atmosphere.  Seasoned Zoombinis gamers will be happy to hear that our magic and melodiously encouraging narrator has not been forgotten in the reboot!  As the gentle whisper of an ominous flute echoes across the room, you are introduced to the regretful story of the Zoombini’s trusting nature when encountering the greedy and exploitative Bloats. Gamers will be instantly sympathetic with our protagonists and engaged in their journey to freedom.  The storyline strikes something deep in our human psyche:  a desire to let our talents shine while rising above those that wish to selfishly take advantage of us for monetary gain. 

This game was destined for the high-definition tablet touchscreen.  The new version has taken the mythical environments of the original and upgraded it for modern audiences.  Past players will see their favorite scenes and characters crystallized into gorgeous portraits.  New players will be instantly submerged into these magical worlds, from the rustic Pizza Pass to the striking Lion’s Lair and the techno grid of the Bubblewonder Abyss.  TERC’s done a phenomenal job at making this game aesthetically pleasing for the discerning contemporary gamer.

Gameplay

The Zoombinis gameplay seems simple enough:  Get your little blue creatures to Zoombiniton – their home away from the bothersome Bloats.  Don’t let this premise deceive you.  From picky passageway guardians to complicated methods of transportation, you must use your wits to figure out – through process of elimination and other problem solving strategies – the correct patterns and set of choices that will allow your characters to move to the next stage.  The game is a series of trial-and-error challenges that require attention to detail and thoughtful reflection. Each stage increases in difficulty, and the entire game can be set from “not so easy” to “very, very hard” at the game’s homescreen.

At the Allergic Cliffs, you are faced with two separate wooden bridges across a deep chasm – each guarded by faces in the rock. Unfortunately, these sedimentary overseers are allergic to particular characteristics of the Zoombinis.  One might be allergic to glasses; the other to green hair.  One might be allergic to sneakers; the other ponytails.  If you send the wrong Zoombini over the bridge, you’ll be greeted with a canyon-rocking sneeze that will both send your Zoombini back across and loosen the bridge’s stabilizers.  You must quickly figure out which face is allergic to which characteristics to get your adventurers safely across the rift.

At Pizza Pass, you’ll meet a number (depending on the difficulty level you’ve set) of finicky tree stump characters that will only allow you to proceed after fixing them the perfect pizza with their pizza maker.  Cantankerous as they are, they refuse to tell you specifically what they would prefer on their pizza, but they are darn sure to tell you when it’s not good enough!  Paying close attention to their feedback and subtle clues, users will need to play with a number of  topping variables to please their whiny hosts.  With an increased difficulty setting, you will have to deal with more variables.

Our colorful narrator and intriguing characters explain each stage’s objective, giving gamers just enough information to start building their strategies.  The “help” option at the lower-righthand corner of the screen allows users to check in on that objective and the map icon lets them track their progression through the game.  The touchscreen format of this new reboot is perfect for moving Zoombinis from one place to another and allows for some truly intuitive gaming.  For the particularly curious mind, there are also a number of easter eggs built into the new game, sure to make you chuckle.

Classroom Applications

For many educators, bringing games into the classroom can seem scary:  Is it aligned to the standards?  How can I assess gameplay?  How do I integrate something like Zoombinis into a lesson plan?  Education World asked these questions to Dr. Jodi Asbell-Clarke, Director of the Educational Gaming Environment (EdGE) group at TERC:

Zoombinis aligns directly with the standards from the Computer Science Teachers Association for computational thinking. This includes concept and skills such as decomposing a problem to reduce its ambiguity and then building general solutions from that problem-solving. This type of learning helps prepare for algorithm development. In addition, in each Zoombini puzzle this type of problem-solving is underlaid with math and computational thinking concepts such logical sequencing, alternative representations of data, and Cartesian coordinates.”

A natural fit for math and sciences, this game could be used anywhere from a quick classroom opener to a more involved unit on problem-solving.  Imagine having students working in small groups to practice the scientific method.  As a group, they approach the challenge before them and develop their question:  “How do we get across?”  From there, they could research the particulars of that stage’s puzzle, develop a hypothesis, test their hypothesis with the active gameplay’s experiment, and write up their results in a formal or informal lab report.  Perhaps the best part of this game as it relates to the modern math and science classroom is that success relies on failure!  Students need to be open to observing consequences and developing new strategies to attack each challenge.  Reflection and revision and “try, trying again” is exactly what the Zoombinis are all about.

Whether students are working in groups or individually, the game naturally lends itself to differentiation in the classroom.  Not only are you hitting upon a variety of different intelligences and capitalizing on interest value by putting tablets in their hands, the game allows students (or educators) to choose their own level of difficulty.  This means that all students can engage in the same activity with the same general objectives, working on the same deductive reasoning skills, at the same time.  With screen-capturing technology, students could also submit videos of their gameplay along with their written reflections for assessment, allowing students a variety of ways to present their learning!

Educators should also know that use of this game in the classroom will help to facilitate new pedagogical understandings of how kids learn. Dr. Asbell-Clarke mentions that “EdGE will also be working with teachers who are using Zoombinis in the classroom to understand (and build) the types of tools and resources teachers need to make the most of Zoombinis in classrooms. We are currently proposing for additional funds to observe the interactions that happen between teachers and among students in classrooms as they play the game, because we know that keys to game-based learning happen outside the game too.”

Conclusion

TERC has made a great call, putting this classic game into the hands to today’s students.  It is exactly the direction education seems to be moving:  interactive, technology-integrative, logic-based, thoughtful action and reflection.  Zoombinis is sure to once again capture the hearts and minds of a new generation of students, from elementary to high school.  Its adaptability and versatility as a teaching tool allows students to activate multiple 21st century skills while still accessing state standards and expectations.  We’re looking forward to seeing more of these sorts of academically-aligned strategy-based games released for the classroom, as we move confidently toward the future of educational best practices.

To download the app for iOS or Android, CLICK HERE.

TERC has supplied teachers with accompanying educational materials for the game HERE.  But if you have any new thoughts or creative ideas on how to best integrate the Zoombinis into the classroom, share them in the comments below!

Review by Keith Lambert, Education World Contributor.

Lambert is a certified English Language Arts teacher and teacher trainer in Connecticut.

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