Whether they’ve got fur, feathers or scales, animals are a constant source of fascination to children and this insatiable curiosity can be a great way for kids to learn about everything from basic biology to ecology. Animals can even teach young people the joy and responsibility of caring for another living being.
However, some parents balk at bringing actual creatures into the home, whether it’s a dog, cat or a more exotic critter like a gecko. Now, a new crop of animal-themed software for both computers and video games like Wii and Nintendo lets kids learn about various animals without having to actually clean cages or tanks. Some of these games offer a glimpse into the world of veterinarians or virtual pet ownership, while others use animals as the characters to draw us into a particular story.
Montreal software developer Kutoka has just released Didi & Ditto: Mother Nature’s Visit ($30). The main characters, the title’s Didi and Ditto, are beavers who must stop a bad wolf from ruining a party for Mother Nature. Players ages 2-4 can follow the adventures of this girl and boy team, while discovering games and activities that teach them to sort objects, follow instructions and observe items carefully. The exceptional quality of the animation and the well-paced storyline make this a game that kids will want to play more than once. Kutoka has earned several awards for the Didi and Ditto series, which appeals to children of both genders. The game is available for both Mac and PC systems.
Several games released in the past few years give young people a chance to test out their healing skills by working as a virtual veterinarian. Families with a Wii can check out Pet Pals: Animal Doctor (Legacy Games, $30), which is aimed at kids 10 and up, but works for younger kids too. The game includes 30 true-to-life medical cases where players treat animals brought to the vet for anything from cuts and infections to serious ailments like diabetes and tumors. Patients include a St. Bernard, a Shetland pony, rabbits, turtles, hamsters, clown fish, and other breeds, both familiar and exotic. The healing is done by using the Wii’s controller to manipulate an on-screen assortment of realistic medical tools. Players also have to listen to the owners describe the problem, then decide on a plan of action and pick the correct tools to best cure the patient. Gamers also care for pets in recovery where they are responsible for the animals’ health, grooming and food. (Just keep in mind that the scenarios are fairly realistic, so players will see some blood and other body fluids.)
Legacy Games has also created a similar program you can download on computers running a PC system (www.legacygames.com). It’s called Pet Pals: New Leash on Life ($20) and is geared towards kids 8 and up. The game brings players into an animal rescue shelter where they must heal animals, care for them and arrange adoptions. As with Pet Pals, players get to manipulate various tools that help them deal with the injured animals.
Families with a Nintendo DS system can check out Zoo Vet: Endangered Animals ($30) which offers a similar storyline (you are the vet) but with more exotic animals. Players ages 10 and up become an employee at a zoo and must care for the animals both in their habitat and in an animal hospital. The medical cases have been written by actual zoo vets around the world and include fixing an eagle’s broken wing and saving a sick crocodile. As players progress, the cases become more difficult, and more sophisticated tools are available for animal care. A portion of the proceeds from sales are donated to the African Wildlife Foundation.
Younger kids or those with a queasy stomach when it comes to treating injuries can still get in on the animal care frenzy with Ubisoft’s line of Petz games, which can be used on Wii, Nintendo or PC systems. The games include Dogz, Catz, Bunnyz, Hamsterz, Dolphin Island, Petz: Monkey Madness and Tigerz (approximately $29.99, with the exception of Dolphin Island, which is $19.99). Players choose a breed and then play various games allowing them to interact with and care for the animal. For example, with a Nintendo DS microphone, a child can train a pet to come when called, while a Wii controller allows a kid to groom, feed and play with the animal of choice.
Few families will escape the repeated requests to buy a pet. But whether a real animal becomes part of your household or not, these games can teach children more than a few things about the feathered, furry creatures who share the planet with us.