Gears of the Tentacle

I’m participating in MIT’s “Learning Creative Learning”, a social, online exploration led by Mitch Resnick of Scratch fame, Philipp Schmidt from P2PU, and others.

After the obligatory admin of the first session, the class was asked to think about the “gears of their childhood”, based on a paper by Seymour Papert.

If I understand the reading correctly, Papert discovered mechanical gears as a small boy, which instilled in him a sense of wonder and possibility.

Importantly, the introduction to gears expanded his understanding of the world. It created a framework from which he could learn new, more complex things like mathematics. Papert stipulates, “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models.”

Therefore, a “gear of your childhood” is a learning tool that provided you a model of the world from which you assimilate new knowledge.

And Papert wants to identify the conditions that yield these “gears” for learners and by extension determine how to create the conditions by which these epistemological models can be acquired.

Gear of the Tentacle

This brings me to my “gear.” As a kid, I often sat next to my dad playing computer games. Thanks to him, I watched and played classics like Civilization, Master of Orion, and most formative to me, Day of the Tentacle.

The reason this game was so important to me was that it:

  1. Transformed cinematic scenes into interactivity. While rudimentary compared to games today, Tentacle has very funny, colorful scenes that you could click through. It alternated between a cinematic and interactive mode, sometimes very distinct, and other times quite seamlessly. Therefore, I started to imagine animations as possible triggers for other action and not just uninterrupted scripting. This of course is a great model for seeing digital media as pliable.

  2. Object hacking and time-based consequences. A brilliant plot element of Tentacle is that its three main characters are spread across 400 years. Using time travel and other time-based solutions, you solve the game’s puzzles. For example, if you need vinegar in the “future” level, you have to find a bottle of wine in the “past” level and let it sit for 400 years. These hacks encouraged you to be creative with the game’s objects and to consider how these hacks evolve or affect action over time.

  3. Social gaming and cheating. This was also the first game where I learned about cheats. Civilization and many of my dad’s other games no doubt had lively communities where people swapped cheat codes and solutions. But this was before I knew about the internet, and Tentacle was the first game where I a) met a friend who played it and b) learned about walkthroughs. One time, I got quite stuck in the game, and so I asked my friend what to do next. He gave me a walkthrough of the puzzle. It’s not cheating as much as it is social problem solving, but it felt to me like breaking the rules. But it also helped me see that working with others can be fruitful. Furthermore, social gaming revealed to me easter eggs and other hidden layers to the game, which taught me to explore the environments more deeply, to consider more playful solutions, and to ask others what they found.

So, if I were to zoom out, it was probably computer games as a whole that were “gears of my childhood”, but the most memorable of which was definitely Day of the Tentacle. Thrilled that its creator, Tim Schafer, is making a contemporary point-and-click so that the adventures can continue.

One Comment on "Gears of the Tentacle"

  1. Larry says:

    Nice piece. Thanks for posting!

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