Logical Journey

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.

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21 Comments

  1. I’m sure I’ve had similar moments of reluctant trangression in my gaming history, although nothing comes to mind. I was brought up on 80s games that had a natural sense of fuzziness imposed by the nature of programming and platforms back then. This requires a whole lot of words to explain what I mean in detail – so I’m going to drop that for now.

    What I wanted to say is that this sounded like the day you transformed into a game critic. Or maybe it was just the end of your childhood innocence =)

    Reply
  2. Shnissugah

     /  May 26, 2010

    So I’ve been plagued with the question: “Is cheating in digital games really a simple breaking of the rules, as it is in analog (non-digital, i.e. board and card) games?” If cheating is simply “breaking the rules,” then as Ricardo pointed out, anything that can be done in a game (short of actually changing the files) is not actually cheating. This would mean our traditional interpretation of using “cheat codes” in Starcraft and AOE, for example, is not actually cheating, since they were pointedly included in the game. By this definition even things that were mistakenly part of the game (such as the Zoombini exploit) wouldn’t be considered cheating.

    I’m more inclined, however, to define cheating in ALL games (analog and digital) as a breaking of a social code, which the rules are often a subset of.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  May 26, 2010

      Yeah, it’s ambiguous: taken on a level of the “actual encoded rules,” anything you can acheive in a game without outside interference should be ‘not a cheat,’ which seems analytically unhelpful since we DO perceive some kinds of game actions as cheating even though they’re naturally achieved within the digital game itself.

      This is the kind of question that that sociologist who got all snippy about his paper on that Garrysmod post of mine would probably have something to say about. I’m pretty sure he’s a hardcore ludologist (I read his blog to try and find out) and based on that and what he said to us about his research, I’m pretty sure he would say that nothing I could possibly have done in Zoombinis was a cheat, since all of it was possible in the game world. He doesn’t think game communities are really valid for ludic analysis. Which I think is dumb, since player social interactions have been part of games since the dawn of time, and are really all that keeps a game TOGETHER.

      So I think you’re right about the social code thing.

      Reply
    • It is an odd distinction. I remember when I was a kid I played an odd RTS game called Baldies, and discovered at some point that you could press F8 in it to make a million baldies spawn under your mouse cursor at any time. At that point in my life I had no idea what a cheat code was, and since I never read the instructions and just tried to figure out what buttons did by pressing all of them, I assumed that this was an officially sanctioned part of the game controls. I remember spending hours trying to figure out what the point of this odd game where you just filled the screen with infinite little dudes was. After a while, my siblings and I decided to set a “no-F8″ house rule for the game to add challenge, inadvertently stumbling back onto the original design.

      Reply
      • Shnissugah

         /  May 26, 2010

        These kind of house rules (such as the no-F8 rule) are some of the strongest points I have to show that cheating is more than just breaking the rules: it’s breaking the social code. If someone came over to your house to play this game and used F8, or played with you and your siblings, they would have been cheating. Whereas if they played somewhere else it might not have been. An interesting part is that this also goes the other way. House rules can subtract rules, allowing players playing in one game (usually analog) to do something that in other circles would be against the written rules. This is why I claim that the written rules are often only a subset of societal rules.

      • Shnissugah

         /  May 26, 2010

        These kind of house rules (such as the no-F8 rule) are some of the strongest points I have to show that cheating is more than just breaking the rules: it’s breaking the social code. If someone came over to your house to play this game and used F8, or played with you and your siblings, they would have been cheating. Whereas if they played somewhere else it might not have been. An interesting part is that this also goes the other way. House rules can subtract rules, allowing players playing in one game (usually analog) to do something that in other circles would be against the written rules. This is why I claim that the written rules are only OFTEN a subset of societal rules and not always.

        If I had more time I’d also talk a little bit about “original design’s” relation to cheating.

      • Shnissugah/Laura – what if you play alone, without social context? Can playing the game your own way still be considered a breach of a social code?

