This is my parent review of Animal Jam.
What is Animal Jam and How We Were Sucked Into It
We subscribed to National Geographic for Kids magazine to raise funds to build our school playground. In it were advertisements for "Animal Jam," an online game with multiple stranger players, simple games like tic tac toe with rewards of jewellery, hats, clothing for your avatar, an animal. Along the way your child is supposed to learn facts. Now, this may be the true intention, but upon observing my child play, she did not learn much if anything except materialism. She became obsessed with acquiring and possessing, and trading items with other players.
The child explores around the Animal Jam world taking part in games with players from all over the world. Currently Animal Jam boasts SIX MILLION players, and counting. I watched a YouTube presentation by one of the companies profiting from this phenomenon--Clark Stacey, CEO of Smart Bomb Interactive, called "Animal Jam: Why Chocolate Covered Broccoli Sucks But Zucchini Bread Doesn't." In it, he explained the success of Animal Jam. He boasted that the average Animal Jam user spends 75 minutes per session, saying this was evidence that his website was doing something right.
Is Animal Jam Safe for My Kids?
Yes, it was doing something "right." Animal Jam is an MMORPG: a "massively multiplayer online role playing game." Sure, the kids are playing with cute animal avatars instead of with overmuscular armoured men and women typical of other role playing games, but it is an MMORPG nonetheless.
The reason why Animal Jam is successful is twofold. One, parents consider it safe. Two, it is highly addictive.
When my kids first asked to play Animal Jam, I researched whether Animal Jam was safe. I do not want my child interacting with sweaty naked fat old men masquerading as little innocent kids. Parents consider it safe because it is a National Geographic creation and parents can monitor players' activities through the parent dashboard. There are moderators.
I was leery of letting our kids play any video games as I consider them a waste of time when they could be spending their hours reading, doing creative activities, or physical activities instead. While I was not at home, they had their first Animal Jam session and then they were hooked.
Animal Jam is Virtual Cocaine for the Under 10 Crowd
What makes Animal Jam "unsafe" is that is is addictive. Clearly, MMORPGs are addictive. A study of 100 university students showed disturbing data. I love this study so much, I am going to quote big chunks from this article, "Are MMORPGs 'addictive?'" written by Dave Munger in June 2008, since I'm afraid the link will no longer work in the future:
Ironically, this article is available on Science Blog, a website in partnership with National Geographic! The dangers of MMORPGs have not been explored extensively as much attention has been focussed on the dangers of console or computer games. This article, "The Reality of MMORPG Addiction" noted some tragic outcomes of this real addiction. I am not suggesting that Animal Jam play will lead to suicide, but this is here to show the dangers of MMORPG addiction. I also wonder whether I am priming my developing kids' brains for serious adult addictive behaviours later by allowing them to play this addictive game at such a young age.
...as MMORPGs continue to become more popular, the worry of games consuming a person’s life to the point that it can be classified as an addiction grows. There have already been several reports of people not only losing their jobs and neglecting their families, but even suffering serious health consequences due to excessive gaming habits.
The media aren’t short on horror stories about online game addictions: According to the BBC, a Korean man collapsed and died after playing Starcraft for more than 50 hours, stopping only for short periods of sleep and bathroom breaks. A 13-year-old boy committed suicide by jumping off a building to honor the heroes in an online game. A 3-month old baby starved to death, after her parents left the house to visit an Internet café and nurture their virtual child.
Addiction to online games, and especially addiction to MMORPGs, is no longer a joke, but a verifiable condition that has left a trail of bodies in its wake.
Update, April 14, 2013: While responding to a commenter below, I researched whether computer time itself was problematic for young children. I came across this article from the Huffington Post:
Although pathological video gaming appears to share a number of characteristics with other addictive behaviors, such as pathological gambling, the researchers noted that "pathological gaming" is not yet an established psychological disorder.
In my household, I noted some interesting addictive behaviours particularly in my eight year old. Yes, eight years old. The target, according the aforementioned YouTube presentation, is the under 10 crowd. A crowd with limited reasoning abilities, and, I daresay, little control over their impulses.
