Zoombinis: Teaching Kids Anti-Imperialist Values through Video Games

Though they all looked slightly different – different eyes, noses, hair, feet – such differences meant nothing to the Zoombinis. [They] had a sense of fulfilment and inner peace, not to mention healthy bank accounts. Then one day, [the] Bloats offered to help the Zoombinis grow their businesses, expand their trade routes and improve their quality of life […]. But before long, the Bloats had taken over everything. Stealing profits, cancelling holidays, piling on work. The Zoombinis were getting pretty stressed out. […] So they decided to escape and build a new home in a distant land.

Broderbund and TERC (1996). Logical Journey of the Zoombinis [Computer game].

This is a reduced version of the opening sequence to Broderbund and TERC’s 1996 educational puzzle game, Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (if interested, you can watch the full opening sequence here).

A still from the original title credits (source)

I was born just two months after the game’s original release and, growing up, it was a staple in my home. Even now, its influence persists. David Guo’s 8-bit cover of the title song features on my instrumental playlist, and my mum even occasionally refers to me by the nickname “my little Zoombini”.

The reason I want to talk about this game is not because it was a favourite of mine, but because I want to acknowledge its lessons and themes. Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a game where the player guides an entire population from their colonised homeland to a new, safer place where they can live freely. For a long time (throughout all my education really), the concept of imperialism seemed distant and archaic, and it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I began to acknowledge how recent the downfall of the British Empire really was, or how its impact is still felt today. I want to pay the game credit where credit is due.

Before I dive into an analysis of the game and its impact, here’s a bit about me and my upbringing (and don’t worry – if you’re not interested, this section is entirely optional. Feel free to skip to the section on gameplay!). It should also be noted that, as I am British, this blogpost has a focus on the merits of this game from the perspective of a British consumer.

Growing up

When I was in Year 3, my Pakistani friend had a growth spurt. During a sleepover, her mother gifted me one of her daughter’s traditional dresses. It was green and gold and beautiful, and I remember changing into it at once.

At the time, I knew nothing of our countries’ difficult history, of the atrocities Britain inflicted on “British India” when it was part of the British Empire, of the 1943 Bengal famine (caused by Churchill diverting essential supplies from the citizens of Bengal to Europeans), of the terribly organised Partition of India, where Britain, armed with a pair of pinking shears, carved British India into India and Pakistan in just 40 days, leading to riots and mass migrations as Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, and Muslims fled to Pakistan. 15 million people were displaced and 1 million died during the transition (source). All this happened when my British grandparents and her Pakistani grandparents were children.

Of course, I was only 7, but I was ignorant of these facts for many years to come. And how strange I must have looked, a British girl twirling in the kitchen of a Pakistani family, in a Pakistani dress, totally and utterly ignorant of the peculiar picture. I can’t help but wonder what I looked like to my friend’s mum. Was I simply one of her daughter’s friends, delighting in a pretty dress? Or did she hope this act of kindness would prompt me to later learn about our countries’ relationship?

I did learn about our countries’ relationship, but not until after graduation. At school, I was taught about World War II and its aftermath but nothing was ever said about India, and Britain was only ever presented to me as a triumphant country that quashed evil. Despite the fact I attended international schools my whole life, amongst friends from all over the world, imperialism was not part of our curriculum.

I cannot blame the school system entirely, however, and I accept responsibility for not seeking out truths sooner; for not being interested sooner. I am sorry for my own part in my own ignorance.

This fact remains however: throughout my education, I did not read a single book or watch a single film in or outside of school that dealt with imperialism.

But then… there was Logical Journey of the Zoombinis...

Gameplay and its effect on the player

It should be noted that although I will largely be talking about the original 1996 release, the screenshots in this blogpost come from the 2015 remake (source)

The gist of the game is this: the Zoombinis were once living peacefully, but then they were conquered by the Bloats, who took over their land and forced them into hard labour. The player’s job is to guide each and every Zoombini from their homeland, across perilous terrain and through minigames, until they reach a new land where they can live in peace. Zoombinis travel in groups of up to 16, and the player must go back to their homeland after each successful mission to gather more Zoombinis to shepherd across the map. And each time you return, the game gets a little bit harder.