      • This is actually reminiscent of certain types of Super Smash Bros players being against the use of any items at all.

        I actually had a friend who only liked Power Stone 2 levels that didn’t shift around and change too much.

  3. It was an effort not to squeal with joy when I saw that first screenshot; suffice it to say I remember this game. I grew up with this game. I remember getting sneezed on by cliffs, I remember a stereotypically Italian troll demanding “make-a me a pizza!” I remember being terrified by a big stone lion that I thought was going to eat my Zoombinis–

    Ahem.

    It’s hard to make generalizations about how people will deal with being given an easy way out, but I can see a pretty obvious trend in my own experience. Most of my gaming time growing up (aside from what I spent with the Zoombinis) was pretty much dominated by a variety of RTSes, all of which had a full complement of cheat codes. The developers included them deliberately, and I wasn’t cheating against other human players, so I considered it a perfectly legitimate strategy, but it eventually got to the point where I couldn’t get thirty seconds into a game before chickening out and putting on god mode. That continued for years until I picked up a Command & Conquer game that didn’t have any cheats…at which point I gave up on RTSes altogether.

    I only recently brushed off my Starcraft discs to see if I could get through the game legitimately. As it turns out I suck horribly (especially given my years of “experience”), but I’ve improved more in the past few months than I think I ever did the first time around. That probably sounds like a heavy-handed moral or something; it’s not meant to be. I just wanted to demonstrate that, for some people, including the mere option to cheat will fundamentally alter the game experience.

    Reply
    • What you said about Starcraft reminded me of how I beat Devil May Cry 1 the first time. The Special Edition of the 3rd game allowed infinite continues at checkpoints, but the non-SE and the original DMC would only let you continue if you used a specific uncommon item. Coming to 1 after 3SE, I was pretty upset and I cheated for 999 yellow orbs to continue with. I believe I ended up using around 100 continues to finally beat the game. While the credits rolled, I wondered how on Earth I’d have ever won without them.

      Then I tried again later with limited continues and I got astronomically better. I figured out how to defeat enemies faster and faster, relying less on luck. I got better about knowing when bosses were about to attack and ended up dying less. Plus, not using continues led to getting higher ranks and more upgrade orbs, so it actually ended up being easier.

      So in essence, I think it’s good to trust the designers’ intentions first and keep trying until you can be sure that either you can’t handle it but want to keep playing, or the game is really less fun without a specific exploit.

      Reply
  4. Shnissugah

     /  May 26, 2010

    Harbour Master: I was waiting for this. My belief is that one of the reasons we play games (obviously not the ONLY reason) is for a kind of implicit competition. What I mean is this: have you ever talked about your triumphs or discussed builds of characters in a single player game with your friends? I know I have, and I think this is more than just bragging. I consider it a type of competition: my build of Morrigan in Dragon Age is really effective, how about yours? Although we will likely never be able to actually pit our builds against each other, we are still competing. I think that we try to excel in single-player games for more than just progressing in the storyline; we try to excel to believe we are better at it than our neighbors, than our friends. In short, we play single player games to indirectly complete with others who play that game.

    If we take single player games in this vein, then there must be prevailing societal rules for this indirect competition. If you use the console to spawn all the best items for your character in Oblivion, that’s fine, but I’m going to frown on the tales of your achievements since I believe them incomparable to my own. I think most people would consider this cheating (even if they don’t really care, because it is, after all, only on your computer ), setting a societal code for a single player game.

    Reply
    • Shnissugah, I asked about the social code in the single player environment simply because it doesn’t apply to me – I can’t imagine I’m the only one.

      I’ve been a gamer for something like 25 years and never really had any gaming buddies. I’ve only recently (months) started chatting to gamers online and I know no one in real space who plays games as much as I do/have. I didn’t talk much about games at school (and online play didn’t really exist in the 80s like it does now) and generally enjoyed them for their own sake. I still do. I’m playing FUEL right now and just enjoying prowling around the environment, driving aimlessly, occasionally diving into a race.

