Animal Jam Review: The Boys Have a New Favorite Game

Animal Jam

The boys have played Animal Jam every day since we introduced it to them. It is already their new favorite game.

Before I get into the fun Jeff Bogle and I had introducing Animal Jam to our kids, let me just share the repercussions at our house.

First: My two sons, 8 and 6, have asked to play the game every day for a week. Second: Every time they sit down to play, they ask if I can contact Jeff to have his girls play, too.

I was first introduced to Animal Jam at Dad 2.0 Summit this past winter. National Geographic was a sponsor of the event and livened up the sponsor showcase by bringing along live animals for attendees to hold and gawk at.

I held a skunk. Also, an alligator.

Animal Jam

Animal Jam and National Geographic hung out at Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans. And brought a few friends.

It made for a great photo opp, but I figured my kids were so deep into Minecraft at the time that any attempt to interest them in another online game – even one involving one of their favorite things, animals – would be futile. But I loved the concept, and I kept an eye on how Animal Jam worked with other dads in the blogging community.

That’s how I found a contest hosted by my friend Creed Anthony, who publishes the blog Tales from the Poop Deck. The Captain, as he’s known, was giving away a one-year Animal Jam membership, and I figured I’d enter for kicks.

Sure enough, I won the contest. Still, it wasn’t until Jeff suggested that he and I introduce our kids to the game together and chat about it in real time that I activated our account and set Jay and Chris loose in the virtual world of Jamaa.

On an early October Saturday afternoon, Jeff and his older daughter (the “Bear”) up in Pennsylvania logged in on their account. Jay and I did the same down here in Florida.

Here is an edited version of the real-time chat Jeff and I conducted via Facebook while our kids created Captain Speedywolf the wolf and Professor von Cloud, the koala, and immersed themselves in their exploration of the ecological environments of Jamaa.

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(We activated our memberships and the kids dived right in. They started in a common area called Jamaa Township, where Halloween festivities were in full swing – complete with spooky music, decorations and costumes that can be “purchased” using in-game currency known as gems or diamonds.)

Animal Jam

Captain Speedywolf is jamming to the Halloween music in Jamaa Township. That wolf rocks.

Carter: This is cool

Jeff: It really is.

Carter: Jay wants to go to his den.

Carter: The Bear can visit.

Jeff: She just arrived. No doorbell to knock so she let herself in. ;)

Jeff: Let’s decorate!

(Jay used his gem stash to “buy” a table for his personal area, known in the game as a den.)

Jeff: Sweet table.

Carter: Jay wants to buy stuff.

(The Bear’s koala, Professor von Cloud, started to dance on Jay’s new table.)

Jeff: Geez, 2 minutes in and she’s table dancing. Nice. ;)

Animal Jam

Here’s Captain Speedywolf at the entrance to his den. In the foreground, you see his soccer net and a few of the 19 pets he has adopted.

Carter: Awesome. Laughter here!

Carter: This reminds me of absolutely nothing we did as kids.

Carter: Can you imagine if we’d have had this kind of thing in the 70s? Crystal Sands!

Jeff: I really cannot imagine being able to do this with friends as a kid. I would’ve seen even less of the sun and the great outdoors than I did.

(In an aquatic area called Crystal Sands, our kids find a virtual aquarium that features a series of quick, educational videos about sea life and virtual water slides that the characters can ride down. Both the Bear and Jay quickly view a couple of videos and take a ride down the slides.)

Jeff: Water slides!!

Jeff: The Bear is in the aquarium.

Jeff: Watching a video upstairs.

Animal Jam

Captain Speedywolf is about to go down the water slide in the Crystal Sands environment.

Carter: Upstairs. Wow, that’s neat.

Jeff: Some serious electric eel knowledge being dropped in here. Super cool.

Jeff: “Electric eel give off 5x electric outlet shock.” Yikes!

Carter: Watching a coral video.

Jeff: The video integration is smooth and makes total sense, content wise.

Carter: Sharks!

Jeff: This is some serious educational stuff, quick bits of knowledge animal lovers and curious sponges are gonna love.

Carter: “Faster moving sharks need to keep moving to breathe. Nurse sharks and others have pumps and can hang out.”

