What’s small, blue, and needs to be rescued via a series of puzzle games? Zoombinis, of course! These blobs of goodwill graced the screens of many a ‘90s PC, inviting kids to use logic and experimentation as they led a troupe of exploited island workers through a Deep, Dark Forest and the Mountains of Despair en route to Zoombiniville. Saving the Zoombinis was a rite of passage for a lot of ‘90s kids. Here are 11 facts you might not know about the beloved Logical Journey of the Zoombinis game.
In the mid-1990s, Chris Hancock and Scot Osterweil were both employees at Technical Education Research Centers (TERC), a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. Hancock had been developing a tool called Tabletop Jr., which was designed to help kids work with data. But when Osterweil, who’d been hired to design computer graphics at TERC, got involved, the project shifted away from plots and Venn diagrams and started to resemble something Zoombinis fans might recognize.
When Hancock shopped potential video game companies to bring the game to market, it was the little blue blobs that stole the show. The daughter of an executive Brøderbund happened to be in the office at the time and ended up playing around with the prototype. She was immediately taken with the characters, and her interest in turn caught the eye of her mother. The executive made an offer: If Handcock and Osterweil could focus their game around the characters that had captured her daughter’s attention, she was in.
What to call the little blue creatures Osterweil had designed to represent data? Hancock initially dubbed them “Snoids” after a comic book character written by cartoonist Robert Crumb. Once they decided to push the project forward, however, it was clear that the duo needed a name that wasn’t already taken. The brainstorming began. After passing on “Snood,” a product director threw out the idea of “Zoombinis,” and the name just felt right.
Despite the fact that The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis featured a variety of puzzles and had grown out of a data-visualization project, the creators didn’t see their game as a supplement to classroom learning. In fact, when Brøderbund executives insisted that the game be called The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, the creators were unimpressed. “We hated it. We absolutely hated that title,” Hancock told Input. “We didn’t think of it as education. We just thought of it as entertaining.”
“Tolkien is the granddaddy of world-building and heroic quest journeys,” Osterweil, who drew the map traversed by the “hobbit-like” Zoombinis, told Input. In a journey similar to that designed by J.R.R. Tolkien, Zoombinis trekked along cliff faces, through dark forests, and over treacherous mountains—albeit with conspicuously less bloodshed.
Though there were only three games in the original series (The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, Zoombinis Mountain Rescue, and Zoombinis Island Odessey, released in 1996, 2001, and 2002 respectively), the adventures of the small blue blobs were an indisputable hit. Loved by kids for the fun and parents for the educational value, Zoombinis CD-ROMs were purchased more than 1 million times.
What were those little blue creatures, anyway? The creators thought of them the same as they thought of their target audience: as kids. “They were persistent. Our joke was that they were knee-high to everything they met. The world was full of bigger creatures,” Osterweil explained in an interview. “And if you think about it, rules in a kid’s world are arbitrary. 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.”
With their blue bodies and hair, you may have noticed that the Zoombinis don’t look anything like real humans. For a game rooted in sorting, that’s no accident.
Osterweil later recounted that designers at Brøderbund had initially designed the Zoombinis to have blonde and red hair, a choice the creators quickly nixed. “If you give them red and blonde hair, you’re saying they’re Caucasian, you know, like they’re European,” Osterweil said. “I did not want to suggest these were white kids.”
At first glance, the customization options available to players designing their Zoombini cohort might seem limited. While it’s true that you can’t change the color of the blobs, nor that of their hair, players do get to choose from a selection of hairstyles, eyes (including a singular eye), nose colors, and footwear, which makes for a good deal of variety. All told, you could play the game nearly 40 times without repeating a single character [PDF].
Several years ago, TERC, the nonprofit where Zoombinis was born, decided to bring the game back. In 2015, the organization launched a Kickstarter fundraiser with the goal of raising $50,000 to introduce the next generation to the lovable puzzle game. The campaign quickly pulled in more than $100,000, and the nonprofit went on to launch new online versions available on the Apple App Store and Steam. The new version is almost identical to the original save for the updated graphics and, most importantly, its compatibility with devices built on this side of the millennium.
Do kids really learn with Zoombinis? If so, how? With help from a $1.9 million, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, TERC set out to discover how (and if) kids playing Zoombinis use “implicit computational thinking” to solve problems, and how such thinking could be improved. Who knows, the next generation of STEM thinkers might just get their start on Zoombini Isle.