Framed around puzzle solving, I find that at its core it is a game about overcoming and escaping oppression, and of achieving cultural freedom. This is because these themes are displayed not only in the backstory, but appear in every single puzzle. Let’s examine a few.

The very first puzzle, “Allergic Cliffs”, wastes no time in establishing these themes. The Zoombinis must cross a gorge using one of two bridges above a couple of sentient cliffs. These “cliffs are allergic to certain types of Zoombini features (i.e. hair, eyes, noses, or feet)” (source) and the player must, through trial and error, discern what feature(s) each cliff is “allergic” to. If the player’s guess is wrong, and they send a Zoombini across the wrong bridge, the corresponding cliff will sneeze, releasing one of the pegs holding the bridges up. If all pegs come loose, the bridges will fall, and no more Zoombinis will be able to cross the gorge.

A Zoombini successfully crosses the Allergic Cliffs

The second puzzle, “Stone Cold Caves”, involves four paths leading to four caverns which are guarded by stone golems who “regulate the rules to which Zoombinis are allowed” in their corresponding cavern (source). Similar to the first puzzle, these rules are dependent on the Zoombinis’ physical traits. “When a Zoombini attempts to take the wrong way, the stone guard jumps into the air and lands heavily, sending a shockwave through the cobblestone pathway and knocking the Zoombini all the way back down. Enough of these shockwaves will eventually cause […] large stones to fall, […] blocking each pathway and signalling that no more Zoombinis are able to pass” (source).

The Stone Cold Caves

At every turn, the Zoombinis are forced to conform to a new set of standards. There is no rhyme or reason for this, and every time you replay a puzzle, the unwanted feature is different. This theme continues throughout the game: in another puzzle, the Zoombinis must sit on a boat in order of hair type, or nose colour, like some segregated bus from pre-civil rights movement USA.

There are a couple minigames where the shift focuses slightly. For example, in “Titanic Tattoed Toads”, the Zoombinis enlist the help of some toads to help them cross a river of lily pads. For once, the toads do not seem to be prejudiced towards the Zoombinis, however they are “extremely particular about the paths [across the lilies] they take [and] only follow paths that correspond with the tattoos on their back” (source). For example, a toad with a red stripe will only cross over red lilies. A toad with a crescent-shaped tattoo will only cross over lilies that are also in the shape of a crescent.

Titanic Tattooed Toads

This minigame does flip the rules on its head, but only slightly. Although the toads are not particular about Zoombinis, they are still particular, and the minigame is still very much within the theme of prejudice.

As we can see, every task is about fitting or blending in, keeping to an arbitrary standard. The effect on the player is one of frustration. As the player arranges the Zoombinis in new orders, with the aim of discovering what feature a stone cliff is “allergic” to versus what features each stone guard dislikes, exasperation towards those who hold the power increases, and sympathy towards the Zoombinis rises.

Some of the NPCs (non-playable characters) talk, and when they do, it is usually at the Zoombinis’ expense. The best example is probably the talkative stone guards in “Stone Cold Caves” (source).

Here is what the guards might say when you first enter their cave:

  • “God… it’s blue!”
  • “The flood gates are opened, it seems.”
  • “Strange looking bunch!”
  • “We’ve got visitors. Do we let ’em in?”

Here are some of the phrases they spit at you if you send a Zoombini up the wrong path:

  • “I must be careful about who I let in.”
  • “I can’t let you in.”
  • “Not all doors are open to you.”
  • “We must be selective about our clientele.”
  • “Read my lips… not you! (BLOWS RASPBERRY)”

When you do succeed and choose the right path, sometimes the stone guard will offer a compliment to the Zoombini (“Enjoy yourself”, “Go ahead, go ahead”, “Step in”), though sometimes the “compliment” is insincere or condescending (“You’ll do”, “Well you’re okay…”). Sometimes the accepted Zoombini will not even be granted this much, and instead the stone guard will simply emit a “Hmph!”, showing that they are willing to let the Zoombini in, but they aren’t happy about it.