Jeff: Really? I had no idea.

(Chris, our first grader, suddenly became VERY interested in what his big brother was doing on the laptop and came over to watch.)

Carter: “When can I play?!?” – Chris, 6

Jeff: Ha!

Jeff: The pool next to hot tub is a game. The Bear is playing now.

Carter: Jay, too

Jeff: Rad sting ray.

Animal Jam

Admiral Coolshark in his natural environment, the Deep Blue.

(The kids began to experiment with changing their identities. They each created a penguin to take advantage of the animal-specific activities offered during game play. They can play as a wide variety of animals, including a shark .)

Jeff: Going to Penguin Party.

Carter: Can’t do it. Water slide!?

Jeff: The Bear is making a new animal, becoming a penguin to get there.

Carter: Down the water slide …. woo hoo!

Carter: This Halloween theme is great

Jeff: It is. The music is cool.

(One of the biggest hits with our kids is the ability to “adopt” pets within the game. They found the pet shops pretty early and visit them frequently during game play. The pets are smaller versions of different animals and tag along with the main character animals. Pets also are used to play mini-games in Animal Jam.)

Jeff: The Bear wants to find the pet shop to get a pet.

Carter: Jay wants to do that too. Also stuff for his den.

Carter: Sugar glider!

Jeff: It is hard to figure out where to go in here. Have you found a map of the specific area? With details?

Carter: No. Only world map.

Zippyninja

Zippyninja, the sugar glider. He was the first pet, and still the favorite of Captain Speedywolf.

Carter: Zippyninja the sugar glider.

Carter: Zippyninja flies along behind Captain Speedywolf.

Jeff: Hey! We see you!

Carter: Jay loves that cat!

Jeff: That is a RAD pet and pet name. Let’s do the pet game.

Carter: “Look at this little guy! They’re all so cute!”

Carter: Jay wants another pet.

Jeff: He’s a future ‘Crazy Cat Lady.’

Carter: “Daddy! When can I please play that game?” – Chris

Carter: Minecraft might have to take a back seat for a while.

Jeff: Right? This is super and expansive.

Jeff: I like that there are pet specific experiences. Encourages collecting more pets and trying out more animals.

Carter: Is there a story line, or all open play?

Jeff: Little narratives, like this phantom thief mini game, but in general this seems wide open.

Carter: It’s really immersive.

Carter: “When’s it going to be my turn, Daddy?” – Chris

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Our kids kept playing right on past our 45-minute online chat. Both of the younger siblings, Chris and the Mouse in Pennsylvania, jumped in with their older siblings and had a blast.

As I mentioned, Jay and Chris have played Animal Jam every day since that first foray into the online world of Jamaa. In fact, Chris filled out an “about me” questionnaire at school this past Monday, and he listed Animal Jam as his favorite game. That’s saying a lot, because I didn’t think anything could knock Minecraft off its lofty perch in our family’s gaming life.

Animal Jam just might have done that.

Here are a few things to know:

  • Animal Jam was created by Smart Bomb Interactive, a Salt Lake City-based development studio.
  • One of the main focuses of the game is Internet security. All of the sharing and interactivity functions within the game can be deactivated by parents through a parents-only dashboard. It took a couple of minutes for us to figure out how to block “buddy” invitations, but once we did that and blocked unwelcome conversations, the boys were free to move around without fear of potentially unwanted interaction.
  • As you might expect with any National Geographic endeavor, education is paramount. The developers created Animal Jam Academy, a place where kids can go to learn more about their favorite animals and participate in hands-on activities.
  • Rewards are earned as players learn. Scattered throughout each environment are flora and fauna that can be clicked to earn flash cards. Complete the set for each land, and earn a gift of game gems.
  • The game is free to play, but to access all of the features a membership is required. Memberships are available through tiered pricing: $5.95 for one month; $29.95 for six months; $57.95 for a year. The fee includes extra gems and diamonds that can be used to “purchase” items within the game.

There is a lot more to the game, including the fact that a portion of every membership fee is donated to the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. I don’t want to give too much away, though, because much of the joy in this game comes from exploration and discovery.

