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An illustration shows EcoQuest’s Ecorder analyzing the game’s world Illustration: Kyle Ellingson for Polygon

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How EcoQuest brought Wikipedia into my childhood in 1993

Learning about other cultures through games, even if they’re not always 100% accurate

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In 1993, I got my first taste of Wikipedia-style learning — not from Encarta, the multimedia encyclopedia that defined a generation, but through the Ecorder, a fictional device in Lost Secret of the Rainforest. It was the sequel to EcoQuest: The Search for Cetus, a Sierra On-Line point-and-click adventure, and my first brush with the idea of global, big-picture environmentalism. I was too young for Star Trek, so the obvious tricorder parallels eluded me. All I knew was that with the Ecorder, I could instantly identify exotic plants, animals, and cultural artifacts. As a 9-year-old, it was nothing short of magic.

Back then, there was no social media, or internet as we know it today. The corny idea of an “information superhighway” was still growing — at the time, it was more like a bunch of private neighborhood roads. If I wanted to dig into a specific topic, like rainforest canopies or native tribes in the Amazon, I had one option: the library. It was easy to fall in love with the Ecorder as a tool of empowerment to understand this strange new environment — the Peruvian rainforest — that I’d never seen. With every scrap of information about pollution and face paint, I swelled with confidence that I was learning something special about the world.

According to Rainforest’s director/designer Gano Haine, the Ecorder was an attempt to cram information into an edutainment game that was tethered to the limitations of Sierra’s design methodology, as the team had a specific way of planning room diagrams before sprinkling in puzzles and working on art. “We were starting to come up with devices that maybe should have been the product […] rather than being harnessed to the story,” she says. “But I’m a storyteller, so of course that’s the part I liked the best.”

At the time, edutainment was defined by what Haine describes as “kill and drill” games that taught children practical skills through repetitive exercises. Games like Mavis Beacon and Reader Rabbit — the former taught typing, and the latter language and basic math — were the most successful examples that became childhood staples, but this is where edutainment stopped evolving. Kids didn’t really have story-driven games. And even though Sierra had released the formative point-and-click Mixed-Up Mother Goose in 1987, nobody really knew what good edutainment was supposed to look like.

Haine was part of Sierra’s Writer’s Lab, an in-house team that did everything from dialogue to puzzle design. “Ken [Williams, Sierra On-Line co-founder] wanted to expand beyond their wheelhouse, which was the graphical 2D, at the time, adventure,” she says. “We were also asked every week to do a series of pitch documents […] and occasionally, [Williams] would decide to greenlight something.” EcoQuest was born when Haine and co-designer Jane Jensen landed on the idea of a talking dolphin. “We didn’t really expect to get greenlit,” she says. “But he loved it […] and then we were designers, which elevated us out of what we were in the writers’ group and put us in Sierra’s most coveted slot, which is designing a Sierra game.”

The Search for Cetus was a standard Sierra adventure, complete with talking animals, a recycling mechanic, and a marine conservation theme that primed a generation for 1993’s Free Willy mania. It told the story of Adam Greene, the son of an ecologist who goes on an underwater adventure to save the kingdom of Eluria from devastating pollution. The Sierra team reached out to the Marine Mammal Center and NOAA, learning about the vets who saved and rehabilitated wild animals. NOAA even connected Haine with a scientist to verify the eating habits of a certain anemone for a puzzle. “[The scientist] said, ‘Well [...] they can only ingest one object at a time.’ And I go, ‘Perfect, so if I got it to swallow something else, it would have to spit the thing out.’ She goes, ‘Oh, yes, that’s what would happen,’” Haine says. “We were on this weird cusp of bizarre imagination and scientific verifiability that doesn’t really kind of work. But wherever we were, wherever we could solve something like that, we tried.”

