One of the most iconic scenes in the 1985 film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure takes place when Pee Wee slides down to his kitchen and starts up his personal breakfast-cooking machine. It’s fun to watch; candles burn ropes, which release one object onto another, which causes that object to react with another, and so on in a mesmerizing display of prolonged cause and effect.
This style of machine was first popularized by Rube Goldberg. Goldberg was a cartoonist and inventor who made diagrams of these intricate, elaborate systems for his artwork. Since then, multiple adaptations of Goldberg’s work have appeared in various forms of pop culture. One of these is The Incredible Machine, a game first developed in the mid-’80s for the PC.
Players of The Incredible Machine were tasked with fulfilling objectives by setting off chain reactions. The game had several iterations in the ’90s and ’00s that were used recreationally and in various academic settings.
The latest of these is Contraption Maker. Contraption Maker was created by Spotkin. And the company includes the same people behind The Incredible Machine. Contraption Maker is both a successor and evolution of The Incredible Machine’s core concept. Contraption Maker was released in July of 2014. The game now sits with a highly positive user rating on the PC gaming client Steam.
Developing Contraption Maker
The developers at Spotkin decided to revive and re-imagine the original concepts of The Incredible Machine. They felt they could use modern technology to encourage a new generation of students to take interest in science and other STEM-related fields.
“We have constantly received feedback from players about how [The Incredible Machine] encouraged them to be in a [STEM] field,” says Deborah Fike, Director of Educational Outreach at Spotkin. “The core gameplay idea is quite simple and endures as a very powerful way to promote the sciences.”
Contraption Maker mirrors The Incredible Machine’s use of logic and reasoning. This makes it a great way for kids (and adults) to hone their problem-solving and critical thinking skills under the guise of entertainment. Because of this, the developers are able to create an experience that is educational without being overbearing or obvious.
“Contraption Maker is a stealthy way of teaching the foundations of the scientific method,” Fike says, pointing to the fact that continued failure and persistence are the only ways the game can be mastered.
Failure Is Part of the Game
“Inevitably, you will fail. And fail again. And it doesn’t feel like ‘failure,’ because it’s goofy and fun to watch even when things don’t turn out like you expect,” says Fike. “Instead, you’re learning what doesn’t work, so you try with something else. This method of ‘try something, fail, and try again’ is 99 percent of how scientists test theories. It’s an important skill to learn, but it’s also hard because no one likes failure.”
But it’s in those breakthrough moments, Fike claims, that Contraption Maker truly shines. “In making the failure enjoyable, we encourage kids to keep trying to get to that ‘A-Ha!’ moment,” she says. Failure is certainly a core part of the Contraption Maker experience, but over time the developers at Spotkin have also discovered the game is best when shared with friends.
This means playing cooperatively with others while seated near each other. Playing with another person encourages one to work with others and learn from them and their experiences. This, says Fike, teaches players to work as a team.
“While you can have a blast figuring this out on your own, we’ve found it’s much more fun to be sitting next to someone while you go through this discovery process. Then you can show off when you find something cool, [like] ‘Did you know the cat bounces off the trampoline?’ Or, you can learn from your buddy [with solutions to questions such as] ‘How do you light the paper lantern?'”
Fike uses LEGO blocks as an analogy of how this sort of person-to-person play works. Interaction and problem solving encourage people to expand their minds and take pride in their creations.
“Your crazy ideas build off their crazy ideas until you’ve made something great,” she says. “And from a kid’s perspective, it’s also fun to show off to a teacher or adult how you figured something out.”
Fike says learning through cooperative play makes educational concepts much more “sticky.” This means they endure longer and help players form deeper connections with the information than they might have on their own.
Making Contraption Maker into a Social Game
Not everyone has the luxury of playing while adjacent to a friend, however. To help supplement one’s playing, Spotkin has added a host of features to make the experience of playing Contraption Maker a more social is support for community-created content modifications (mods) on Steam. The game also features cooperative online multiplayer and the ability to upload footage to YouTube.
“People don’t just want to play alone in a vacuum; they want to share and enjoy the things they love,” Fike says. “We want to create not just a game experience, but a social experience where people can share and play on multiple levels, from watching videos to building machines together, to taking Contraption Maker beyond our original vision with modding.”
It’s rare for a classic video game to make a return without going through any major overhauls today. And yet, like Pee Wee’s breakfast machine, Contraption Maker continues to satisfy our ongoing fascination with Rube Goldberg’s machines.
Whatever you do, don’t tell your kids they’re learning. They’ll still think they’re just playing a game.