Having a pet in your computer

Computing - November 2004


Jane Huth


My daughter wants a dog or a pony, but it’s not going to happen. For one thing, our yard is the size of a small living room and for another, animals are a lot of work.

When toy animals aren’t enough, my kids can play with virtual animals on the computer. OK, so it doesn’t wag its tail or nuzzle up to you, but neither does a goldfish. And you don’t have to clean its stall or vacuum its hair off the couch.

In these CD-ROMs, kids can play with talking hamsters, swim with a mermaid (so she’s an imaginary animal), treat sick gorillas and giraffes in the zoo, or own and manage a horse farm.

THE HULA HAMSTERS, $14.95, www.hulahamsters.com; ages 3-8.

The coast is clear of children, so hamsters Frankie and Bean escape their cage to explore the delights of a child’s bedroom. This cute, thoroughly entertaining program engaged both my 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. The activities include looking through a microscope and guessing, for example, which picture depicts a canary feather, tip of a match, hamburger or penny.

There’s a silly book to read, Gravity Takes a Holiday, that explains what would happen if there were no gravity on Earth (cows would float). My son loved the interactive comic book, The Devolver, in which players get to (among other things) blow up a gator goon who’s protecting the entrance to the city sewers, home of the Evil Lab Rat. (The Hula Hamster Heroes save the city of Odomopolis by scuttling the Lab Rat’s nefarious scheme.) In other areas of the child’s room, players solve math problems by throwing Velcro balls at a dart board, learn about the planets in the Miss Galaxy Talent Show or play Brain Twister, a matching game. The Hula Hamsters are a clever, playful pair, and I hope we’ll see more of these cute critters. 

BARBIE MERMAID ADVENTURE, $19.99, www.vugames.com, (800) 545-7677; ages 4 and up.

My 5-year-old daughter oohs and ahhs over all the pretty stuff—rainbow dolphins, party decorations, Barbie’s jewelry—in this glittery, pastel-infused CD-ROM that’s just right for little girls. Yes, there are sea creatures to play with, including a seahorse, magic dolphins, schools of snoozing baby fish and a whale, as well as Barbie in mermaid form.

I like the sweet tone of this CD-ROM, which is entertaining and only slightly educational. Barbie asks players to complete activities, such as a maze or a matching game, to collect the three rainbow dolphins necessary to relight the magic shell in time for a big undersea party. In each of three areas, players collect party decorations, and hand out invitations to the party, as well as complete a maze to find jewels for Barbie. Then players decorate the magic shell, select the music for the party, and decorate Barbie’s jewelry.

My only complaint is that the program has only one level, which limits its play time. My daughter was delighted with this program at first, and played it over and over. But as she mastered the games, she began to lose interest. She now plays it only occasionally.  

ZOO VET, $19.95, www.legacyinteractive.com; ages 8-12.

Should your chimpanzee have a swollen eye, or zebra start running in circles, you’ll find the information you need to treat him in this CD-ROM. You are the newest veterinarian at the zoo, and you must jump right in and treat sick animals, such as the penguin with the swollen abdomen (she’s pregnant) or the lion who’s losing his hair (he has fleas).

This imaginative game is challenging and fun to play, if a bit low on action (it’s not exactly “E.R.”). Players must diagnose and treat the animals using a variety of familiar instruments (such as a thermometer and a stethoscope) and medicines (ointments, eye drops, antibiotics). At the easiest of three levels, players are given lots of help, and the challenges are fairly easy (the limping flamingo needs ointment for the cracked skin on his foot). At the hardest level, you’re on your own with a pile of medicines, tests and instruments, but little instruction.

The program can get tricky: An animal can have symptoms but be perfectly normal, such as the zebra whirling in circles and bucking (he’s a little nervous). After treating each animal, the head veterinarian, Dr. Sullivan, evaluates how you’ve done: Did you make the correct diagnosis? Did you treat the animal with the proper medication? Did you ask the right questions? Did you examine the animal thoroughly?

Kids who love animals or have even the slightest interest in becoming a veterinarian will enjoy this program. There are loads of animals to treat, and you get better as you play. The reading required is challenging for an 8-year-old (too difficult for mine), but is just right for slightly older kids. Even adults will be entertained trying to figure out what’s wrong and what to do about the ailments of these exotic animals.

MY HORSE FARM, $19.95, www.viva-media.com; ages 8 and up.

I’ve wanted a horse since I was a little girl, but playing this game reminded me of why I’ve never owned one. First, there’s the expense (there’s never enough money), then there’s the property (a stable for starters, but you also need pastures and a place to ride), not to mention all that equipment: horse trailer, jumps, saddle, bridle, riding outfit, ropes, halters and buckets. Plus, there are vet bills and blacksmith bills, well, you get the idea. If your child wants a horse, have her play this game for a few days and see if she really wants all that responsibility.

Play starts in the dressing room where players pick a look for themselves, then it’s on to the farm, which starts out small, but in time and with savvy business acumen, will grow into a major enterprise. (Or go bust, which is more likely, in my experience.) Players start with a specific amount of money, a stable and an office, and then must decide which way to build the business. Do you want to hire an instructor to give lessons? Or use the money to upgrade the property? Players must pay salaries and advertise, all of which deplete their bank account. Will you make enough money to pay the bills and expand the farm? That’s the test.

I found this game very detailed, at times tedious, but also very tough. You have to do everything right, including keeping each horse happy (a complicated process that requires everything from regular feeding and exercise to proper medical care and grooming). And there’s a right way to do everything, all of which budding equestriennes learn by trial and error.

If your child manages to win this very challenging game, go ahead and get her a horse! She’s likely to train him, and then turn around and sell him for a profit. If nothing else, the experience will look good on her application to Harvard Business School. 

Jane Huth lives in the north suburbs with her husband, a second-grader, a kindergartner and a newborn.


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