      Over the last decade the only person I’ve talked to games about in-depth is my wife; we used to play a lot together. Some of it was obviously competitive (HL deathmatch) but most of our time was spent talking about how fun NOLF was, the heart-pounding tension of Thief, the wonderful canvas of GTA III that was open for exploration. She doesn’t play games so much these days (becoming parents has completely changed the structure of our spare time) and I can’t express how much I miss our shared gaming experiences.

      But even though I now game “alone”, I still have no desire to cheat; my own personal gaming moral code is in force. I think it’s because I do it for me that I can’t cheat myself. I know what I’ve done, I can’t lie to me, and I’ve tried. I never believe me when I’m lying. I just don’t have the poker face for it.

      Reply
      • Shnissugah

         /  May 26, 2010

        As A Clarification:
        What I was trying to convey with my previous post was that without direct competition OR EVEN social interaction, social codes exist. Implicit competition arises merely from the fact that we know other people are playing the game too. Because of this, we restrict our own play to what we view as “fair” on the assumption that other people will also view this as fair. This forms an unspoken social code between people who have never played with or even talked with one another, simply by them playing in tandem, and this social code is what makes us think of generating items via the console in Oblivion as cheating.

      • Shnissugah

         /  May 26, 2010

        As A Reply To Your Post:

        “But even though I now game “alone”, I still have no desire to cheat; my own personal gaming moral code is in force. I think it’s because I do it for me that I can’t cheat myself. I know what I’ve done, I can’t lie to me, and I’ve tried. I never believe me when I’m lying. I just don’t have the poker face for it.”

        I believe that simply because you don’t play games against others, or talk about them with others, social codes of these games are still part of the way you play, and the only way someone could play a game without feeling these social codes would be by having no concept of other people playing the game. This is why I think we tend to do what we now think of as “cheating” more when we are children (as observed in several previous posts). At any rate, I think the fact that you put the word ‘alone’ in quotes in your post could serve to illustrate my point that nobody really games “alone,” in a vacuum. We game knowing that others are doing the same thing, and this contributes to some of the appeal of gaming.

        In your case, the very fact that you don’t “cheat” (break the social codes) confirms the fact that you are under some sort of code. You say that the reason you don’t cheat is because you don’t want to break your own “gaming moral code.” This may indeed be the truth for you, but I know that at least in my case it isn’t, and I’d urge you to reevaluate whether your code is really a “personal moral code” and not a social one.
        Did you use cheat codes in games as a child? I know I did. When I ask myself whether the reason I no longer use cheat codes is because I’ve grown morally, I find myself dubious. Is making a Big Daddy in a game of Age of Empires against a computer opponent really inherently immoral? Does making an item via the console in Oblvion really automatically make you a bad person? You may disagree with me, but I don’t think so (if so, I can’t really say anything more). But if you accept that making a Big Daddy in AOE single player because it is fun isn’t immoral, what has changed between child-me and adult-me that makes doing so against my code, and therefore cheating? I argue that the reason it’s now against my code is because it’s “more fun” to play without using those codes. And why is it more fun? It’s more fun because this way I’m comparable to my fellow players. Even if I never get a chance to actually play against them (as in a single player game), or even a chance to talk to them about it, I still know that I could compare to them, which is why I want to get “better” (i.e. increase skill without “cheats”).

      • Man, I got to knock these points out fast. I’m on holiday from tomorrow and won’t be able to reply for a good week! To business, Shnissugah!

        I now game “alone”: The purpose of the quotes was to admit the phrase was a cheat. I gamed alone, before as well. It’s just that I didn’t get to talk about it any more.

