Kids & Games: An Animal Crossing Education

a1Last week, I purchased Animal Crossing: New Leaf for my Nintendo 3DS. I bought it for myself, but after only a few hours of playing, one of my daughters–my oldest, age six–popped over the top of the 3DS and seemed to feel utterly betrayed that I had engaged in conversation with a pink alpaca without her knowledge. Shortly after, she’d commandeered the handheld.

Then she learned how to curate a museum.

The landscape of children’s games can be a bit patronizing for a spirited, intelligent youngster. Educational games aimed at kids tend to focus only on one thing, like math or spelling, and it’s nigh impossible to find one game that can do a myriad things well, like math and spelling. Then along came Animal Crossing, and I soon found more opportunities for learning than I could shake a beehive at.

With the eldest’s interest came attention from her younger sister, age four, and before long they were both taking turns putzing around town. It started small, with a few stumbles learning how to use a net or a quick lesson on fishing, but with each of those lessons came more, each seemingly tailor-made for inquisitive toddlers.

For instance, the entire process involving the aforementioned museum is a giant study in problem solving, resource management, and prioritization.

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My daughters knew the mission: find one animal of each kind to donate to the museum. They caught a squid, which we hadn’t found yet (we were inexcusably slow on the uptake with the whole “fish in the ocean” thing), but unfortunately our pockets were too full to carry anything else. I could have grabbed the 3DS and solved the problem lickety-split, but instead it presented an opportunity to ask them about it.

“Whoa ladies… our pockets are too full,” I said. “We’re carrying too much stuff! What do we do?!”

“Get rid of something!” they replied enthusiastically.

Fantastic; problem solved. But what do we get rid of? That made them think a little bit harder. Here, they had to study each thing in the inventory and decide what was worth keeping and what wasn’t. There was a minor tussle, as the youngest–taking the Occam’s Razor approach–just wanted to chuck a crawfish back in the ocean and be done with it.

But her older sister corrected her immediately.

“No,” she shouted. “We can’t put him back because we don’t have one in the museum yet!”

She’d hadn’t lost sight of the main goal, which is to fill the museum with unique specimens. Then the youngest, quick not to be outdone, identified a pondskater as the release candidate. “We’ve got two of him,” she said.

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With that, the squid found a home in our inventory, and we shuffled off to the museum. This not being our first donation, they were eager to go to the display area and check out their addition to the aquarium. They get excited to see the tanks fill up with each successive visit, but they also patiently wait as I read the musuem descriptions to them.

Often times, they’ll remember those facts, too. Along with a reference to wing spots that ward off predators, the description for one insect, the Lantern Fly, indicates that it likes to drink sap directly from a tree trunk. Would you care to guess where the first place they look for new bugs is?!

The entire game is filled with gifts like this. We’ve had discussions about loans thanks to our desire to add to my house (“Do you and mommy have any loans?” they ask, as I die a little inside). We’ve talked about turnips, an excellent introduction to the idea of supply and demand. And we’ve even touched on real estate–an issue as perplexingly subjective in real life as it is with the Happy Homes Association.

With all of these charms, as well as the pure sentimentality of the experience, Animal Crossing: New Leaf slides into the landscape of educational game–literally out of nowhere–as a must-have, child-friendly game that effortlessly introduces a litany of amazing concepts in just the right way. Played side-by-side with an adult, it represents one of the greatest learning opportunities in any modern title, and shows that games can be purposeful, engaging, and fun–for all ages.