Educators and parents know that making learning fun is a key factor in retaining the interest of young minds. As an interactive medium, video games occupy a unique space in this constant pursuit. By default, they are perceived as fun, but they can also provide important learning experiences for kids. While most mainstream games, even ubiquitous timesinks like Fortnite, have at least some educational value, Age of Learning’s Adventure Academy falls firmly into the genre of educational games. But this isn’t your ordinary educational game. Adventure Academy is a full-fledged MMO that combines the staples of modern game design with the core curriculum taught in schools today.
Age of Learning may not sound familiar, but chances are you’ve heard of the studio’s earlier work: ABCmouse. Millions of kids from the ages of two to eight have spent time learning with ABCmouse. Adventure Academy picks up where ABCmouse ends, as it’s tailored for kids 8-13. It’s the product of $100 million and three years of work from hundreds of developers and educators.
“I think we have something that’s unique and innovative here, something we don’t think has been done before.”
“I think we have something that’s unique and innovative here, something we don’t think has been done before,” President of Production Alex Galvagni told Digital Trends. “Which is to mix a full-featured modern MMO with all of the sophistication that you would expect in that kind of game with persistence and 3D and multi-platform support with a strong educational curriculum based product with thousands of educational activities that we think make this product a really unique offering.”
Galvagni has previous experience with MMOs, serving as the general manager for Turbine Studios, best known for creating Lord of the Rings Online.
Upon logging in for the first time, players create their own personal avatar, including their own outfit. After that, they’re off to meet the academy’s faculty and begin their journey across the open world. Like all MMOs, Adventure Academy has quests that help guide players to objectives and activities, with little footprints on the ground serving as a navigational system. Since it’s an MMO, players will routinely cross paths with other players on their server. Parents can choose the level of communication allowed, from no chat, to a set of preset messages, to open text chat.
The “thousands of educational activities” take three to five minutes to complete and span across math, reading, science, social studies, and art. The activities range from mini-games to puzzles to interactive books and more. Some of these activities are found throughout the world as “critical moments” and “adventure stops,” which include their own maps and quest lines. For instance, The Secret Life of Ordinary Things adventure stop lets kids get a deeper and important understanding about objects and concepts they’re likely already familiar with.
Most of the activities can be found at kiosks throughout Adventure Academy’s multiple zones. Kiosk repositories can be sorted by a number of different criteria, including subject, what’s new and popular, and, most importantly, ability levels. The curriculum itself spans first through sixth grade.
Head of Curriculum Joel Kupperstein emphasized that the curriculum team carefully designed the activities to be accessible to all kids within the target audience. “We look at common core standards. We look at next Next Gen science standards. We understand what’s expected for kids in different curriculum areas around the country.” Importantly, the ability levels are strategically designed to offer an inclusive environment that doesn’t discourage players, regardless of their level, so content isn’t specifically labeled for certain grades.
Kupperstein has been with Age of Learning for more than two years. He previously worked as the Director of Product Management for educational publisher McGraw-Hill and spent his early professional days as a teacher in Southern California.
“Kids are pretty discriminating users of content, especially when they’re on their own time,” Kupperstein said. “You want to be really purposeful about what’s going to engage them.” Adventure stops curate content into learning sequences that include a collection of activities to build skills in multiple areas.
Adventure Academy revolves around “giving them the autonomy that kids in that age range really need in order to grow and feel motivated,” Kupperstein said. “And so as we thought about where we wanted to take the next adventure for Age of Learning, we knew we wanted to age-up, and we knew we needed to think differently about the experience we provided for kids in that older age range.”
The questing, open world, and character progression system provided the level of freedom and goal-oriented experience Age of Learning was looking for.
“We knew we needed to think differently about the experience we provided for kids in that older age range.”
As players complete quests they earn experience just like in any other MMO. “We have multiple quests per level and as you level up you earn experience and coins,” Executive producer Kevin Beardslee said. Beardslee is a longtime video game development veteran and was one of the original lead developers on World of Warcraft.
Coins can be spent at shops throughout the world, while leveling up unlocks more zones to visit. Avatar items and clothing are graded by rarity as well, keeping in line with the loot staples of modern MMOs. Shops refresh their wares every six hours to ensure that there’s always something new to spend coin on. Certain items, like fishing rods, can be held and are needed to partake in specific activities. These sorts of items can be acquired through quest lines or purchased with coins.
At level six, players unlock the neighborhood and receive their own house. Decorations and modifications can be purchased at stores. “Coming soon right after launch we’ll allow you to decorate the outside of your house in your yard. There are shops for all of these props and things that you can outfit your house with and visit your friends’ houses. We have crafting and harvesting systems. We have player shops, so if you’re out there crafting, you can also sell them to other players,” Beardslee said.
The current max level is 30. Once reached, “honor credit” endgame leveling begins. A special quest to unlock the honor society opens in the endgame where players can buy rare items from the honor shop.
All throughout Adventure Academy, MMO features are readily on display, with each educational activity contributing to the progression of their personal avatar. “Most contemporary MMO features we’ve added to Adventure Academy,” Beardslee said. Age of Learning believes the format is ideal for what they’re trying to do.
MMOs are “the perfect experience for kids in that age range to have a learning environment,” Kupperstein said. “We know that kids learn better when they learn socially We know that kids are engaged when they have choices of what they can pursue and study and how they pursue it. An MMO being a boundless world allows us to build out and add indefinitely.”
“I think my favorite thing about this whole game is that kids learn to level up. That’s the way that they grow. I think that speaks to what we’re trying to do with this game. We’re trying to build learning into an experience that is on par with what kids are doing in their own world now in terms of gaming,” Kupperstein said.
I spent several hours playing Adventure Academy with my eight-year-old daughter and can confirm that the MMO loop offers an enticing reward-based system for learning. The selection of minigames and activities thrive because they are both well-designed and, critically, brief. You never spend more than a handful of minutes on one task, which seemed to help keep her actively engaged. The colorful cartoon world is an inviting place to learn inside and manages to offer freedom while teaching and reinforcing core concepts. It’s obviously very much an educational experience, but it’s surrounded by systems that really do make it fun, too.
Age of Learning is treating Adventure Academy like a live service, with more quests, areas, and activities arriving in the coming months. A “whole new map” is also in development for later this year. Multiplayer activities outside of selling, trading, and communicating aren’t currently available, but dedicated activities for multiple users are in the works. Leaderboards and achievements (badges) are expected to arrive soon.
All future updates will be included with the subscription price. After a 30-day free trial, parents can either pay $60 for a year subscription or $10 monthly. Adventure Academy has zero ads, microtransactions, or any of the monetization features that plague the most popular games on the market today. Adventure Academy is available now on PC and mobile devices.