This was originally posted on MMO Games on 9 January 2016. It is being re-posted here to archive the work I have done in case the original website ever shuts down.
As a gamer parent, spending time with your children and fostering their enjoyment of similar hobbies is important, but it can be extremely difficult with the number of children’s games compared to adult games—especially for MMO players. However, here at MMOGames, we’re going to give you some ideas of games to play with your children, and even let them begin their own adventures! First up, we’re going to take a look at National Geographic’s Animal Jam.
So what is Animal Jam (also referred to as AJ)? Animal Jam is a children’s MMO where they create and customize their animal avatars and “dens” (houses), adopt mini-pets, go on adventures, attend parties, and explore real life animals and other life sciences. The game itself is geared towards children ages ten and above—mainly “tweens”.
Upon entering the game for the first time, a cheery female voice over prompts users to choose from a small selection of stylized animals—such as a panda, rabbit, wolf, tiger, etc.—and then create a first and compound last name from pre-populated choices on a wheel, which can also be randomized (there is no way for users to create their own name from scratch).
Once a character has been created, children will create a username and password. Usernames are limited to specific words, with some that are unable to be used at all. For instance, I attempted to use “ggchestnut”, and found that “nut” was not a valid word that could be used as a part of the username, nor could leet speak variations (such as nu7) be used. It is a valiant attempt from the developers to help curb kids from acting inappropriately.
Next, children enter their parents’ email address, though if they have their own they could easily enter it themselves. Children must agree to the terms of service before jumping into the game, with a friendly voice over reminding them “don’t share personal information with anyone online, and remember, be nice and have fun!”.
Once your child signs up for the game, an email will be sent to the parent email address they provided—hopefully not their own. This email asks parents to provide consent for their child to play Animal Jam. If consent is not provided within fourteen days, the child’s account will be deactivated. Upon providing consent, parents will be prompted to create a parent account. From here, there are various controls that parents can turn on or off to limit what their child can do within the game with chat functions, trading, purchasing, etc.
The first thing children do is learn how to move their character by pointing and clicking where they want to go—much like any action RPG on the market today. Then children are prompted to customize their character’s colors and markings, and they are given a quest to show them how to utilize the emotes available in game. Users are then let loose in the world to explore.
The game is free to play, and utilizes two main currencies in the game—gems, which are earned by logging in daily, playing games, and completing adventures; and diamonds, which are a currency available to those subscribed. The subscription has a few perks including customizing nameplates, enabling past two character slots, and some costume unlocks.
Children can play by exploring the world, playing games, attending parties, or participating in adventures. Levels are something that aren’t necessary, as traditional MMO progression isn’t a big focus of the game. Completing adventures does, however, raise the character’s “Courage Level”, which didn’t seem to do much aside from bloat an achievement number.
Adventures required reading short amounts of quest text, and being able to move the character in an efficient manner to avoid monsters, or bring them to Venus Fly Traps to be eaten. The objectives were simplistic, but entertaining, and the story progressed in an interesting way, sure to keep the attention of many players.
Parties are another big draw of the game, and are a place for players to go to talk, trade, buy special items, and play games. Some parties are seasonal, such as the AJ Birthday Party. Most parties are available to free players, whereas some others are exclusive to those paying for membership. Some parties are also locked on the animals that can attend. They also offer special stores to purchase items for costuming and decorating player dens.
While the game has a limited chat, which can be restricted even more within the parental controls, it seems that children know no bounds when it comes to bullying and sexual content. In my own experiences, sitting in the main city of Jamaa, I encountered numerous players spamming for trades and adventures. I also saw multiple conversations between players with abusive tones and foul language not filtered because the children put numbers in between the letters.
The one upside is that the process for self-policing is simple, and was used by the children in an empowering manner. Those being bullied were able to stand up to their bullies by asking them to stop, and then saying that they were going to report them. Assuming the players being bullied used the straight-forward reporting system, bullies were whisked offline scant moments later.
Animal Jam is committed to the online privacy and safety of children and is certified by the BBB CARU program. The Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit® was founded to promote responsible children’s advertising, and evaluates child-directed advertising and promotional material to ensure truthfulness, accuracy, and consistency. In short, the program aims to minimize the marketing and advertising of products to children—a big issue with many parents.
As previously mentioned, parents have an account where they can monitor things such as their child’s playtime, as well as regulate what children are allowed to do within the game regarding interactions with other players. This is a feature lacking in many games, and is something to be commended as an attempt to get parents involved.
Safety does take a hit from the volatile behavior of the community, however. If I were a parent, I would feel unsafe with my children being exposed to this online bullying, which is a large problem nowadays on various platforms.
Animal Jam doesn’t break much of the status quo when it comes to games geared toward children. The game itself is a virtual-world counterpart to the National Geographic Kids magazine. The game itself is based around learning about flora and fauna in a world where they are disappearing and the environment needs help.
There are bits of educational content sprinkled throughout the game in various forms. You can discover creatures in the wild and receive a blurb about them. There are posters and museums that the characters can visit, and there is also educational video content featuring National Geographic herpetologist Brady Barr (host of Dangerous Encounters with Brady Barr), and marine biologist Tierney Thys (a National Geographic explorer).
The games, some of which are educational, range from simplistic to age-appropriate for ten-year-olds and above. The simplistic games were more reminiscent of games that could be played with toddlers just learning to manipulate a mouse and keyboard and just discovering nature. In fact, I would offer up some of Animal Jam’s simpler games as wonderful free-to-play alternatives for young toddlers and pre-school aged children that are drawn towards the life sciences (with parental guidance and help, of course!).
While movement was easily explained at the start of the game, children (and adults) without experience in simpler virtual worlds, such as Club Penguin, may find Animal Jam confusing at first. As a gamer with experience in multiple MMOs, figuring out the system in Animal Jam was confusing at best, and irritating at worst.
Many times I would open up a new window to retrieve the Help site to check on what various things mentioned in the game were, or where I could find a particular UI element. The UI became easier to understand the more I used it, but the first hour or so was excruciating to try to remember where certain things were, especially if they were small elements.
Some children’s games have music that becomes irritating fast, for both adults and children alike. The music in Animal Jam, while simplistic and on the short side, was whimsical, and fit the different zone themes well. It was pleasant to listen to on loop for a decent amount of time, and was reminiscent of The Sims franchise. The graphics are cutesy and stylized and make the world feel more fantasy-like.
The game itself is free to play, with reasonable membership options available, starting at $6.95 USD recurring monthly, to a year’s membership at $57.95. Gift certificates can also be purchased to add membership time onto an account.
The real value, however, comes from the content within the game that families can discuss, including using the community as a talking point for bullying, playing nice, and being safe in both the virtual and real world. Time management and gaming limitations are other skills that can be learned via Animal Jam, with utilization of the Play Timer feature in the parental controls.
Asking children what they’ve discovered in their journeys within the game is another wonderful conversation starter to keep in touch with your child’s gaming experiences in Animal Jam. Who knows, they may even teach you something about the environment and natural sciences that you didn’t already know!
As an MMO player looking to start a family, finding games I can experience with my future children is of importance to me. I would hope that most of my child’s play time would be with me, but I would feel moderately safe allowing my child to explore and adventure without supervision for limited periods of time due to the parental controls.