The undersea theme and folklorish elements hit a sweet spot with kids like me who were still riding high off The Little Mermaid and FernGully (which was not considered a mega hit at the time either, and spawned a pseudo-game of its own), but it wasn’t quite enough for Sierra, at least not compared to its “normal” game sales. Haine feels like Sierra saw the game as a failure, though it did well enough to get a CD-ROM version, and a sequel was approved, which Haine moved forward to helm.

Lost Secret of the Rainforest introduced a new layer of complexity to the idea of ecological edutainment — one that was arguably ahead of its time in presenting kids with more abstract concepts of personal and institutional greed, and highlighting the way children’s storytelling relies on archetypes and cultural compromises. This time, Adam follows his dad to Iquitos, Peru, on a work trip, and gets whisked away on a quest to help an indigenous tribe whose ancient protector, Forest Heart, is dying. There’s a lot more to take in compared to the previous game — interpersonal dynamics between different groups of people, varying depictions of environmental and human exploitation, and a step back from the more traditional fairy-tale structure that characterized Cetus’ narrative.

Having the in-game Ecorder also gave Rainforest an added sense of authority — it was my trusty guide, and I remember eagerly waving it all over the screen to find hotspots for new objects and creatures to learn about.

“We tried to make it as positive toward indigenous people as we possibly could within the mandate of what we were doing,” says Haine, “which was an imaginary story, and an ecologically driven story, which again, I think was a little ahead of its time, but would probably hit more of a chord now.” As with the previous game, the team reached out to scientists and subject matter experts, like the Nature Conservancy and bat expert Dr. Merlin Tuttle. “He got very excited that we were going to portray bats positively,” Haine says. “And he sent, like, 6,000 slides.” The team ended up basing its work off fruit bats, which were slightly less scary-looking than regular bats.

When it came to portraying the indigenous tribe in the game — the fictional Grove People — things were a little more complicated, at least from the perspective of art director Arturo Sinclair, who had joined Sierra for the sole reason of being at its Oakhurst, California, headquarters, next to the natural splendor of Yosemite. Sinclair, a filmmaker originally from Mexico, fantasized about being able to see El Capitan from his office window. “When I got there to Oakhurst [...] there was this huge bunker, factory-type block of concrete in the middle of nowhere. No windows at all, one door to get in, another door to get out,” he says. “The whole place was enmeshed in a wire mesh, the whole entire building, so that you couldn’t get any radio frequency in or out,” he continues, describing his time at Sierra as a “not very nice” period because of what he describes as draconian work practices, like having to sign out to go to the bathroom. He also says he sensed post-Cold War paranoia and fear of espionage, as he felt like the work environment was “like working for the CIA,” with some practices “totally like Stasi.” He claims that the main reason for these practices was to prevent snooping by foreign countries. “[Sierra was] afraid of the Japanese and the Chinese […] if you had windows, you [could] fire a laser to the window and kind of read the keyboard.”

The Grove People were supposedly based on the Quechua people, most of whom are from the Andean highlands. They’re a diverse group of identities united by the Quechua languages, which have different regional varieties and dialects. However, to fit in with the jungle theme, the Grove People were placed in the Amazon. Sinclair, who lived and worked in Peru for 17 years, is familiar with both jungle-based tribes and the Quechua. “Quechua is not spoken in the Amazon. It’s a completely different world. […] It’s a different race,” he says. “The tribes that live in the Amazon — it’s hard to trace their ancestry or where they came from, but they don’t speak Quechua at all. There are Shipibo and Yanomamo […] but so the American guys, if you say Peru, or the Amazon, then into their mind they say ‘Quechua,’ that’s what they hear. That’s what they know, so I wasn’t going to argue anything.”

This racial and cultural flattening wasn’t (and still isn’t) unique to Sierra, but a larger reflection of what even the most well-intentioned white designers thought would resonate with a predominantly white market at the time: an emotionally-driven story about a white kid getting lost in a strange new world. The issues facing the Grove People — deforestation, pollution, racism, disease, and the encroaching greed of capitalist companies — are common colonial threats that indigenous people suffer today in various forms. Merging their identities into one fictional version — a version based on one of the most well-known indigenous groups in South America — was meant to tell a universal story about colonization and greed, according to Haine.

