How The Incredible Machine Inspired a Generation of STEM Professionals

July 2nd, 2015 by Deborah Fike

Many of you know that Contraption Maker is the spiritual successor to The Incredible Machine (TIM).  What you may not know is why both the original game designer (Jeff Tunnell) and the original game developer (Kevin Ryan) chose to remake this one game out of a long list of games they created throughout their careers.

Here’s a hint, written by a TIM fan:

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Pictured originally posted on 9GAG

Jeff and Kevin didn’t mean to create a game that inspired people to become scientists, programmers, doctors, and other professionals within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, but that’s what happened.  We’ve heard time and again how The Incredible Machine motivated people to persevere and succeed in professions that most parents, teachers, and society as a whole want children to aspire to.

But why is that?  We’ve written an article on why academic researchers think The Incredible Machine is a great classroom experience, but being a good teaching tool and inspiring someone to choose a career path are two separate things.  Reading some of the comments from our fans, we present our thoughts on how TIM inspired kids to become STEM professionals:

The Incredible Machine encouraged experimentation, where “failure” was still a fun result.  Jamin Warren of PBS picked The Incredible Machine as his favorite puzzle game of all time (see video below).  He says, “What was amazing about The Incredible Machine was its approach to logic. The Incredible Machine basically gave you a blank slate and then you had to figure out what the best solution was.  That spirit of open-endedness and experimentation inspired creativity.”

The Incredible Machine worked not only because it gave you a blank slate, but the interactions in that blank slate were fun, even if things didn’t turn out the way you expected it too.  So even if the bouncy ball fell off the platform (where you wanted it to be), it might get stuck between two pipes and get caught in a crazy trajectory that would make you laugh.

Part of working in STEM fields is getting through “failure.”  You have a theory, you test it,  it doesn’t work out as expected, so you go back to the drawing board.  Experiencing fun when you fail encourages you to try again, and the more work you put into the problem, the more satisfying it feels when you finally figure out a way to solve it.

The Incredible Machine makes STEM something you can play with, rather than an abstract concept.  Reddit user triplealpha said in a post, “The Incredible Machine gave [me] a kid with terrible ADD the ability to think and reason through complex problems visually.  The game set me up to think about the world in terms of systems and processes instead of formulas and numbers – ultimately allowing me to excel in chemistry, physics, biochemistry, physiology, and medicine.”

Most of us “learned” science through school by studying textbook definitions and reading books.  There might be some labs thrown in there, but the majority of class time was spent on rote-learning.  The Incredible Machine broke through that barrier by making science something you can tinker with.  Change one variable, and see how the rest of the system reacts.  If you don’t like the reaction, fiddle with another part in the game.  Playing with science, rather than just reading about it, makes it more accessible.

The Incredible Machine brought people together to collaborate on science.  Several fans have told us their shining moment in The Incredible Machine was “beating” a friend at solving a particular puzzle.  Others love to talk about how they made the game do something not even their teachers knew how to do.  Still others talk about how they played the game as a family.

We knew early on that The Incredible Machine was a social experience.  From Charlotte, “I still clearly remember the first puzzle my family ever built the night we first played the game. A ball landed on a flashlight, turning it on; the flashlight shone through a magnifying glass and lit the candle in a hot air balloon; the balloon lifted off into the air and floated off screen. That was it. An hour of fumbling with parts and the combined efforts of my entire family, and we could not have been more pleased with ourselves when we finally got it to work.”

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One of Charlotte’s favorite puzzles

STEM subjects, like most human activities, are much more fun when you can share them with others.  The Incredible Machine was fun on its own, but when played with a friend or family member, you learned about interactions you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.  You then used that knowledge to build more crazy contraptions.  Ultimately you had a great time working together to solve, well, a scientific problem.

We recreated Contraption Maker with these key points in mind and are happy to see that Contraption Maker is also capturing these previous benefits of The Incredible Machine.  It would be our great honor if we could inspire yet another generation of STEM professionals.

-Deborah Fike

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