Be sure to check out Jeff Bogle’s post on our fun time with Animal Jam, and let us know what you think of the game! Jeff is giving away a handful of one-month Animal Jam memberships, so make sure you head over there and enter.

You can also learn more by checking out Animal Jam on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Animal Jam in association with National Geographic. All opinions expressed are my own or those of my kids, who will no doubt ask to play Animal Jam again this afternoon when they get home from school.

Why We Should Care if CEO Dads Choose to be Engaged Parents

One of the benefits of leaning in at home is I escort the boys to the school bus stop in the morning and meet them there in the afternoon. The smiles and hugs when they come off the bus are priceless.

One of the benefits of leaning in at home is I escort the boys to the school bus stop in the morning and meet them there in the afternoon. The smiles and hugs when they come off the bus are priceless.

The thoughts and experiences of several CEO dads regarding work-family balance are detailed in a new article posted to TIME.

This quote from Ernst & Young’s Mark Weinberger sums up why it is important to tell the stories of these high-powered, high-stress, high-responsibility executives:

“You can have all the initiatives you want saying you can have flexibility, but until some of the real leaders make the choice to choose family, I don’t think people feel like they have real permission to do it.”

I agree with Weinberger, who told TIME about turning down the chance to take photos on top of the Great Wall of China after a recent speech because he had to board a plane to get back to the U.S. for his daughter’s driving test the next day. Weinberger added that he received many emails after that speech, all of which praised his commitment to fatherhood.

I am drawn to a story like this one, as well as the one I wrote last month for TODAY Parents about CEO Max Schireson reducing his work duties to be more “there” for his kids. The idea that millionaire men who are responsible for the growth and well-being of billion-dollar companies want the world to know they are engaged fathers resonates with me.

No, these guys don’t have to worry about paying for food or medical bills. They have the luxury to actually make decisions that will enable them to spend more time being dads, as opposed to working two or three jobs to make ends meet.

But that actually enhances their point. They have the choice, and they choose to make fatherhood a priority. Not merely the traditional, provider role of fatherhood. The vital role of being there, of engaging with their kids. As Schireson told me, “It’s not just about being there more. It’s about being ‘more there.'”

This is why it’s important to acknowledge these rich men who run these big companies but also are committed to being the best dads they can be. Because the more it becomes the norm for the men and women who are “big” bosses to make the right choices in terms of work-family priorities, the easier it will become for all of us to be “more there” for our kids.

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I am beginning my second week working out of our home. So far, so good. Last week, the boys seemed pleased to have me home in the afternoons, and I was more than pleased to be here for them.

We’re still making the adjustment, and I get the feeling that it will take more than a few days to figure it all out. Then, just as we figure it out, I imagine things will change again. We’ll adjust to that, too.

For now, I’ll meet them at the bus stop, get them settled into a routine that includes an afternoon snack and homework (not necessarily in that order) and juggle the responsibilities of writing and maintaining the household.

I’m no CEO, but this will do.

 

At Home

At home, I’ll walk the boys to the bus stop in the morning and meet them there in the afternoon.

At home, I’ll write.

At home, I’ll do my share of the housekeeping.

At home, I hope I discover a personal peace and professional gratification I never quite managed to find in four-plus years of commuting and cubicle life.

At home, I’ll find a new world.

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Kid selfieChange is exciting. Change is frightening. Change is inevitable. This change has been coming for a while, and we’re ready. Maybe. There is no way to know, I suppose. Not yet, anyway. Talk to me again in a year.

We’ve never done this. Not quite this way. Last time, after the layoff, when I spent 19 months scrambling for whatever sports-related freelance work there was to find, we didn’t have two boys in elementary school. I didn’t have this online journal. We were in a different place financially.

IMG_0905Now, it’s not so crazy. OK, it’s a little crazy. And frightening. And exciting.

But inevitable.

About a month ago, I interviewed a man named Max Schireson for the TODAY Show. His story went semi-viral: An upwardly mobile, successful tech CEO steps away from his high-profile, high-pressure, high-paying position to spend more time at home. He wanted his decision to resonate with other CEOs and fathers, to bring to light the fact that there is another way.

