So I was cautiously curious to try out Pora Ora, an educational MMO that's aimed at kids ages 5 to 13. As it turns out, the game embraces learning and has several features that make it a viable educational game not only at home but also in the classroom. This week's MMO Family is a first impressions look at Pora Ora.
Pora Ora is browser-based, so it's easy to get into the game right away. Registration involves the usual information input and email verification. What's nice, though, is that kids can get right into the game and play for 20 minutes before email verification is required. Players can choose male and female avatars and select from a variety of looks. You also choose your Pora Pal, a pet that you can feed and interact with in the game. When you enter the world, you start off in your house, which also comes with a garden and (you guessed it!) a farm. You can decorate the house, and the controls are standard fare. I only had one doughnut to put in my sparsely decorated home, so I placed it in just the right spot on the floor and got to the meat of the game, which is the educational content.
Fun and games (and learning!)
I was pleasantly surprised to see how well the game stayed mindful of its focus on learning. The worlds aim to highlight cultures from different time periods and different locations, and there are currently three: Samura Valley, which is set in medieval Japan; Urba Roma, an Ancient Roman setting; and Pharaoh's Island, a members-only world set during the time of Ancient Egypt. Each has its own quests and games, and players can access Samura Valley and Urba Roma for free (although you need to be level 10 to enter Urba Roma).
The only one I didn't care for was Farm Frenzy. Players have to solve addition and subtraction problems to save a chicken from falling into bear traps, buzz saws, or spike strips, which might not exactly be school-friendly. I also found the mechanics difficult because instead of just typing in the answer, you have to scroll through number wheels representing thousands, hundreds, etc. And the math problems weren't ones that were easy to do in your head, so it was difficult to concentrate on solving an equation like 574 + 978 because I was stressed out over the doomed chicken and the clunky UI. Overall, though, there is a wide range of games that cover geography, math, spelling, measuring angles, mapping coordinates, sequential number placement, and basic reading. The variety of games and the fun-factor in them means there's plenty for kids to do without growing bored.
Within the game itself, there are learning opportunities. For example, players can visit stores and buy goods with their in-game currency. But when it's time to checkout, you can try for a discount by dragging the correct amount in coins to the vendor. Another nice touch is the emphasis on internet safety and in-game chat in particular. The starting quest is all about chat safety, and I really like the fact that the NPCs ask questions to test kids' knowledge of what to do in certain situations. The advice stresses talking with a parent or trusted adult and making use of the report command any time there's something inappropriate or uncomfortable. What's even better is that chat is fairly customizable, so parents and teachers can raise and lower the bar on what they want their kids to say and read and with whom they can communicate.
Another thing I really liked was that Caped Koala, the studio, set up an option to create school accounts. According to the site, the service is completely free to schools, and Koala will set up individual pupil accounts for each class, which gives free access to all of the game's content and lets teachers track student progress. A great feature of the school account is School Mode, which locks down security and permits students see and interact with only their classmates, so teachers don't have to worry about random strangers intruding on or disrupting the class. Eventually, schools can link with other schools if they choose, creating the opportunity for global connections and a little classroom competition.
Pora Ora is a commendable effort to bring education into kid-friendly MMOs, and it has a lot more depth to it than most MMOs that label themselves "educational." Caped Koala studios did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money last year but fell short of its goal. However, it went into open beta and has indicated plans to expand in the future. For example, there are plans to launch regional content that's tailored toward the curriculum standards in other countries, and the studio is working on launching some mobile apps that tie in with the Pora Pals.
What I'd love to see is a little more customization in tailoring the difficulty of the content to match the age range of the students. The games are currently sorted by age range, but I ran a few issues with math problems being too difficult for the age selected and spelling words that were too basic. However, I can actually see Pora Ora being a helpful tool to support classroom learning -- something great for a "fun Friday" activity or a review activity to finish a class session. It's not just arcade filler. If you're interested in checking out the MMO, you can visit the site and register for free or explore the membership plans to access even more content.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.