        Cheat codes: My Dad asked me to hack into assembly code to enable 255 or infinite lives in games which were “too hard”. I broke them but never played the cheat versions. I had this idea that when a game was presented to you, that was the package. Messing around with the rules was silly, what was the point of having a game and then changing the rules. That’s not playing the game, that’s playing a game you just made up. If you *really* want to push the social aspect as an explanation, well, it wasn’t between me and other gamers – it was a compact between myself and the developer. (I have grown up since and realise that developers make design mistakes all the time; I have finished games once or twice using cheats out of sheer frustration at bad design and it is this argument I use to justify such a moral atrocity)

        Personal moral code: Where does a personal moral code come from? I’m sure it all grows out of your life experience, and a lot of life experience is social, so you might argue that moral codes of *any* sort are socially relevant. I was the typical geek; not the most sociable, liked solid rules, fell in love with mathematics and programming. I didn’t give two hoots for what anyone else did – most of the experiences I didn’t share with anyone else – but you just couldn’t go changing the rules just because you felt like it. Life wasn’t like that. So I remain unconvinced. My attitude towards “proper” gaming developed from a perspective that rules were immutable, which fits my geek pathology.

        I think we’re fast approaching a point of agree-to-disagree, which usually means by internet standards we should be throwing axes and death threats at each other by now =)

        Right, got to get back to packing…

      • Shnissugah

         /  May 26, 2010

        Yep- Agree to disagree. Go any further than this and the argument will get philosophical fast.

        You shouldn’t have said that, I’m tempted to start writing my opinion on fallibility of developers/designers (in response to BeamSplashX) and how not breaking the coded rules can be cheating (i.e. cheatcodes), while breaking them can sometimes not be cheating (such as modding), but I really have problem sets to be doing.

        Have a nice holiday!

      • @Shnissugah:

        I was actually considering writing about the topic myself as to how long a trust period for a game should be. I definitely don’t think it’s an absolute amount of time or even a percentage. But feel free to do it first and maybe we can ping-pong the idea a bit?

  5. Veret,almost sounds like a choice between game socialism and libertarianism. Do you give players control over their game or fear the consequences and manage their behaviour?

    Reply
  6. Hey, I found a song on the internet about this very topic:

    [audio src="http://www.sidthomas.net/doyouinverts/the%20doyouinverts%20-%20Billy.mp3" /]

    Reply
  7. The Learning Company! Those guys and gals were behind pretty every title of my games-playing youth. Not having a console of my own until the N64 rolled around, I only picked up snippets of Mario and Sonic during fractured afternoons at friends’ houses. Instead of hoarding coins or rings, I spent countless hours on all the Super Solvers and Treasure Whatever games. Add in Dr. Brain and Sim City 2000 and you’ve got a tidy picture of my introduction to games.

    More on topic, creating Zoombini clones is most definitely cheating. It may have been included within the game, but it’s immediately clear to anyone playing that it’s a feature the developers never intended. I feel that there is probably a bit cheating going on any time the player has to question the fairness of their methods.

    That said, it’s hard to condemn this particular sort of cheating, as it essentially amounts to re-balancing the game to better match your own ability. If I remember correctly, it could be pretty difficult to get through an entire game of Zoombinis. The base difficulty of the game was high enough to prevent a 7 or 8 year old kid from seeing everything it had to offer, leaving cheating as the only viable method for reaching the conclusion. I cheated my way through 98% of my childhood games of Sim City 2000 for much the same reason. There was simply no way that my second grade self was going to be able to navigate the game’s challenges to reach all the cool stuff at the end, so I conjured up billions of illicit simoleons to compensate. Cheating around an imbalance between game difficulty and player skill makes perfect sense.

    Cheating around an obvious flaw in a game seems pretty valid as well. No one feels too bad about using the Metal Blades for the entirety of Mega Man 2, as they correct for the default weapon’s ridiculous inability to shoot vertically or diagonally.

    The only sorts of cheating I can’t abide are those which upset the balance of a multi-player game or see the player actively skipping content.

    Reply
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