The Zoombinis are seen by all as wrong, as misfits. There are only three occasions throughout the game where the Zoombinis do not align themselves according to another race’s rules: (1) when they are ready to board a boat to escape Zoombini Isle; (2) when they arrive at a campsite (where the player is free to arrange Zoombinis in any order); and (3) when they reach their new safe haven, Zoombiniville.

One of the game’s campsites, where Zoombinis rest and regroup (and the player is able to save their progress). As you can see, the Zoombinis can rest in any order they like.

It is therefore clear that the Zoombinis have no desire to separate themselves based on physical traits; they see each other as equals. Let me recall part of the opening credits:

Though they all looked slightly different – different eyes, noses, hair, feet – such differences meant nothing to the Zoombinis.

Broderbund and TERC (1996). Logical Journey of the Zoombinis [Computer game].

They only arrange themselves purposefully when they are forced to conform to another species’ standards, in order to pass through a dangerous area or to receive shelter and compassion. As soon as they are alone with each other, they drop all of these pretences.

All this tugs at the player’s heart strings. They are the ones directing the Zoombinis to freedom, and when the stone guards are throwing insults at the Zoombinis, it feels like they are insulting the player. We are put in the shoes (or rollerblades) of the oppressed. This not only gives the player a drive to triumph over those in power, to show that they are capable of beating the puzzle, but also allows the player to see life from the Zoombinis’ perspective.

Impact: historical amnesia and teaching kids about the British Empire

As stated previously, Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is the only piece of media that I engaged with during my childhood that made me think of freedom in the face of colonialism. I am not arguing that 7-year-olds are old enough to learn about the Partition of India and other failures of the British Empire, but I am suggesting that children should learn about these subjects in school at some point, and not as an option at A level, when most children will have dropped History as a subject altogether.

Our world is growing more and more diverse, and it is inconceivable to think that any child today with an internet connection isn’t interacting with people from all around the world. As such, I believe we should be more aware of our interlinked histories, especially the events and generational trauma that still affect people today. Because “people in Ireland or other countries can spend years learning about centuries of violent oppression [at the hand of the British], only to come here and discover nobody remembers any of it” (source). I find this embarrassing to say the least, and disrespectful. As politician, writer and former UN diplomat Dr Shashi Tharoor put in his 2015 Oxford Union speech:

The fact remains that many of today’s problems in these countries, including the persistence [and] in some cases the creation of racial and ethnic and religious tensions were the direct result of the colonial experience. So there is a moral debt that needs to be paid.

OxfordUnion (2015). Dr Shashi Tharoor MP – Britain Does Owe Reparations. YouTube.

My main point is this: historical amnesia scares me. It disappoints me greatly that a 2014 YouGov poll found that 59% of the British public believe that the British Empire is “something to be proud of” (source). If we learnt in school about the Empire critically, I believe this statistic would plummet. But instead of being made aware of Britain’s horrors, we are not taught about the Empire at all, leading to rampant British exceptionalism (“the idea that Britain is inherently different from, and superior to, other nations and empires” (source)). I worry about mistakes being repeated, of Britain continuing to refuse to acknowledge its mistakes with Suez, with the Partition of India, the Great Famine, etc.

And I believe this change needs to start in schools. Dr Tharoor said in a Channel 4 News interview:

[…] there is so much historical amnesia about what the Empire really entailed. The fact [is that the British] don’t really teach colonial history in […] schools. Children doing A levels in History don’t learn a line of colonial history. There’s no real awareness of the atrocities.

Channel 4 News (2017). Shashi Tharoor Interview: How British Colonialism ‘destroyed’ India. YouTube.

What about the game’s creators?

