Thursday, July 7, 2011

REVIEW: National Geographic Kids Animal Jam

National Geographic Kids: Animal Jam


Type: Online Flash game

Price: Free (paid membership optional)

Target age group: 5-11

Developer: SmartBomb Interactive 

Genre: Animal-themed MMORPG


What kids are learning: Kids are ostensibly learning about animals and the wonders of natural world, but Animal Jam is primarily a colorful chat-room that rewards mindless consumerism and treats animals as fashion accessories.  That being said, if fantasy role-play is something you don't mind your children engaging in, Animal Jam is a relatively safe online environment for kids to interact with friends online.



Overview

Animal Jam was created as an online companion to National Geographic Kids, the child-oriented version of National Geographic Magazine.  The game first launched in the fall of 2010, and as of today consists of a thriving virtual community of over 1 million registered users, quite a success story in the world of children's online gaming, let alone online educational gaming.

To play Animal Jam, kids need simply create a free online account (which requires a valid email address) in order to enter the world of Jamaa, a place where anthropomorphized pandas, tigers, wolves, monkeys, rabbits, and koalas roam freely, playing games and buying kitschy merchandise for dressing up their very un-animal-like "dens."  Players choose which animal they want to be, and are given a fairly impressive amount of options for customizing their little animal avatars.  The finishing touch: giving your personalized creature some intoxicatingly adorable name (I named my punky-colored wolf avatar Master Peachyfeet).  After hearing a fairly generic welcome-to-the-world speech by some animal matriarch, you're let loose into Jamaa to do... well, it's just not all that clear.

Once the brief introduction to the world is over, there is no further guidance. Players simply roam freely through Jamaa's of seven different regions, each representing a particular kind of ecological environment (Mt. Shiveer is snowy, the Crystal Sands are a beach paradise, etc.)  Just navigating the world of Jamaa is something of an adventure.  Although it is a fairly small world, there's quite a bit lot packed into it: mini-games lurk in every corner, as do shops where players can use the game's currency, "gems," to buy clothes for their avatar, decorations for their homes, and even pets.  Even several hours into playing this game, I still would find a shop or game lurking in a previously unnoticed corner.

In each land, there are also several colorful icons indicating that players can click for more information about a plant or animal fun fact.  Also, certain buildings are repositories for more in-depth exploration of facts about the natural world, like one featuring herpetologist and Dangerous Encounters host Brady Barr. 
The world of Jamaa is littered with icons that bring up facts about the natural world and man's interactions with it.

But despite the various animal facts and the ecologically-themed lands, by and large Animal Jam seems to be the virtual equivalent of a safari-themed shopping mall.  Players mostly mill about, play mini-games, chat, and buy things.


Gameplay

There are two main game elements to Animal Jam: the mini-games, and role playing the world of Jamaa itself.

Mini-games
In each land, there are on average 2 mini-games which give players the opportunity to earn "gems", the currency of Jamaa.  The mini-games are fairly standard online gaming fare.  There's an Angry Birds-clone called "Fruit Slinger", a tower defense game called "Pest Control", a falling block style game called "Gem Breaker", a Space Invaders style games called like "Phantom Fighter," and many others covering most of the major mini game genres.  Although I wouldn't call any of these games especially remarkable, they're all fairly well-made and enjoyable for what they are.  Some games also allow multiple players (2-4), but I did not often find any takers for a match-up.

These mini-games also range in both difficulty and entertainment value, but there should be something for everyone to enjoy.  It seems most games cap at about 50 levels, but whether younger kids are likely to get that far in any of them is not entirely clear.  Some, like Phantom Fighter or the spider shooter, can be quite punishing if you don't have fast fingers.  But other twitch-response games like the recyclable-sorting themed "Super Sort" should be fairly easy even for young kids to master.   There are also slightly more cerebral games like the puzzle game "Overflow," which really only require patience and persistence to beat.  Of course, there's a Temple of Trivia, too, where players compete against one another to answer a succession of variously-themed questions.  

A few of the games, however, are overly simplistic to the point of being frustrating. For example, in a game called "Long Shot" in which a well-timed click of the mouse sends a balled-up armadillo flying across the landscape, the mechanics of success versus failure were never entirely clear.  Sometimes my armadillo bounced his way for literally thousands of feet while I sat and watched in awe. Other times, he'd stop after a measly few hundred feet, with no discernible difference in the throws.  The timing of your release of the armadillo is clearly at play, but for the most part, it felt that where the armadillo ended up was mostly beyond the player's control.  
Colored liquids in test tubes? We must be doing science!

