Am I Justifying a Colossal Waste of Time Or….Am I Learning?

I had a long, busy week away from home last week. Lots of terrific meetings, both formal and informal, as part of the CoSN Conference and then a chance to play with robots and makey makeys with a bunch of K-12 educators on Friday.

I needed some down time this weekend. I gardened a bit, read a Steve Perry mystery, and played Zoombinis. I’m not a big gamer, but I have always loved solving logic problems and that’s the focus of Zoombinis. I fell in love with the first version of the game when it was first introduced in 1996. A new version was introduced in August 2015, and I signed right on.

I’ve been playing and reflecting on my progress through the game. I think the biggest lesson I’m learning is creating and implementing problem solving strategies.

Testing Variables: In the pizza trolls puzzle, you make a pizza based on the responses of the troll to various toppings. The first level is fairly straight forward but helps set the strategy: isolate and test each variable until you get the correct combination. Subsequent levels add more toppings AND trolls so keeping track of preferences requires a chart.

Enlisting Experts: I just couldn’t figure out how to succeed at the subsequent levels of  the Hotel Dimensia puzzle. Multiple variables have to be applied across a grid, and the rules around that deployment just escaped me. The grid itself is really a chart, but the puzzle comes with a time challenge so you need to establish the important variables very quickly in order to get all the Zoombinis through. No leisurely musing on this level. I struggled and knew I need more help so I headed to the web. The Hotel Dimensia page at Wikia was very helpful.

Purposeful Practicing: Zoombinis includes a practice mode that includes all puzzles and all levels. I worked through several Hotel Dimensia practice sessions, developing a strategy that I could apply in the real game. I really wanted to get better at this puzzle because it is on the path to the Mudball Wall, my favorite puzzle. Somehow, the pattern in that puzzle is easy for me to discern. I think it may be because I used to play it as a stand alone game on the web so I got lots of practice and have internalized the various patterns that can be made.

Embracing Failure: With Captain Cajun, you have to arrange the Zoombinis on a boat and you may or may not have the right combination. The game warns you that you may have to leave some of your Zoombinis behind. You will fail despite enlisting help or practicing.

Overcoming Failure: But, I have discovered a strategy to solve the Captain Cajun puzzles. Stack the deck. Literally. Once you are into the game, you often have your choice of Zoombinis to take with you through the next leg of the journey. So, you can arrange the Zoombinis ahead of time to make sure you have a combination that will fill the boat.

So, I am learning how to play the game using a variety of strategies. Some, like testing variables, are strategies I’ve applied outside the game while others, such as stacking the deck of Captain Cajun’s boat, are game specific. My biggest question is how much transfer takes place from the game into the world. In other words, if kids figure out the “testing variable” strategy for the pizzas, will they internalize that particular strategy and use it to solve problems outside of the game? Does the game foster a general understanding of formulating strategies for problem solving?


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