When it comes to educational software, the trick is to make kids think they’re just playing a traditional escapist game, while they’re really being surreptitiously fed facts and logic problems that put their brains to work. But while many games have done this for years, the technique hasn’t really made the jump to online virtual worlds – most of the kid-friendly virtual worlds are more focused on socializing and having fun than learning. Now JumpStart, a best-selling educational software developer, is looking to fill this niche with its new JumpStart Virtual World, which launched this week in public beta.
The game has high production values, with rich 3D graphics, customizable avatars, and a large world to explore. The game is browser-based, and works on both Mac and Windows with a small browser plugin. The current release offers 5 themed zones, each of which is filled with games designed to entertain and teach at the same time (examples include a Story game, which requires the child to play a memory matching game as they attempt to find all of the parts of their story book). Each game also tracks the child’s progress, and allows parents to receive periodic updates via Email detailing how their kids are doing.
The JumpStart virtual world is broken into three main segments, each targeted towards a different age range. At launch the only one available is Story Land (for ages 3-5), but Adventure Land (6-8’s) and Futureland (8-10’s) will be opening up in March or April 2009. The game is free to try out and lets kids play in one of the world’s themed zones, but to access the majority of the content families will need to pay a $7.99 monthly subscription fee (the fee is per family, not per child, and also includes access to JumpStart’s library of retail games).
But while JumpStart’s world is loaded with content, at this point it doesn’t take full advantage of its online connectivity. To keep kids as safe as possible the game doesn’t allow for much socialization between avatars (an understandable restriction, especially with the 3-5 year-old set). But at launch there’s only one multiplayer game, though JumpStart exec Thomas Swalla says more are on the way. If JumpStart is going to be charging monthly dues, it needs to do more to separate itself from a standard off-line game. That said, in my testing the game was surprisingly fun (even though I am admittedly well outside the target audience), and could easily be a hit with kids.