Similarly, there are several "games" that don't give player gems, but rather, players get a temporary floating icon by their player avatar.  These are mostly food items like popcorn or hot cocoa whose only purpose seems to be to facilitate role playing with your avatar. There is also a "Claw" mini-game which is just as evil as its real-world counterpart.  For the cost of a mere 5 gems a play, you click a button and the claw arm drops, hopefully retrieving a cute plushie.  But unlike the real life claw game, the act of moving the claw arm is irrelevant.  Moving the arm only gives players the illusion that they are doing something meaningful--the chances of winning are entirely random. 

I did occasionally have some frustrating experiences with the game play.  Lag would cause the game to stutter, sometimes ending my turn abruptly.  I also had a frustrating experience once while playing "Pest Control," the simple, but somewhat unforgiving, tower-defense game mentioned above.  It took me quite a while to finally get the right balance of different animals to successfully thwart each successive wave of insect pest.  But once you've built up a stable configuration, you become pretty much unstoppable.  However, as I was flying through each new wave and racking up a monumental score I was unceremoniously logged out for "inactivity" and received no gem award.  While smaller children will likely not play these mini-games to such high levels, I could imagine slightly older players finding such unexpected log outs a frustrating disincentive. 

Minor inconveniences aside, the mini-games in Animal Jam are quite solid overall, and there's enough variety to ensure that everyone should be able to find at least one or two games they enjoy. Where Animal Jam starts to become a bit of a disappointment is in the message it sends kids through the very market-driven experience of interacting in Jamaa itself.

Exploring Jamaa
As mentioned above, despite the celebrating-the-natural-world overtones of Animal Jam, there's sadly no disguising that a powerful consumerist economy is what really drives life in Jamaa.  Oddly, this economy is prioritized even in ways that seem to conflict with the ideas about respect and appreciation for nature.  The primary reward for playing mini-games in Jamaa is to earn gems, and the only real purpose in having gems is to spend them on things.  Fortunately, Jamaa has plenty of shops ready to take those pesky gems off your avatar's hands.   (I counted at least 7 shops with unique items, and just as many separate spots where members could buy pets for their avatars). 

I rather liked my avatar's Donnie Darko look, but if you want 
your pet to look like Jack Sparrow, you'll pay extra for that.
And here is where things start to get a bit ugly.  Although Animal Jam is free-to-play, the majority of in-game items are exclusive only to paying members.  Even if you have an abundance of gems, you can't upgrade your den, buy pets, customize item colors, or own (either through purchase or trade) roughly 80% of most stores inventory.  In short, you can play mini-games to your heart's content and amass a hoard of wealth, but unless you want to collect a million creepy bunny hats, you have very little that you can spend your money on as a non-member.  Kids who fail to sweet-talk their parents into spending $5.95 a month (or $49.95 a year) will likely be disappointed with their options here.

"I am a consumer whore!"


Of course, players don't need to own things to enjoy the world of Jamaa, but buying and hoarding items is rewarded in Animal Jam.  Just as players can earn achievements for getting high scores in the mini-games, players are also given achievement ribbons for things like spending gems.  That's right, you are rewarded for spending in-game money in Jamaa's stores.  And while most players tend to have spent rather modestly and earned ribbons for 5,000 or 10,000 gems spent, in my short time in Jamaa, I came across players who had awards for 35,000; 65,000; and even 100,000 gems spent in the game!  On top of that, there are awards for buying your pet over 25 items of clothing, and for stockpiling items in your den: hoarding 25 items, 50 items, and 100 items in your den each nets players a separate award.

Another disturbing aspect to the wanton consumerism that pervades Jamaa is that it extends even into the treatment of animals.  The latest addition to the Animal Jam world is the ability for your avatar to own pets.  Pets come in four kinds (puppies, kittens, frogs, and ducklings) and by playing a rather mysterious slot-machine style game, you can customize your pet to have zany colors, hair-styles, eye colors, accessories, etc.  While there's nothing overtly upsetting about being able to buy a customized pet to suit your unique avatar, the catch is that your avatar is allowed to hold up to 4 pets at a time.  If you should tire of one of your pet's looks, or decide it's not rare enough to suit you tastes, just go ahead and "free" your pet to make room for the new one.  It surprises me that National Geographic would endorse a mechanic that treats animals as nothing more than fashion accessories, to be collected and then discarded at a whim, but there you have it.  Perhaps in future updates, Animal Jam might consider at least make releasing a pet a bit a slightly more difficult choice, both mechanically and emotionally.  Maybe someday Jamaa can have an animal shelter where you have to go to release your now unloved pet.  