IMG_0906The whole time we talked, I wanted to tell him yes! This is what I’m going to do! Maybe I’m not leaving $10 million on the table, but I’m going to do this! The decision to make this change already had been made. In fact, I submitted my notice less than a week later. I didn’t need persuading. But listening to Max talk about his decision helped mollify some of the anxiety that tickled the back of my mind.

That little voice. It kept taunting me: Was I nuts to leave a steady, full-time position to plunge into this uncertain realm of writing for a living? The conversation with Max quieted that voice. A little, anyway.

IMG_0907Now, it’s done. I’m a work-at-home dad. There are statistics and definitions that explain what that means in the larger context of society.

What does it mean for our family?

It means that for the first time since the layoff, I am on a career path that I chose, rather than working merely for the money. It means that for the first time in years, the boys will have a parent at home with them in the afternoons after school, rather than heading to after-school care. It means that for the first time, my wife will shoulder less of the burden at home.

IMG_0908It means … I’m excited. And nervous. And energized.

It means I’m home.

We Need to Hear Something Good

It’s kind of rough right now, isn’t it? Ferguson. James Foley. Gaza. Syria. Ukraine. Ebola. Seems like everything is going to Hell. And that’s on top of our own everyday challenges, which we all do our best to conquer, but sometimes seem overwhelming.

How do we cope? Hugs help me. This morning, I felt the weight of the world release its grip for just a moment as I was embraced by the boys and my wife on my way out the door. I am fortunate. I know happiness. I also know stress and distress, and I worry about things. Sometimes I can’t sleep because of it. Oh, you, too? Yeah. It’s not easy, is it?

When we’re alone with our thoughts, when the news seems only bad and getting worse from outside and inside our personal spheres, how do we remind ourselves that it’s not all sadness and anxiety and woe? I’m not sure we can, frankly. Yet, I saw something nice today on the road to work, and it made me wonder.

A nine-banded armadillo decided to cross the road near my subdivision during morning rush hour. Armadillos (AKA Florida speed bumps) are unfortunate victims all the time, but this little guy was lucky. Every car on both sides of the two-lane road stopped and waited while it crossed from the woods into a patch of high grass on the other side. It would not have surprised me to see the first car just drive right on and kill that creature without a thought. Seeing what happened instead lifted my spirits — all those cars lined up for a full minute or more, just to let one small armored ground squirrel get where it needed to get on a muggy Florida morning.

It was a small, good thing, a brief flash of collective consideration for another living being by a group of strangers in a hurry, and it made me feel better — if only for a minute or two. I know it sounds trite. I know it’s a little cheesy. I know one lucky armadillo making it across the road in rush hour traffic because of the kindness and decency of a few morning commuters won’t erase the worries of the world.

But what if we all took the time to notice one small, good thing and shared it? All those small, good things combined might make a dent. It might give us (or someone else) the mental and emotional lift we need to carry on in the face of all the craziness. Maybe. I don’t know. If you do have a story to share, though, I know I’d love to read it.

Please share it in the comments below, or on my DadScribe Facebook page. Something small. Something good. A reminder that there is more to life than worrisome world events and day-to-day stress. Something to help us all make it through another day.

Thoughts about SeaWorld never stray far from Dawn

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

A killer whale leaps from the pool as trainers look on from the deck during a performance last week at Shamu Stadium.

No matter where my family and I went Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando, I thought about Dawn Brancheau.

In the morning, we stopped and gawked at a dozen or more dolphins swimming leisurely along in their open-air enclosure.

I thought of Dawn.

We watched a SeaWorld caretaker bottle feed a rescued baby manatee, who is destined to be released back into the wild.

I thought of Dawn.

We saw a 3D sea turtle film at the Turtle Trek exhibit, and we saw a rescued turtle with paralyzed rear flippers thriving in that environment, and we listened to (and approved of) SeaWorld Entertainment’s message to “be an everyday hero” when it comes to sharing the world with marine animals.

I thought of Dawn.

A SeaWorld trainer interacts with a killer whale at Shamu Stadium after the performance on Wednesday.

