Friday, May 26, 2006

Zoo Tycoon University

My six year old son is firmly addicted to Zoo Tycoon. It is my policy to allow him almost unlimited access to the things that give him such deep satisfaction, as long as they aren’t made entirely of sugar, don’t involve physical danger to his sister, or come in the shape of a gun or sword. For example, when he was two, I let him repeat certain (cursed) episodes of Elmo, until he was satisfied. Psychologically positive for him. Psychologically damaging for me. But no matter. I was doomed anyway.

Lately, he’s not really into TV. Now it’s all about games. Crash Bandicoot 1, 2, 3, 4, 11, Crash Vs. Sonic, Crash Bandicoot Tricycle Racing, etc. When he is in the throes of obsession with a game, and is allowed to play it a lot, he achieves this kind of zenlike calm in the other aspects of his life. Now, zenlike calm for Benny is another’s child’s neurotic excitement, so it’s not like he’s actually calm, but it makes him a lot easier to deal with in general. In my understanding of it, it’s like giving his brain a hamster wheel to run on, so that he can get rid of all that extra intellectual energy. I could be completely wrong in the head. It’s just how we do things around here. We do actually learn things. Sometimes we even learn things from games. But first we have to become dangerously addicted.

I knew that the game had really taken hold when he was getting dressed and said to me, “Child one is having trouble with the buttons on his shirt.” Later I heard, “Child two is hungry, and can’t find anything to eat.” The game, you see, reports on the various animals in the zoo, and when they’re having trouble, or are unhappy, or have given birth, or something, it gives you a polite message. Now Benny gives me polite messages about his status, in a robotic voice. Useful actually.

Another useful feature is the hand signs he’s using to show me when he’s pleased or displeased. When you do something nice for an animal in your zoo, like giving it foliage from its native habitat or getting it a mate or something, a little green smiley face rises up from its head. If you do something that makes it irritated, like taking away the favored ratio of salt water to deciduous forest terrain, for example, or putting a carnivorous dinosaur in with it, a little red frown face goes up from its head. So now, when Benny is having an emotion, he pumps his arm up and down over his head with his hand cupped into a C – either pointing up in a smile, or pointing down in a frown. Useful. Hey, my child is hyperlexic. If he’s communicating an emotion, no matter how crazy it looks, that’s a plus for me.

Here are some more educational benefits that I’m using to justify… rationalize… explain… defend… my child’s infatuation with this game:

Reading: All the messages, animals, objects, and whatnot in the zoo have to be read, obviously. And this includes some serious words like coniferous and orangutan and sargassum.

Logic: If you want wildebeests and zebras to get along in the same exhibit, you have to balance their desires to create a habitat they can both agree on. If you want baby zebras, that is. And you do. Oh, how you do.

Botany: Which plants go with which terrain and which geographical location? It’s no good putting bamboo in the snow! There are little popup descriptions to help you figure out how to create your perfect exhibit. These contain some kind of scientific information, I’m sure.

Zoology: Obviously. What do the different animals eat, drink, play with, and require in terms of happiness? Where do they live? How do they interact with each other? How many babies do they have?

Multitasking: You have to make sure the guests have enough restrooms, the animals have enough caretakers, the zoo has enough garbage cans, the researching is ongoing, the exhibits are making money, and a million other things, all at once, to create a profitable zoo.

Decision making: The ice cream stand next to the chimps isn’t making money. Should you move it? Close it? Replace it with a hot dog stand? The Japanese Serow is unpopular. Should you get another one and hope they have a baby? Or replace with a moose?

Math: Increase and decrease the price of admission, food, souvenirs. Mess with the staff salaries. Spend more on marketing. Spend less on research. If you increase the admission, will you decrease the number of guests?

Psychology: What do the guests want when they come to the zoo? How can you keep your number of angry guests low? Lots of baby animals, enough rest rooms, no overflowing trash cans, and a well placed frozen yogurt stand… and benches!

There’s a whole lot more to the game, like designing your own marine animal shows, using scientists to hatch dinosaurs from eggs, planting decorative foliage around your zoo, raising and lowering the terrain. Building a playground. Organizing traffic flow. The complexities seem to be nearly endless.

If I were to present all this material to my six-year-old piece by piece, he would never ever grasp it. Nor would he want to. When he sits down to play this game, however, it’s all incidental. He wants the orcas to be happy so they’ll do their tricks, and he loves to see baby chimpanzees. He has been playing this game relentlessly for weeks. Will it get him into college? No. But just think – if he should happen to be put in charge of a hypothetical zoo where you pay everyone at your whim and you can cure a sick animal by waving a syringe around? He’d be so prepared!!!

Is this all one of those grand unschooly rationalizations for spending time playing games instead of slaving over math worksheets? Absolutely! And you know, I just like hearing him say, “Mommy, I made another well-suited rainforest exhibit! Come see!”


  1. Okay -- I have been playing the various Zoo Tycoon games for years...nevermind that I am adult. I too get addicted to that game. heheh :O)

  2. We love Zoo Tycoon here and this past year moved up to Zoo Tycoon 2 which I have yet to put on my computer for fear I would be addicted! The kids love it and they learn so much from playing it! Some other good ones are Civilization, Sims and Empire Earth!

  3. My oldest child learned to read because of Zoo Tycoon. She used to sit on my lap and "do" everything, but she needed me to read all of the alerts, etc to her. Considering she has 3 younger siblings, it quickly became impossible for me to sit with her as much as she wanted to play the game. So, she just jumped off on her own and figured it out!

    I love Zoo Tycoon!

    Surfing through from the Carnival of Homeschooling.

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