Every day [kids] send us thousands of comments, drawings, ideas, laments, jokes, and delightful artifacts of child-brain weirdness. I love opening the app on my phone and just watching this stuff flow by. It’s like a having a fiber optic pipeline straight to the heart of dada.
Do you ever envy your children? Do you ever feel like they just don’t understand how good they’ve got it? Do you want to tell them how lucky they are to have an entire online world full of animal games, videos, photos and facts, when your only outlets for animal obsession were crappy encyclopedia cd roms and a binder full of Lisa Frank folders? Me too. Especially today.
This morning WildWorks launched Animal Jam — Play Wild!, a mobile version of the wildly successful Animal Jam. The game is currently an online playground with 35 million users in 228 countries. Animal Jam features videos of animals, animal photography, and facts about animals developed with National Geographic. Animal Jam also works as a social network for kids, allowing them to chat with friends and host in-game parties in a safe and supervised environment.
“Most kids under 13 already have at least one social networking account, whether it’s Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Instagram, or something else,” WildWorks founder Clark Stacey explains. “None of those services permit registration by users under 13, so they’re lying about their age. None of those platforms are filtered or moderated, so kids are dropped into a cauldron that is distressing at best and fundamentally dangerous at worst.” Animal Jam is a much safer alternative and a friendlier introduction to online social interaction. As Stacey explains, the goal of Animal Jam — Play Wild! is to become as ubiquitous and embraced among kids as the other social networks they currently use.
In order to keep Animal Jam free from the dangers of other social media, WildWorks uses licensed technology with filtered messaging and a whitelist/blacklist system that is constantly adjusted by moderators. Any Animal Jam participant must first receive parental permission before playing, and parents have access to a parent dashboard where they can control the social functions their children can access within the game.
“What we hear about most often is how parents have incorporated Animal Jam into a (hopefully) balanced media diet for their child,” Stacey explains. “Many parents are concerned about moderating the time their kids spend with a screen each day, whether it’s television, computers, or mobile devices. They appreciate that time spent in Animal Jam is interactive, social, moderated, and educational.” That last word isn’t one that Stacey and his team use lightly.
“Kids have every reason to be suspicious of education games,” Stacey says. “With few exceptions, they are reliably terrible as games, and not much better at education. We started making games for kids because we found they’re woefully underserved by game developers.”
As a result, WildWorks managed to create an online world that has been widely embraced by children all over the globe, while providing educational opportunities if a child has interest. “We built an online playground that seeks to spark curiosity about the biosphere. We then provide resources inside and outside the playground for kids to drill down on the topics that interest them,” Stacey says. “There are no tests, no formal alignment with traditional STEM curricula. We’ve succeeded when a child comes to the dinner table excited to tell everyone about something weird they just learned about owls in Animal Jam. Traditional STEM education will be more relevant to that child when it’s offered, and therefore more likely to stick.”
That STEM stickiness is noticeable to educators. So much so that teachers reach out to WildWorks wanting to incorporate Animal Jam in the classroom. To keep up with the demand, Stacey and his team recently brought on an education outreach manager to develop specific programs. “Our goal is for Animal Jam to be as enduring and impactful for kids 50 years from now as Sesame Street has been for my generation,” Stacey says. “Our players already watch over 4100 minutes (almost 6 months) worth of educational video in Animal Jam every day. Now that will be available to them on mobile platforms, along with our e-books and other educational assets.”
As overwhelming positive as the feedback is from parents and teachers, the real reward for the WildWorks team is the feedback from the players. “Every day [kids] send us thousands of comments, drawings, ideas, laments, jokes, and delightful artifacts of child-brain weirdness. I love opening the app on my phone and just watching this stuff flow by. It’s like a having a fiber optic pipeline straight to the heart of dada,” Stacey says.
The business model behind Animal Jam — Play Wild! is unusual among mobile apps for kids. Players are able to customize their favorite animal avatars and explore the entire game world for free. Whereas most free-to-play games base their monetization on the sale of a consumable in-game currency, in Animal Jam — Play Wild! unlimited currency can be earned by exploring the virtual world and playing the games found there. WildWorks will release new premium animal avatars every 4–6 weeks that parents can purchase in the app. Purchasing one of these additional animals will unlock an educational multimedia e-book about the corresponding real-world animal species.
Animal Jam — Play Wild! is available for free in the iTunes App Store for the iPad, and will be available on Android devices in coming weeks. Just make sure your hide your jealousy from your offspring.