She began rising from her upstairs bed after my husband and I went downstairs (bedtime is 8:30 pm), to search for our tablet Playbooks in our bedroom to play Animal Jam into the night. Then once we discovered this and locked the tablets when not in use, she started waking up before dawn to play Animal Jam on our desktop computer. She had a pact with her older sister to wake each other up to play at night. In the morning, I would find the lid closed when we had left it open. So we started locking the desktop computer at night.
Since Animal Jam came into our lives, my youngest asks every day to play. At first I would only allow her to play on weekends, after her homework was done. My most recent attempt to control her time on the game involved an exchange of 1:1 for piano practice or 2:1 for reading, that is 2 hours of reading for one hour of Animal Jam. This has worked in cutting down her time substantially.
I discovered that my kids will lie to cover up their clandestine Animal Jam play. They will play Animal Jam to the exclusion of all other activities including eating. They prefer it to watching a movie, going for a bicycle ride, going to Science World... They will arrange to meet up with their real life friends on Animal Jam after school. They will spend hours discussing the items they covet, and how to obtain coveted items.
What Educational Aspect?
Since Animal Jam came into our lives, their creative activity has dropped. They used to enjoy reading and drawing, but now every waking moment is dedicated to thinking about their next Animal Jam fix. Well, at least this is true of my youngest. My eldest still prefers reading to Animal Jam, but then again, she has moved out of the target age group recently.
Childhood is such a short time. I hate to see it wasted for something of very limited and dubious educational value. I've watched my kids play for extended periods of time, and they do not choose to view the educational material as they don't need to. It is not part of the game--you need to click on an icon to read educational facts. They'd rather be earning "gems" by playing games. Clark Stacey, the presenter on YouTube, gave this advice to other developers at the Casual Connect convention in Seattle: "The key to our recipe is... don't try to educate kids through game play." He claims to spark their curiosity, but I didn't see any evidence of that, personally.
Animal Jam School of Hard Knocks: A Place to Learn Where to Lie, Cheat, and Steal
Although I have limited their time to no more than one hour a day, it is never enough.
Parents, save yourself while you can and don't let them play Animal Jam in the first place. You have been warned. You'll get an amazing babysitter that is "safe" but you will pay a price. The most troubling aspect is the dishonesty of my children, lying to me to get their fix. I feel that I've failed as a parent since their morality is my biggest concern, bigger than academic achievement.
The game corrupts them to become materialistic. In our TV free household, this our main source of corruption. The kids have been asking me regularly to become "members" to get special items. So I have to spend real dollars on membership to get these fake prizes. No thank you. We've fallen deep enough into the pit.
The worst aspect is that this game centres on acquiring rare items. What happens is that savvy kids trick other naive kids into lopsided trades to get rare items. A great life lesson, right? I watched as another player followed my child's avatar around and asked SIX TIMES to trade for an item she had, offering a crappy item in return. This went on for a very long time, until my daughter escaped to another room, and she ran when she got there to avoid the other player.
Apparently, Animal Jam is quite profitable. According to the YouTube video presenter, they are currently beating their projections--"lifetime value" of each subscriber is $48, retention of each of these children is "more than six months", with play sessions of 75 minutes *on average*! One weekend, I allowed my kids to play without limitation on time, and they certainly proved to me that if I do not limit them, they will play all day long.
And so, after discovering the link between MMORPGs and addiction, this is the end of Animal Jam for this family. I will still offer a video game, not sure what I can replace cocaine with, but I will have to find something less addictive to wean them off. I do not appreciate National Geographic marketing this abomination targeting the under 10 crowd. Something is morally repulsive about that. I have yet to receive any requests for "further exploration" on animal or conservation topics from my kids' curiosity piqued by this game.
I think I'll skip the playground fundraising magazine subscriptions next time.
(And apologies to you if you are a sweaty fat naked old man. Not that there's anything wrong with that, being a sweaty fat naked old man.)
