Game picks

June 17, 2011 

The topic of limiting screen time is one that comes up a lot in our household, for both the kids and the adults. I spend a ridiculous amount of time watching movies and "reviewing" games ("I'd love to do the dishes, honey, but I'm working here!"). Still, I'm aware that maybe the kids don't need to match my level of screen intake.

Kids are wired to love videogames, though, so we try to jam in educational material whenever we can - particularly with PC and laptop games. National Geographic's excellent "Animal Jam" (PC/Mac; free with premium subscription options; rated E) has been getting a lot of play lately.

"Jam" is essentially a perpetual virtual world - like "World of Warcraft" or "The Sims" - but geared to kids ages 5 to 11. Players create their own animal avatars and roam the land of Jamaa, where they earn digital rewards for solving educational puzzles and nature trivia tests.

The avatars are generated using a flipcard-type interface. So, for instance, you might create Blossom Prettypet the Koala or Handsome Icymoon the Tiger. After much debate, we eventually settled on Snickety Cleverpaw the Monkey.

The stylized animation is surprisingly sophisticated and rather charming. Quests are fairly straightforward, and any kid halfway familiar with adventure or RPG games will have no trouble navigating the virtual world.

"Animal Jam" is monitored 24/7 by both software 'bots and a team of online moderators, and the game overall has an impressive suite of parental control options for access and chat. Premium subscription plans - $6 for one month; $60 for one year - unlock bonus in-game content.

The subscription plans keep the game free of ads as well, and a portion of the proceeds go toward National Geographic conservation causes. "Animal Jam" is a nice option for families looking for a gentle introduction to online virtual world gaming.

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