On the plus side, one thing that Animal Jam does seem to do right is provide kids with a fairly safe virtual environment for socializing with each other.  Regularly is the Jamaa Township region so packed with players trying to chat, trade, or recruit others to den parties that it may be briefly inaccessible due to overcrowding.  And often I was witness to  groups of players enacting out rather elaborate role-playing scenes with their items and avatars.  But even where fantasy flourishes, the role-playing I saw in Jamaa was all too often tinged with the all-powerful desire to collect more goods.  Players would decorate their dens elaborately and lavishly for the enjoyment of other players (and probably in the hopes of being recognized in the Jammer Spotlight, "a weekly showcase of a Jammer who has gone above and beyond the call of Animal Jam duty").  There is also a player trade mechanic in the game which allows players to show-off and sometimes swap rare goods.  You will often see players standing in the Township asking other players to come to their dens to shop, receive item codes, or begging for free items, or wanting to trade for gloves, lockets, and other desirable rarities.

On the left: looking for friends.                                                 On the right: looking for goods.


Educational Content

As mentioned in the overview, educational content of Animal Jam appears mostly in little paw-icons scattered throughout the game world.  Clicking on one gives you a fun fact about plants, animals, or even the history of human uses of and adaptations to the natural environment.  There are also some buildings, like the Sarepia Movie Theater, that let players chose videos to watch on topics as varied as zombie snails to lightning, and there's a Chamber of Knowledge contains mini-National Geographic magazines  on more saccharine topics like frogs and pandas.  

The Chamber of Knowledge is unfortunately
just not a very popular place in Jamaa.
This material is truly informative and has all the quality and polish you expect from National Geographic.  The downside is that it's not really integrated into the gameplay at all.  Motivated kids might eat the information up on their own, although to get the most out of this material, parents probably would want to talk to their kids outside of the game about what they've learned.  Neither the main "game," if wandering through Jamaa is indeed  really a game, nor the mini-games do much to reinforce this information.  An exception perhaps would be the Temple of Trivia. However, when I played, the geography theme was quite challenging, but was absolutely not information players learned while roaming through Jamaa.  Overall, I was surprised and frustrated  to find that there appear to be no games or achievements that reward players based on whether or not players had clicked on or remembered any of the content from the fun facts, magazine articles, or videos.



Conclusion

Animal Jam by all means appears to be a very successful online game for kids.  On weekends, each land is fairly teaming with animal avatars; so much so, in fact, that the Jamaa Township zone is often quite difficult to enter because of overcrowding.  Kids definitely appear to enjoying chatting with one another through their personalized animal avatars, and you will find yourself receiving buddy requests from many players for no apparent reason.  But parents don't need to worry overly much even if the kids here seem rather indiscriminate in making friends for Jamaa is indeed a well-moderated virtual world.  In my time playing, I didn't see anyone trolling, being vulgar or mean, or misbehaving in any way.  That said, calling Animal Jam an educational game seems somewhat misleading.

There are a lot of interesting facts about our humble home Earth scattered throughout the game.  Children who are already somewhat motivated learners will undoubtedly enjoy these bits.  Unfortunately, however, this learning is not an integral part of the game.  The central motivation that underlies most of you time spent in Jamaa is simply, "Spend gems and collect more stuff."  Whether "stuff" means items of varying rarity, buddies with whom you may or may not really ever interact, or pets which can be collected and disposed of at whim, no part of the primary game economy really relates to the "educational" aspects of the game.  This doesn't mean that the game doesn't have certain fun and addictive aspects, it just means that parents shouldn't be overly deceived about how much their child is learning while romping through Jamaa. If your child is spending a considerable amount of time on Animal Jam, he or she is likely learning more about how to stockpile animal-themed knick-knacks and how to build a bigger den for showing off those items than anything about the wonders of the natural world.


Pros: Cute & customizable animal avatars, enjoyable mini-games, kid-friendly virtual community

Cons: Educational content not reinforced by game mechanics, non-members may be frustrated by a lack of items the can spend their in-game money on, main room often overcrowded.

Score: B



12 comments:

  1. This is an addictive game that will cause you no end of "Can I play some Animal Jam, please?" I'm writing in to warn parents about this problem. My blog includes some of my research on this. http://researchingmommy.blogspot.ca/2012/11/animal-jam-addiction-disorder.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing your impressions of Animal Jam. I see we agree that the educational value of the game seems pretty questionable, and that kids seem to be rather unfortunately sucked into the much more materialistic aspects of the in-game economy. But I certainly wasn't aware of just how addictive the game can be to the younger crowd. Definitely something parent should consider when letting their kids play!

      Delete
  2. To all the parents out there....move along. This game will turn your child in to someone really unlikable.