And in conclusion... a real life example of the Animal Jam School of Hard Knocks
December 21, 2012 Update: My daughter is home from school with a fever and she relayed the following sad tale to me. She shared her Animal Jam password with another player who she trusted and that player stole her pink heart necklace, which is an item which is very difficult to obtain. She had traded her Freedom Hat for it, which was also a coveted item. This was a hard lesson for her, about trust being violated, and about thieves and dishonesty. I also took this opportunity to teach her to never give her password away. Unfortunately, I also told her not to trust strangers.
I have written to the Animal Jam staff and I will post their response here. May I again express my disgust for this "game"? I have already limited to her playing to maybe once a week for short time periods, but she is still asking to play on a regular basis. She went into a frenzy when she found out her sister was able to play Animal Jam at a friend's house.
December 21, 2012: My email inquiry resulted in the following response, which I will summarize as "Too bad, so sad. Next time don't give out your password." Here is the actual response, with the actual answer highlighted among the gobbledygook:
Customer Service 8, Dec 21 16:43 (MST):
Thank you for contacting Animal Jam Support Headquarters.
We truly understand your frustration and are sorry to hear about the account issues your child encountered. We want to assure you that it is impossible to gain access to an Animal Jam account via illegal access, we have countless security measures in place. All passwords in Animal Jam as well as payment information is protected by 256-bit encryption, which is the highest AES (Advanced Encryption Status) available. There are 3 ways an account can be compromised:
-The password is shared either in real life or in game
-The "remember me" and/or "remember my password" option is selected on a computer
-The password is simply easy to guess or figure out
If you or your child feel your accounts have been compromised, the first thing you should do is reset all your account passwords. This can be done from your Parent Dashboard or via the main page at
Be sure to select account passwords that will be easy for you remember, but hard for someone else to guess. When creating a new password for your child's account, we recommend choosing one consisting of both letters and numbers that is unrelated to your child's real name or user name. We suggest these guidelines to ensure that the account remains as secure as possible.
For more detailed information on how to change your child's password, click here:
We want to assure you once again that Animal Jam uses only the highest security measures available to protect its users and product. We truly appreciate you taking the time to let us know about this incident. Unfortunately, we cannot replace any lost or traded items at this time and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, if a Jammer is found to be breaking the Animal Jam rules, a moderator will take swift and appropriate action on their account. Additionally, remember to NEVER share passwords.
Thank you for taking the time to report this issue to us we will be sure to update you if there is anything more we can do for you.
Animal Jam HQ
And my daughter's response to all this: "I trusted her!" Welcome to the real and brutal world, brought to you by National Geographic.
Update, April 14, 2013: We've cut out Animal Jam completely. Things are back to normal for my 8 year old, and life is good for me as a parent as well! She is currently reading Catching Fire and was in the backyard this week practising with her bow and arrow, which she made herself. Right now she is drawing a comic strip, and is back to her art work. She is also playing the piano to accompany her violin playing sister... for fun. She is in the process of writing a book, based on Animal Jam characters! Not sure how much of this is from having a TV free or an AJ free environment, though...
My 8 year old niece was exposed to AJ at our home, when she was visiting her cousins. Before the introduction, I told the kids no, and asked my brother-in-law if it was all right, telling him about our problems with addiction. He basically blew me off, saying that his daughter would never have any interest in the computer. A few weeks later, he confessed to me that he is now having problems as she is always asking to go on AJ. He is a brave person to admit this to me.
Update, May 25, 2014: I've finally decided to close the comments section.
I still continue to be be surprised by the number of children who take the time to write in, recounting their bad experiences. There are also a few children who write in "Animal Jam is good!" and there was even one who complained that parents should not control what their children play.
I've also continued to receive posts from adults, most of whom are supportive. I've also received two angry letters, from adults who do not like me suggesting that the literacy of children is in any way impacted by video game time, with not a shred of evidence offered, just spewing vitriol in personal attacks. This is an opinion blog, like any other. I am not going to let them use me as a punching bag to make them feel better about their own choices. If anything, it smacks of insecurity.
I wrote this particular article as a service to other parents, and their children, to save everyone from the same type of agony I've gone through. To those angry, insulting parents: If all you can see is a criticism of your own parenting style, you should think about why you are so angry. If you feel like you've made all the right choices, then you should be secure enough to ignore my comments as someone who has no idea what she's talking about. May you find peace.