I am a gaming mom, so it should come as no surprise that my kids have gotten into gaming too. They enjoying watching me play games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I even let them add their two cents to the process when appropriate. But when mommy needs to have some sexy times with her pixel people, the kids have to find their own gaming entertainment. My eldestwe’ll call her Bunnyis nine years old and is generally the one in charge of the kids’ PC, though she’ll sometimes let her sister, Panda, age seven, have a say. Bunny has long since outgrown game sites like TVO Kids, BBC Kids, and Kids’ CBC. Now she prefers massive multiplayer online (MMO) games for kids when she isn’t building elaborate structures in Minecraft or putting the magic of friendship to work in the My Little Pony app.

Bunny has gone through phases with these MMOs and not all of them have been good. I confess to parental negligence whenthanks to the influence of television commercialsshe started playing Movie Star Planet, where players create two dimensional celebrities and walk the red carpet and make their own movies. We’ve gone over the basics of Internet safety and she knows not to provide any information, but when we finally looked more closely at her chat window, we discovered far too many people asking for unnecessary details. Nothing entirely inappropriate, but definitely not cool.

Disney's Club Penguin

Black Widow Penguin

Bunny has also played Moshi Monsters and Club Penguin. The latter regularly features major themed events, and, because it is now owned by Disney, that means things like awesome Marvel penguins saving their little penguin world. Now they are both playing Animal Jam from National Geographic Kids. I had originally planned to make this a review of their favourite games, but I realized that, well, the games are all the same. It turns out that, much like adult MMOs, these games have the same basic elements. While adult MMOs try really hard to be unique within an industry saturated by this type of game, MMOs for kids can get away with repeating the same concepts. The only significant difference is in what kind of cutesy characters the kids are running around with.

So let’s focus on Animal Jam.

Animal Jam is a safe and exciting online playground for kids who love animals and the outdoors. Players create and customize their own animal characters and dens, chat with friends, adopt pets, team up for adventures, and feed their curiosity about animals and the natural world around them.”

I recently succumbed to the incessant whining, guilt tripping, and child logic-ing to convince me to purchase a membership, so now Bunny and Panda have access to all the goodies. Because nothing is free, right? Or rather, the game is free, but for players to get the full scope of the game, and for parents not to lose their sanity to their kids begging, pay to play is the way to go. I really can’t argue with them. I have been known to pay for a Star Wars: The Old Republic subscription just so I can get really important things, like outfits for my characters. YES THIS IS IMPORTANT OKAY? More on this later.

Online safety and digital citizenship are a big concern, so I am much more comfortable with her playing a game like this. Similar to Club Penguin, Animal Jam has a pretty big company name behind it, and that means a significant reputation to uphold. On the about pageAnimal Jam makes it clear that they put safety first:

“Animal Jam has in-game moderators and robust chat and social filters to help keep players safe online. Animal Jam also has educational content for players about digital citizenship and online safety, ensuring our players are aware of how to be safe online.”

On top of this, I have access to the parent dashboard that allows me to control the level of access my children have, particularly when it comes to chat settings. I can limit them to “bubble chat,” where they can only choose from selected words and phrases, or, as a member, I can grant them “safe chat,” which provides more freedom, but within the moderated parameters of the site. Oh, there are always ways to get around filters, but Animal Jam is pretty strict. Bunny explained that even the word “butt” is banned. By default, accounts are set to “restricted chat,” which allows players to communicate with the words available from a staff created dictionary.

So, Bunny took me on a tour of the game. She selected her little fox character, and after some customization (so my daughter… I never start a Saints Row playthrough without first choosing a new look for my character). Then she showed me her Princess Palace and all the furnishings and decor she’s purchased.

Animal Jam | National Geographic Kids | http://animaljam.com/

I asked her what the purpose of the game was, and she explained that the game was about collecting stuff, hanging out with people, and playing mini games. So like I said, just like an adult MMO. But this is National Geographic, so after a bit of prodding, Bunny added that you do learn things too. Sure, I could have just read about it on the website:

“Created [by WildWorks] in partnership with National Geographic, Animal Jam features classic playground role playing infused with the life sciences. Players can collect fun facts in their journey books, learn about Animal Conservation in Kimbara Outback, and talk to real scientists, like herpetologist Dr. Brady Barr and marine biologist Dr. Tierney Thys.” [source]

…but it’s important that she knows this isn’t just about the fun. It’s about learning too, which is fun.

There is an in-game newsletter that provides information on upcoming events, as well as animals facts. Some of the games teach you about various animals and their environments. By exploring the different zones on the world map, you can identify creatures in your Journey Book and earn prizes for your efforts. Similar to codex entries in a grown up game, each animal has a little info card, though I note that the information provided is very briefperfect for little minds easily distracted by all the other shiny things bouncing around in the game.

Animal Jam | National Geographic Kids | http://animaljam.com/

All of the educational content is available to both members and non-members, but a lot of the superficial virtual items are available to members only. The game makes sure to dangle that “members” sign prominently, ensuring the incessant torment for a membership, which costs around six dollars per month. Real money can also be used to purchase the virtual currency of the game, gems, and diamonds. These can also be earned in-game by playing games and participating in events, though members have more opportunities to earn them.

Players unlock various achievements as they go along, like virtual pats on the head that encourage them to strive for further rewards. I would like to say this abusing childhood gullibility and innocence, but yeah… adults like their virtual trophies too. In other words, there are all sorts of ways to feed the need for instant gratification, even if none of this is real.

However, there is one very real aspect of the game that I approve of, and I can justify the monthly fee because of it. Proceeds from the purchase of memberships, currency, and merchandise from “AJ Outfitters” help support National Geographic Society’s conservation efforts in the real world. By June of 2012, over three million dollars was contributed towards the society’s work with wild animals. The children can get directly involved with this process by donating the gems they earn.

Animal Jam | National Geographic Kids | http://animaljam.com/

The in-game donation and support process was a little unclear, but with a bit of digging, we learned that the children’s donation acts as a kind of voting system. Players learn about endangered animals in the real world, and their donations act as votes towards which particular animal project will be funded next through the Play Wild Fund. For example, in June 2014, using a portion of the membership fees, Animal Jam Headquarters adopted a hyena at the Oakland zoo as a result of in-game donations for that particular animal. The current focus is on the preservation of big cats, and as a result of this player interaction, one or more of these animals will soon return to the game.

Somewhere along the way, I’m still a bad parent for letting the kids have more screen time than they should instead of going outside to play in the piles of snow, but at least I know they are learning a thing or two, and that my money is being put to good use. (We voted for the cheetahs, by the way.)