    ReplyDelete
  3. AnonymousJune 12, 2014

    Beware! While Animal Jam (AJ) appears to be a safe environment for your child due to the fact that vulgar language is not permitted. It is fraught with predatory children who have learned to seem, con, and scam your vulnerable child out of his or, her rare items. Now, let me explain why these items are considered rare. AJ only offers for sale certain items for a limited time, then introduces new items thus making them become rare. These rare items become very desirable to incoming new members who can only obtain these items thru trade. This is when children become very materialistic and become predatory scammers! I have called AJ’s customer service numerous times to discuss the predatory environment and am told don’t worry its safe! Maybe from vulgar language and sexual predators but, not from the children who prey on the child who thinks he is going to make an even trade, only to find he has been scammed out of his rare headdress for a wheelbarrow. When trading a child announces he has an item or items for trade then the scammer announces that whoever trades me the best _____ wins this rare item however, when the trade begins the scammer clicks accept and gives you something different than promised. Sad, there are even children who try to beg items from your child following, harassing saying “give me your unwanted items, unwanted items, unwanted items, give me your unwanted items”. Great Environment, right, I think not!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. While the problem of trade scammers certainly isn't unique to Animal Jam, I do see how they can really ruin a child's experience of the game. Because Animal jam is targeted toward an especially young demographic, it would seem like the developers could and probably should build in more safeguards when confirming trades to make it harder to trick younger players out of their items.

      Delete
    2. Animal Jam does have sexual predators as members. My daughter was approached by one and told to go to his den and then he said lets have "sext". Her friend was also approached within a few weeks of my daughter being approached. I just purchased a year membership for my daughter and wish there was a way to get my money back because I don't feel it is safe like they say. I may dispute the purchase with my credit card. On top of that when I wrote them asking what exactly happened (she was suspended for a week) I got back a very short reply with barely any information. Her friend's mom that this also happened to got back a short reply also. I don't feel it is a safe environment for kids anymore and may not allow my daughter to continue to use it.
      There is def bullying going on and scamming for your items. The only plus is that my daughter has to learn to save up her diamonds so she can buy items she really wants. I will def monitor her using it more closely.

      Delete
  4. Maybe AJ has changed as I went online to check it out because my daughter started using it a lot and we bought a membership for her. Within minutes there was nothing but sexual innuendo (including characters simulating sex acts by jumping up and down), constant calls to go to dens where the only activity I witnessed was "hooking up", the messages included the words b*tch and God used in vain. Youtube also has videos instructing children to pretend to be their parents to circumvent controls. I immediately cancelled (on the second day of that process as AJ makes terminating difficult). The site should be taken down as it is obviously not monitored well at all.

    ReplyDelete
  5. AnonymousJune 08, 2015

    I am furious...my daughter went to pieces trusting another and lost valuable items. I've never seen my child this upset and am furious with a game sponsored by such a reputable organization. What's going on. Is this all about money for NG.

    ReplyDelete
  6. AnonymousJuly 27, 2015

    The "mean girl" mentality runs strong with this game. My daughter is being coerced into giving away hard earned and valuable items. When she doesn't want to give up these items, but offers something different instead, she is threatened to be blocked and reported. This of course causes her to become upset and confused as she has done nothing wrong. When she hosts parties or contests, the players that do not win are poor sports and say some ugly things to my daughter. She is called "mean" on a near daily basis as well as bullied by random players she hasn't even met. As a parent, I cannot begin to express my anger with this website and National Geographic. Needless to say, she is no longer a member.

    ReplyDelete
  7. My daughter loves animal jam, and i let her play it because she says the membership money goes to"National Geographic"

    ReplyDelete
  8. Ignore all the bad reviews about Animal Jam. People are obviously trying to bring the game down because they think it's ''unsafe'. I've been playing for a few years now, and it's very safe. The chat filter is very safe, and the educational features have actually improved. Recently, they've started bringing out new mini books every time a new animal is released - they're quite amazing, actually. It's quite hard to teach kids and teenagers about animals, and I think Animal Jam do it quite well. Also, they've improved scamming really well - there's a brand new trading systerm which stops any scamming.


    It's like other games targeted to kids, there are going to be some players who are mean or bad. But they will be suspended if they break the rules. I personally think the older players chat or trade items, and then the younger players play mini-games and sign up for the educational content - but all players still learn quite a lot. And also, Animal Jam has nearly over 40,000,000 players now! Membership funds go towards National Geograhics Big Cat fund, where they help big cats in the wild. Parents are going to always try and bring the game down because they simply don't understand it. Animal Jam are always giving out safety advice, actually they have an entire section on their blog about it: http://dailyexplorer.animaljam.com/?cat=18. Hope if any parent is reading this they understand.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Oh, and also the main rooms don't get overcrowded anymore. Animal Jam expanded their severs because Animal Jam has got so big now.

    ReplyDelete