It’s the Holy Grail of children’s games; that one shining goal that nearly all of them aspire to; and it’s more elusive than that ever cited needle in a haystack. An educational game….that’s actually fun? A learning game…..that kids actually want to play? I’ll believe *that* when I see it, my friend.
Monkey Tales Games is a collaboration between Larian Studios and Die Keure that seeks to finally attain that elusive goal. They’ve got the educational part pretty well covered with Die Keure, a Belgian publisher that has been cranking out high quality children’s book for half a century. But as every parent (and teacher) can tell you, educational is only half the battle. A game, or book, or even toy for that matter, can be the most educational thing ever and still not be effective in helping kids learn. The key is, and always has been, making a product that kids want to play, and not just once.
For the Monkey Tales Games, a rather unique approach has been taken to this problem. Rather than an educational company trying to mimic the gameplay of regular gaming companies, Monkey Tales Games uses an award winning, established gaming company for development of the games, and this has resulted in learning games that have much more of a standard game look to them.
The storylines in the different games (one for each grade, from second to sixth) all follow the same type of theme. A bad guy has captured monkeys, and you need to rescue them. There is a bit more to the stories than that, but that’s really all you need to know to play the game. Each room is a level, and the gameplay is quite puzzley. The room is laid out a bit like a mzae, and you need to find the correct way through it. You can see the whole room at once by pressing the control button, or just wander around till you figure it out. Getting through may involve pushing boxes around, building a bridge, or even deflecting lasers, but the game makes it fairly intuitive to figure out. Each time a new element is introduced, you are given a mini explanation, so kids shouldn’t have any trouble following along.
Once you work your way to the trapped monkey in the room (most, but not all, contain a monkey) you will notice he is standing next to a machine. This is where the math comes in. The machine takes you into a sort of game within the game, where you need to beat the monkey at math in order to rescue him. This can involve anything from shooting the correct answer before he does, to dragging and dropping cards, but always some sort of math problem, presented in the standard 15 + 2 = ? format. While the game does a pretty decent job of making the math games fun, if you’re looking for a game where the math part is not readily apparent, then this isn’t it.
If you win the math challenge, the door out of the room will open, and the monkey will be free to follow you out. If you don’t beat the monkey at his game, you will simply need to keep trying until you master the game, as the door won’t open for you until you win. What do you do with the monkey once you’ve freed him? He is automatically deposited in your own personal zoo, where you can visit at any time to bring the bananas you collect, as they are liberally strewn throughout the levels. There is a little monkey icon in the corner of the screen that shows both your banana level and the mood of your monkeys. If the level gets too low, your monkeys will be sad, and when you go to visit they won’t be playing or having fun. I tried very hard to run out of bananas so I could see what would happen, but they are so prevalent in the levels, often in places where they can’t be avoided, that I found it nearly impossible to run out…..though my monkeys *were* quite sad and lethargic. Suffice it to say that even if your child has a hard time reaching all of the bananas, they won’t be crying about dead monkeys over this game.
Well, they’ve got cute monkeys; they’ve got education; and they’ve got an engaging enough gameplay with simple controls. But the real question is……do kids like it? I happen to keep several testers of various grade level on hand (in my home, eating my food) for just such an occasion. For Monkey Tales Games, my testers played the second grade and sixth grade games. Both use the exact same tutorial and similar gameplay with different stories, and math problems suited to their ages. Both of them really enjoyed the standard part of the game, where they were moving boxes and making their way through the levels, and they both told me it was a game they would enjoy playing just because.
When we talked about the math part though, their opinions were vastly different. The second grader thought it was great, and loved beating the monkeys, shooting numbers, and especially the zoo. The sixth grader said “I know it’s math, and that’s why I don’t like it.” Parents of sixth graders all over the world should immediately recognize the cooler than thou attitude of eleven year olds. Even though this particular child is excellent at math and has been in advanced classes for years (that’s my boy), the fact that it was so overtly educational in those portions turned him off a bit, simply because that age tends to highly prize being too cool for that sort of thing. Overall, both kids thought it would be a great addition to their school programs.
Creating a truly educational game that kids actually want to play is no small task. That Larian Studios and Die Keure have made a game that is entertaining all on its own, irrespective of its educational properties, is to be applauded. However, the fact that much of the math portions are overtly educational may turn off the older grade levels simply because they won’t consider it cool. Overall, Monkey Tales Games are a great educational series that provides kids with an opportunity to learn at their own level and have fun at the same time, and I whole heartedly recommend it to educators and to parents looking to give their kids a leg up.