At Shark Encounter, I thought of her. At the Antarctica section of the park, even as we froze our toes in the penguin exhibit, Dawn was never far from my thoughts.

Occasionally, I checked my iPhone for updates on SeaWorld Entertainment’s tumbling stock, a result of a worse-than-expected second-quarter earnings report. I checked Twitter and other online channels and was not at all surprised to see anti-captivity activists revel in the apparent public rebuke of SeaWorld’s practices regarding the company’s trained killer whales and dolphins in Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego and other marine parks around the world.

I thought about Blackfish, the compelling documentary that attempts to indict SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas.

I thought about the passionate entreaties and the harsh vitriol I’ve read on Twitter and Facebook and at animal activist sites like the Dodo and PETA-backed SeaWorld of Hurt.

I thought about SeaWorld’s detailed online response to those claims, and I thought about how frustrating it must be to SeaWorld that its message of animal rescue and environmental conservation has been largely lost in the public discourse in the wake of Blackfish.

Shamu Stadium was packed for the Wednesday afternoon performance of One Ocean, SeaWorld Orlando’s killer whale show.

Then we watched the orca show at Shamu Stadium, where the killer whales jumped out of the water while trainers danced and gestured and tossed fish into open orca mouths. The performing killer whales also used their tails to splash spectators in the first few rows.

The stadium was packed.

I kept looking for Tilikum, the 12,000-pound killer whale that killed Dawn Brancheau on Feb. 24, 2010. I thought about Tilikum in his holding pen somewhere behind the main performing pool. I wondered if he was listening. I wondered if he was watching.

I thought about the three people whose deaths were attributed to interaction with Tilikum – Keltie Byrne, Daniel Dukes and Dawn Brancheau.

I mostly thought about Dawn, who died only yards away from the stadium where thousands of spectators cheered other killer whales jumping and splashing on Wednesday.

I thought about the arguments against keeping marine animals in captivity. I thought about how millions of people would never see these animals up close if not for SeaWorld, and how seeing these animals up close makes them real, and how proximity can engender empathy.

I thought about my sons, both of whom love animals.

After the show, a few handlers demonstrated to our group how the killer whales have been trained to respond to signals requesting that they provide urine and blood samples used to monitor their health. One trainer narrated, while a handful of others interacted with the orcas.

Later, I talked to Craig Thomas, a 28-year SeaWorld veteran who responded to the alarm the night Dawn died (click here for a transcript of my interview). He used to work with Tilikum. Now, Craig Thomas is the assistant curator of Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Orlando.

The whole time I talked to Craig Thomas, I thought of Dawn.

I thought about how both sides in this controversy have interpreted Dawn’s legacy. SeaWorld Orlando named its education center after her and holds an annual 5K run/walk in her honor. The makers of Blackfish and the adherents to its message have turned Dawn’s death into a rallying point for the anti-captivity cause.

I thought about all the subpoenas and legislation and the political back and forth. The impassioned pleas and boycotts on one side. The defensive posturing by a corporate giant that has done what it does for 50 years, and only now has begun to acknowledge that things must change. Change means significantly larger killer whale enclosures in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando, along with a $10 million matching donation for killer whale research.

I thought about all of that, and about Dawn, and about how parents can explain the issue to their kids.

Many might simply say SeaWorld is in the wrong, that it is morally reprehensible to use sentient creatures like dolphins and killer whales to make money by amusing the masses.

Others might say that the animal rescue efforts SeaWorld undertakes, and the message of conservation that SeaWorld advocates, are worth talking about, worth preserving. And that the way to bring attention to those efforts and that message is to expose as many people as possible to the beauty and intelligence of killer whales and dolphins – that the shows make it real for millions of people.

Opposing ideals, opposing ideologies. Both compelling, both important.

I prefer to think about Dawn, and to share the message of the Dawn Brancheau Foundation, which is “dedicated to improving the lives of children and animals in need.” I’ll think about Dawn’s family, which issued this statement about Blackfish. It reads, in part: “Dawn’s death is central to our story.”

