Wonder Rotunda

Wonder Rotunda

Written by Tina Amini on 12/31/2009 for
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For as much attention has been paid to video games for their “horrific” impact on our poor, poor children, there is also a surprisingly good amount of attention being paid to the more honorable aspects of what a quality video game can lend to us gamers. To name just one, video games have potential to have genuine educational value.

How a video game can be educational is, in my opinion, a truly complex matter. There are so many reasons I can identify as to how I am learning while I’m playing Bioshock, or Civilization, to (sort of) randomly name a few. There’s the idea of tangential learning, in which an interest sparked by something found in one of these video games incites the gamer to plunge head first into the Internets for more information. Then there’s the more direct idea of learning like within the strategy game, Civilization, mentioned earlier. Whatever way we are gathering pieces of valuable information from these games, we are ultimately taking away more than just those 10, or 50 hours of gaming time we put in for enjoyment’s sake.

I’m always pleased when this side of video games is recognized and appreciated for once, and so it was with a positive reaction that I began playing Wonder Rotunda, a browser-based game designed for children (ages 7-12) to help introduce them to some extra (and fun) education than what they are receiving. This game consists of an educational, virtual theme park and spoke of zip lining through tropical rainforests, and navigating a submarine through the human digestive system. Sounds fun, right?

The creation and idea of the game comes from an inspiring story, too. Attending the 1964-1965 N.Y. World’s Fair and coming away wholly impressed by it, a D.C. father decided to recreate the experience for children in an online game. I felt pretty enthusiastic about this game – excited to see what worlds I would wander.

I have to say that I was, unfortunately, highly disappointed. I had such high hopes for this game. It was a great idea, with very genuine intentions, and seemed interesting and fun at the same time. It is, still, a great idea but it wasn’t executed correctly.

The “game” starts you off with an avatar creator, and a description of what an avatar is. It’s very simple and plain, and I can guess that any 7-12 year old won’t be too interested in designing an avatar with such little flare. You can also design an avatar of a companion to bring along with you, who does absolutely nothing. He’s (or she’s) meaningless. You arrive at the park and are given access to a map of the theme park, giving you options of where you want to explore first. I hit the zip line first thing expecting to be flying through the jungle exploring varying wildlife. And there began my disappointment. I soon realized that the game was going to amount not to exploring and fun expeditions around this theme park, but to a very dull narration by a very dorky looking man (Mr. Wonder) who basically holds your hand throughout your game. The game can be best described as a point-and-click given that you navigate through by clicking at objects to get more information on them. For instance, you can click on an animal you come across in the rainforest and a text box pops up to describe to you what the deal is with this particular animal that you’ve encountered. This information is tracked in your journal for each expedition. The problem is that by the end of my round in the rainforest I felt like I just read a virtual textbook that my elementary school would have assigned me. This would be a cooler way to read a textbook assigned from school, actually, but don’t disguise it under the name of a “video game” in that case.That’s not to say that the content of the information itself is flawed or lacking. There’s definitely a lot to learn. Not only is the content of each expedition vast, and also interesting, but the expeditions themselves are incredibly vast, too. The only problem is that I need a reason to want to learn from this game. The appeal of a video game is that kids want to play them, and the bonus is what they come away learning from it. In this case, a game has been made purely for educational purposes, and completely misses the game aspect. There’s no interaction, no actual playing. You click something, you learn about it. The closest Wonder Rotunda gets to being a game is the game show portion of the map. Here, you’ll get tested on the information you’ve learned about and get a chance to earn Wonder dollars. Key word here is that you’re tested on information. This is more like one of those pop quizzes everyone dreads, not a game that’s fun and engaging.

The Wonder dollars are used to purchase food for your character when he/she runs out of energy. This was clearly meant to connect you to your explorations throughout the park. However, I didn’t feel that connection, per se. I understood that when I clicked on my menu button and my avatar was frowning at me that I should probably get it some food. The two aspects of “gameplay”, however, felt forced and completely incongruent. You can use these monies to buy items at the souvenir shop.

Completing the expeditions gets you a badge of completion, and the opportunity to seek out one of the hidden gold coins around the park. These get you a bonus of extra Wonder dollars. Nothing like motivating the kids with money! Where is the challenge, where is the effort I have to put in to even unlock the other adventures?

I believe I have a pretty good connection to my inner child, and my inner child in no way is appealed to by this game. The fun-sounding activities were turned bland by my zero interaction with them, the graphics are a simple 2-D cartoons that you’d find in a pediatrician’s office, and I felt patronized all the while. You know the baby voice mothers pull out when they’re talking to their children? It’s pretty much that down the line. Kids, especially at the age between 7-12, can definitely handle more complex ideas and don’t need any patronizing. Heck, there are 7-12 year olds who can beat the pants off of me in some games (Halo, anyone?). By putting kids in a more complex situation and letting them play around with it, you’re inviting more of a learning opportunity. Wonder Rotunda undervalues the extent of the 7-12 year old’s ability to comprehend certain concepts, as well as their taste in and abilities with games.

Although I definitely appreciate the thoughtful effort in bringing the more honorable aspects of video games to light and attempting to provide that value for children, this is a classic example of someone who misses the meaning of video games. Video games are fun because we get to do everything and we’re the protagonists. I felt like the dorky dude was more the protagonist than I was. I was back in school with my teacher leading me around a field trip. Maybe this game is more suitable within a classroom, but I warn those parents who are looking for a more child-friendly video game alternative to what your kids are probably already playing. If your child is a gamer at heart, you should most certainly stay away from this game. If you’re looking for strictly educational material with, not an educational video game, but one that is not as bland as some textbooks can be, then this information-stocked virtual guide is great.

Of course, creator and developer Eric Garfinkel states that the goal for the game was to “get kids thinking about our world, finding things that they're interested in, or passionate about, and exploring how they might make their mark some day.” So perhaps this educational value is enough for to reach their goal. As a virtual museum for small children, I can say that this “game” is cute and definitely educational. As a video game, however, Wonder Rotunda is missing the key aspects of what a video game is and what makes it fun.

Wonder Rotunda
is $45 for a one-year unlimited Park pass, with annual renewals at $35.
Wonder Rotunda is not a fun video game, but it is a very educational virtual theme park. With no legitimate interaction, this point-and-click game is more suitable under the label of a virtual educational guide. Although you’ll find tons of great information to learn about myriad topics, don’t expect your 7-12 yr old gamer to enjoy this beyond the realm of a classroom.

Rating: 6.9 Mediocre

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I am host to the kind of split-personality that is only possible when a girl is both born and raised in New York City, yet spends a lot of time with two older brothers. So, on one hand, I'm a NYU student majoring in media and communication who has a healthy obsession with fashion, music, media and the latest happenings in NYC. But, on the other hand, I'm rocking a level 70 blood elf warlock (I just got Lich King -- give me a break), spend much of my time playing games of all genres and platforms, and if you pass by my dorm you can possibly even hear my roar of victory as I spring on the unsuspecting as one of the infected in Left 4 Dead. And just when I thought things were as random as they could be, I spent the summer in Texas and, turns out, I like 4-wheeling and shooting (real) guns too.

I whet my appetite early on the classics and later moved on to Counter-Strike, GoldenEye and the like. You'll find me trying just about any game now -- I even tried my hand at Cooking Mama -- but the more blood and gore, the better. All my friends and family are probably pretty annoyed by how much I talk about video games. It's your turn now, Internet.
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