Wait a minute… learning CAN be fun?

You got learning in my online gaming! Before you accuse me of the reverse and we end up in a Reese’s style standoff, just know that either way could be used to describe Animal Jam. This kid-friendly multiplayer browser game definitely has an ulterior educational motive, but it’s not out to cram anyone’s head full of facts without first making sure they have some fun.

The brainchild of the folks at National Geographic (or NatGeo, if you’re too cool to say the whole thing), Animal Jam has a lot of outward similarities with other online games targeting younger gamers. After creating a free account, players can choose from a handful of cute though very angular animals to use as an avatar. The brief tutorial explains how to move by clicking and how to change your animal’s color, pattern and eyes to your liking.

From there you are free to explore the various lands that make up the world of Jamaa. Every zone has its own games to play, some of which are more obviously animal-themed than others. The selection is excellent, featuring everything from hidden object games to a take-off on Galaga. Good scores pay off in gems, Jamaa’s currency of choice.

You’ll need those gems to trick out your den, as every animal gets a place to call home. A wide range of furniture, decorations and other household items can be purchased at vendors located in every zone. You can even change the music that plays while you’re lounging in your den. If you’re dedicated enough, it’s possible to acquire bigger and better homes and switch between them.

Smaller animals can be purchased and customized to keep as pets. It’s a bit strange, but if it works for the Disney characters (see: Mickey and Pluto), it must be all good. The rest of the gameplay is mostly social, as you can add other players as buddies, trade items and attend parties. The animals have a small but useful set of animations that will make you believe a seal can breakdance.

Animal Jam

That’s just scratching the surface of Animal Jam though, because the NatGeo folks also dreamed up a bunch of ways to add real life animals into the mix. Every land has interactive locations that include embedded videos and games that simulate experiences like the touch pool at an aquarium. Experts take players behind the scenes and answer user-submitted questions in theater rooms where you can hang out as long as you want. Animal facts and video clips can be saved to a journal for future reference.

All told, there’s something for animal lovers over a wide range of ages, though tweens are likely to get bored of some of the videos and my pre-schoolers needed help with many of the games. The sweet spot for who would get the most out of the game is probably somewhere in-between. And since this is a kids game, a number of safeguards are in place to keep things appropriate for them. Chat has both filters and live monitors, there is no in-game advertising, and parents can create their own accounts to take even more control over their childrens’ play settings.

If all of this sounds too good to be true for a free game, that’s because it kind of is. A free account grants access to all of Jamaa but doesn’t open up most customization options. Free players can’t get pets or buy a large percentage of the den items. Since self-expression is a fairly big part of the game, you may be hearing your kid ask about a paid monthly membership that removes all of these restrictions and grants special exclusive items.

Animal Jam

For free and paid players, Jamaa is a colorful, vibrant place. There’s motion everywhere, slides to go down and other surprises. Swimming animals get their own special animations in certain locations too. A few glitches pop up from time to time – the game sometimes doesn’t save changes to your avatar’s coloring, for instance – and there are short but frequent loading screens when moving from one land to another. Other than that, everything else is smooth and hassle-free.

Some really smart people have pointed out that educational games don’t always engage kids too well, mostly because they aren’t fun. Animal Jam manages to avoid this pitfall by incorporating the learning into the game instead of the other way around. Hey, I guess we answered that debate from the first paragraph after all.