I’ll share the facts with our children, who are not too young to start thinking about the welfare of these wonderful animals we are so fortunate to see up close. I’ll let them know some people think it’s wrong to put animals in cages, while others believe that as long as the animals are properly cared for and treated with dignity, there is a place for zoos and marine parks in our society.

I’ll tell them about Dawn. And I hope when they think about all of this, they think about her, too.

SeaWorld

The memorial plaque at the Dawn Brancheau Education Center, SeaWorld Orlando.

Disclosure: I was invited to experience behind-the-scenes tours at SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa for purposes of learning about SeaWorld Entertainment’s conservation, rescue and veterinary care programs, as well as the entertainment component of the park’s marine mammals and other animals. Opinions are solely those of the author.

 

In Transit

He turns and grins, speeding ahead of me on the moving walkway, pulling the suitcase behind him, sprinting away and looking back over his shoulder as he moves, laughing and checking to make sure I’m still trying to keep up, making sure I’m still with him.

The rolling suitcase looks huge as he drags it behind him, the handle gripped in his small hand, its bones still as delicate as a bird’s but growing, growing stronger every day.

He looks back and smiles that smile, brilliant white permanent teeth still too big for his 8-year-old mouth. That smile.

I smile back and quicken my pace. He laughs and turns away, sprinting again toward the end of the moving sidewalk.

“Don’t run,” I say.

He slows and as I watch him struggle to keep control of the suitcase my eyes moisten and my throat tightens and I fight back tears because here, on this long, glass-enclosed concourse between the main terminal at TF Green airport and the rental car center, as we race along from one moving walkway to the next, as he looks back over his shoulder and grins at me, in a moment of perfect and terrible clarity I am reminded that one day he’ll look back and I won’t be there.

I’m here now, though.

I blink away the tears and break into a sprint, catching him in two strides, passing him and laughing, racing ahead and looking back over my shoulder to see him laughing, too, and trying with all his might to keep up as we hurtle toward the end of the moving walkway.

What do we tell the children?

What do we tell them?

What do we tell the children of Gaza as the tears stream down their faces, leaving tracks in the layer of dust that settled on their cheeks after bombs turned their homes into craters?

What do we say to the terrified children of Syria, where the innocent years have been smothered in bombs and blood?

What words are there for the lost and desperate children of the American border, where they stream across in their thousands, running from death, hoping for a new life?

What do we tell them? What can we do?

We see the images on TV, hear the horror even in the refined, detached voices of the men and women assigned to cover it. How can we change the channel? How can we look away?

How can we not, though?

It is easier, safer, to turn away from the horror than to stand up to it. Chores and errands demand our attention. Games and movies beckon. The lawn needs mowing. The baseball team is heating up down the stretch. Football is starting. School is around the corner. Vacation, birthday parties, a trip to the zoo.

All of this is here, in front of us. This is our reality. All we have to do is change the channel. All we have to do is click over to BuzzFeed or Upworthy or Reddit or Facebook.

Get lost in the fun.

Forget the faces. Forget the agony. Forget the blood.

Forget those children.

Hey, sorry. We all have problems.

Besides, they aren’t my children.

But yes.

Yes, they are.

They are mine.

They’re yours, too.

These children? We can’t see their faces, hear their cries, and relegate it to that place in our minds where unpleasant thoughts go to hibernate, waiting to stir when poked and prodded by our demons and thrust into our nightmares.

We can’t do that. We can’t just ignore it. Can we?

But what do we tell them? What can we do?

If I was there, if I didn’t have my own concerns and problems and distractions, if I could drop it all and run to them on the Rio Grande and in Gaza City and Aleppo, I would tell them that there is more.

That this is not all there is in this world, that life is still beautiful. That there are flowers and toys and music. That somewhere on this planet, a kitten purrs and a toddler laughs and laughs.

That even though the world allows little boys to be blown to bits on the beach as they play soccer;

even though men with guns and foul faces force little children to trek across dangerous Central American  fields and treacherous waters in a blind search for something better;

even though it is unspeakably awful now and sadness, despair and anger are their close companions … there is hope.

There is more.

I would tell them: Don’t give up.

You are precious.

And I would take them in my arms and hold them close, and cry with them until our mingled tears soaked the dry and fractured earth.