Publisher: Wonder Rotunda
Developer: Wonder Rotunda
System Requirements: Internet connection, web browser with Flash enabled
Release date: Available now
While I am not myself a parent, beyond the parenting that goes along with taking care of the Eater of Cords (my cat), I know that there is value to be found in educational games. When done correctly, they can be as fun and educational as The Oregon Trail. The catch is that such games are always a difficult balancing act between being entertaining, informative and considered appropriate by parents and educators. So, when Wonder Rotunda came across my virtual desk for review, claiming to be educational software suitable for ages 7 through 12, I decided to get some additional input from a friend who has expertise in educating children.
Wonder Rotunda bills itself as an “adventure museum” and virtual educational theme park set in a fictional park located off the coast of New York. You generate an avatar and set off to explore the park’s many exhibits. The game uses Flash and requires that you log on and play through your browser, but it’s not a social networking tool, nor is it an MMO of some kind. It’s a single-user environment, and the designers are adamant in their security measures. Thus, unlike a real theme park, where strangers continuously surround your child, Wonder Rotunda is a secure online experience.
You direct your avatar to any of the exhibits you wish to explore, ranging in subjects from the human digestive system to running a business. Each of the exhibits features roughly 20 minutes of content, in which every major point of the exhibit provides the possibility for additional information. Thus, you can breeze through an exhibit in which you’re only marginally interested, or you can dedicate yourself more fully to a particular topic by asking for further information. Also, the game tracks your interests and requests for more information. The information is private, like all other aspects of the game, but parents can check on their children’s progress and interests.
After completing a particular adventure, you can opt to appear on a game show and test your knowledge of the subject in question. Correct answers in the game show are rewarded with Wonder Dollars, the game’s currency. These are primarily spent on snacks and souvenirs at the park’s vendors. Of course, even snacks in Wonder Rotunda provide a chance for education; the park teaches about healthy food choices and rewards healthier eating habits (i.e. choosing a fruit salad instead of chili cheese fries).
If everything I have said so far seems to indicate a general lack of actual activities in which your avatar takes a direct part, it’s because a substantial portion of Wonder Rotunda is non-interactive. You spend much more time listening to the narrator talk about exhibits and reading the additional information than actually performing tasks of any sort. Rather than feel like a game, it instead plays out more like a TV show. The game show portion gives players some degree of agency, and there is a tree-pod virtual home that can be decorated, but the actual exhibits and the park itself are largely point, click, and listen activities. I can’t see this appealing to very many children. Another problem is that the game advertises itself for ages 7 through 12, but as far as my friend the educator or I can tell, the content is probably more appropriate for ages 6 through 10. Another issue that is very annoying is that once a particular exhibit is started, you can’t stop in the middle of it and return later; you must restart the entire exhibit. Also, you can’t move ahead in an exhibit if you just want to review a particular piece of information. This design decision mystifies me, because with all of the other parental tools available, you would think that letting players, parents as well as children, move ahead or back in an exhibit to review a point would be a basic functionality.
Wonder Rotunda costs $12 for a month subscription or $45 for a year. While I think that the designers have really done a good job of making a secure online experience for children, and I applaud their choice of topics and their implementation of Flash for ease of use, I think that Wonder Rotunda could benefit from being more interactive. As it stands now, the theme park is a great idea, but the developer needs to rectify all of the problems I listed or the game will become another piece of educational software that parents like, but leaves children unenthusiastic.