In 1997, I made a new best friend.
He was the son of an incredibly famous person, but I didn’t know this at the time. I actually remember my parents being rather shocked when they met his mother—as I learned much later, she’d been all over the news for reasons related to Bill Clinton’s government appointments. For some reason, they moved to my area just before September 1997, and now her son was in my school. Let’s call him Ricardo. He was in my third-grade class for a single year.
Ricardo was absurdly charismatic. He had twelve kinds of Napoleonic complexes, claimed to have read Hamlet, and showed off his family’s wealth with a shameless, mesmerizing kind of pride. He spent nearly every Reading Hour arguing with the teacher about whether or not he was permitted to spend the period reading the dictionary. He started a club “about Egypt.” He started another one “about Rome.” He got half our entire grade to sign the membership lists. He wore little polo shirts instead of t-shirts or turtlenecks. Despite not being Hispanic, he had a haircut like a novela actor, and he pulled it off. For whatever reason, we all thought he was awesome.
And he wanted to be my best friend. See, we both played the same computer games: we were absolutely hooked on edu-games made by The Learning Company. There was Treasure Mountain, Treasure Cove, Treasure Mathstorm and Treasure Galaxy, all math games; then there was Reading Rabbit and its bland successors. Additionally, we loved Broderbund’s The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, a logic game he and I both begged our parents to buy out of that year’s book fair catalog. We were obsessed. We’d go over to each other’s houses and sit for hours to watch each other play. We solved math problems together. We discussed secrets and strategies. He had a computer of his own, and it was in his room. He was the smartest and luckiest kid I knew. But he was new in school, and his friendships were all nervous alliances of awe and mistrust, and I was pretty awkward and lonely myself. So I guess we were good for each other.
There’s one day in particular from that year that I still remember. I arrived at his house sometime in the early morning; we ran upstairs to his bedroom, where he still had Zoombinis running from the night before. I plopped down in the chair next to his and was rather horrified by what I saw happening on the screen.
“What have you done?” I asked.
Ricardo settled down in the rolling office-chair his parents have given him, crossed his legs on the seat, and gave me a look. “I haven’t done anything,” he said.
“But you have two of each Zoombini,” I said.
The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis is a selection of logic puzzles which focus on pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, and deductive reasoning skills. The chief elements of each puzzle are the Zoombinis themselves—little blue fellows, a bit like punk-rock Mr. Potato Heads, each with a different arrangement of facial features, nose colors, hairstyles and limbs. Many of the puzzles involve arranging the Zoombinis in series or matrixes according to which facial features they have in common. Failure usually results in one or two Zoombinis getting left behind. Run out of Zoombinis, and you fail.
You’ll have to work quickly to get them through the puzzles and out of harm’s way: as players progress through the difficulty levels, not only do the puzzles get harder, but they begin to incorporate timers, penalties, and three-strikes-you’re out mechanics. I remember feeling the difficulty level increase, as if the air around me were filling with smoke, or some frantic kind of fear-gas. As a kid, I felt these logic puzzles viscerally. I began as a logic-starved whelp : by the time I began to tackle the highest difficulty levels, I could tell that I had grown mentally. I’m pretty sure that my brain was actually altered by this game.
The genius thing about it was that your own choices—the Zoombinis you designed for your team at the start of each play session—were one of the primary sources of difficulty. The more diverse you made them as a group, the tougher it got to solve some of the puzzles, particularly the ones that required you to arrange them by shared elements. You’re not supposed to have two of each Zoombini. You’re supposed to be battling against the clock with a crowd of misfits. Against all odds, even self-imposed ones, you’re shepherding them across this puzzle-studded wilderness to safety at the end of the overworld map. The final destination is Zoombinivile, and the Zoombinis, in fact, are refugees. The plot is: you’re rescuing these refugee Mr. Potato Heads from a dark and stormy prison-island with the righteous power of pure logic. It’s glorious.
So, having two of each Zoombini is cheating, I thought. Unquestionably. I could feel in my bones that it was a shortcut, an unfair advantage, and an unforgivable sin. Having two of each Zoombini makes each puzzle twice as easy.
I could not express my horror. Ricardo just smirked. “You know, if you double-click on the ‘make Zoombini’ button when you’re designing them at the start of the map, you make each Zoombini twice,” he said. “You get two of each instead of only one.”
“But that’s cheating!” I exclaimed.
“No, it isn’t. Why does the game let you do it if it’s cheating?”
He had a good point, but my world was falling apart. We argued for a long time about what constituted a ‘fair’ game of Zoombinis. “You have to follow the spirit of the law, not the letter,” I proclaimed. It was a garbled version of a phrase I’d just learned from my father, and I thought it sounded dramatic.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ricardo told me.
I suppose it makes a kind of symbolic, cosmic justice that the first gamer friend of mine to play a game with shrewdness and corner-cutting slyness, the first of my friends to take confident possession of an exploit, was Ricardo, the son of United States politicians. But that’s a trite and useless observation for me to make, really, and I feel kind of stupid making it. Ricardo didn’t teach me how to cheat; he taught me how to think about games. He taught me when to take my head out of the game-world and look at it from the outside. He taught me when to mess with the system and when to play by its rules. Before our argument about Zoombinis, I’d regarded games as rigorous but entertaining exercises passed down to me from some higher power, totally immune to my criticism or critical thinking: I’d perform the required actions and receive fun, like a hamster in a laboratory cage. After my Zoombinis revelation, I began to look at my games with suspicion. I began prodding at them, manipulating them instead of letting myself be manipulated by them.
At the end of the day, I went home and started up my own copy of the game. I started a new game session, beginning at the Zoombinis’ home base. As I put a new team of them together, my sister ran up to watch.
“How do you do that?” she gasped.
“Do what?” I asked.
But I already knew what she was going to ask. “How do you have two of each Zoombini?”
I shrugged like it was nothing. “You double-click the ‘Make Zoombinis’ button each time you make one. It makes two instead of one.”
“Oh.” She stood there for a while, watching as I assembled a team of lifeless clones. “Doesn’t it make the game too easy?” she asked. “Are you still, like, doing logic?”
I was still doing logic, yeah. Just… a different kind of logic.