Haine, who has most of a Ph.D. in performance art from Northwestern University, studied using an archetypal approach to drama in education, which she says informed her game design work. “I think that’s what drives imagination. If you look at [the in-game tree Forest Heart], that in mythology has a long history, it’s the tree of life, so I wasn’t sitting there and mapping those things in,” she says. “But I believe that those kinds of archetypes are cross-cultural quite often. Some of them are culturally specific, of course, and you have to be respectful of that and take a look at that […] and when children are playing, that’s the stuff they came up with in their own play. So you’re really just tapping into that level.”

At the end of the day, Sierra was in the business of telling stories. Haine recalls a pitch meeting for her next game, The Wings of Icarus, that was shelved due to company-wide layoffs. “Somebody got very in a knot about the fact that I had described the wrong type of airplane […] and [Williams] said something I’ll never forget,” she says. “He turns to the guy, and he goes, ‘Do you know that scene at the end of [Raiders of the Lost Ark] where they open the Ark of the Covenant, and all of the faces melt?’ And the poor guy now is looking real nervous. And he goes, ‘Yeah,’ and [Williams] goes, ‘Guess what? That never happened. It’s a story. Get over it.’”

Sinclair, who describes himself as white-passing with blondish hair and blue eyes, felt conflict building in himself as he worked on what he felt boiled down to a white savior narrative. “If you look at photographs of the Shipibo Indians from the Amazon, for example, [the Grove People] look like that, they dress like that, but they don’t live in Iquitos, which is where the story happens,” he says. “And then people say, ‘Oh, come on, it’s a game.’ And for me, it’s not a game. It’s communications, and it’s education. Kids play, they learn things, bad things, and good things and erroneous information, biased information and all that stuff. But you cannot discuss that in a board meeting.” Of course, facts about Amazonian tribes, including their plights and persecutions, are widely, freely available on Wikipedia today.

For many older millennials, Rainforest was a great story — a cherished part of my childhood that introduced me to a whole new world across the ocean. But for the indigenous people depicted, and for Arturo Sinclair, it wasn’t just a story. And while edutainment has ballooned into a whole industry on its own, even as we’ve collectively grown into better practices, it still follows similar principles when it comes to simple, understandable identities based on broad reach. Dora the Explorer, for instance, was designed as a pan-Latinx character to reflect a range of Latinx cultures in the U.S. — the show is localized for Latin America, Mexico, and Spain (in the live-action Dora movie, she lives in the Peruvian jungle).

Today, the idea of a quasi-hypertext driven encyclopedia in a game no longer inspires awe in the average kid — in-game glossaries, indices, and bestiaries are all common, and we have countless wikis (including the actual Wikipedia) devoted to specific subjects. It is far easier, provided you have the time and curiosity, to independently research things that pique your interest in games. It’s hard to say what 9-year-old me would have thought about cross-referencing EcoQuest with a free online encyclopedia (or even Encarta, which was limited at the time), especially when you consider the intrinsic role of suspension of disbelief in all forms of fiction. It’s easy to tell a story and dismiss oversights and errors as a matter of creative license, until there’s the added responsibility to educate, and education doesn’t happen in a vacuum. My parents, neither of whom have been to South America, were not equipped to give me more information about the Quechua or the Shipibo, and I wasn’t going to find out more at school in Singapore. In my head, the Grove People remained a vulnerable community, and that was where their story ended for me in 1993.

What the Ecorder proved, at least to me, is that kids were, are, and always will be hungry to learn, and contemporary game designers can’t ignore how much easy, instant information their audience has at their fingertips. Today, when I hit the inevitable five-letter crossword staple “LIANA” in the Times, I know exactly when and where I first encountered the word — over 30 years ago on the Ecorder, surrounded by exotic birds, a sloth, and one incredibly rancid hoatzin.

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