Creator Scot Osterweil (source)

Setting all this aside for a moment, we must remember that Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is an American game that came from American minds, so it is unlikely that the creators were trying to tell a story specifically about a people fleeing the British Empire. I have tried to find interviews with the game’s creators, but there are not many and most of them talk exclusively about the educational merits of the game in terms of teaching children problem-solving skills rather than the game’s social and political values. Creator Scot Osterweil has suggested that the game is simply about children being forced to conform to the arbitrary rules and whims of dominating adults. However, he also said:

The kids shouldn’t have to sort themselves by feature – they don’t believe in that. But the world is full of these big people who tell them to sort.

Greg Toppo (2021). The long, strange journey of ‘Zoombinis’. USA Today.

So perhaps an underlining anti-oppression message is there. Similarly, TERC, the game’s developer, states on their website that “TERC has a passion for social justice and strives to create level playing fields for all learners” (source). One could therefore expect or at least hope that they choose to carry games that offer not only educational skills but that also express social values that align with their beliefs.

All this being said, I don’t think the lack of solid proof that the creators set out to create an anti-imperialist game necessarily matters. Even if the creators never intended to make a game about social justice, nothing exists in a vacuum, and each player will read something different into the game. I experienced the game as a Brit, so in spite of the fact the game never uses the words “imperialism”, “colonialism” or “empire”, I have found that over time, it is impossible for me to separate the game’s mathematical/logical gameplay from the social lessons about my own country that I gained from it.

Perhaps the game’s lack of direct focus actually opens it up to more marginalised groups. For example, the LGBTQ+ player may see themselves in the Zoombinis, as they too are forced into moulds that don’t correlate with their identity. So might the autistic player, the mixed race player. The list goes on. But no matter how you interpret the game, it is hard to separate the gameplay from the underlying warnings of societal injustice.

The future of the Zoombinis

It was with enormous happiness that I found that in 2015, a remake of Logical Journey of the Zoombinis (now simply titled Zoombinis) was launched on Steam (a video game digital distribution service). The remake preserves the same puzzles, characters and even the voice acting, and has simply had an art and graphics update. As it seems that children are not learning anti-imperialist values in history classes, I am so happy to know that they could at least be introduced to them via games such as this one.

Even more extraordinarily, through TERC (the game’s developer; a non-profit research and development organisation), the game is actually available for classrooms. The focus of using the game in class is of course mathematical. According to TERC, “Playing Zoombinis teaches and reinforces valuable life skills, including problem decomposition, patterns and prediction, data representation, algorithm design, and more” (source). Similarly, on Common Sense Education (a platform where educators can rate tools such as Zoombinis), the game is said to “Promote powerful thinking skills, resilience, and decision-making through purely fun gameplay that will keep students begging for more” (source).

It is therefore clear that the aim of Zoombinis in a classroom setting is not to teach the social aspect but the problem-solving one, but as I’ve said, I have found myself unable to separate the two, and my hope is that students finding the game today (either in or out of school) will feel the same.

Conclusion

Some citizens hanging about in the newly formed, peaceful Zoombiniville

I hope that Zoombinis will continue to inspire future generations of young learners from all around the world and prompt them to learn about their country’s history, no matter where they are from, as there isn’t a country on Earth that has not been touched by imperialism in some way. Even if this is not the purpose of the game, this can still be part of the end result.

I think those who don’t play video games can sometimes underestimate their impact and lasting effects. Our world is growing more and more connected, and the sympathetic lessons taught by Zoombinis is something I treasure and am grateful for. I believe there is a direct link between my love for the game as a child and my social values today. And as I was not receiving any education on this in school, I am so grateful that at least I had this game to guide me. I hope that more games will follow in its footsteps, and introduce children to these topics directly and candidly. Perhaps in games where the oppressed actually triumph over their oppressors instead of fleeing.

The bottom line is this: I shouldn’t have to step outside the classroom to learn about my own country’s history when it relates to topics that affect the world today. If I had been taught in school about imperialism, of my country’s role in colonialism, maybe I would have understood the full extent of my Pakistani friend’s generosity from a much younger age. And if Britain is to move forward, especially in a post-Brexit world, we need a more rounded view of the past so that we don’t repeat our mistakes.

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