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Pros: Kids learn about animal behaviors and needs, and then apply that information as they work to effectively care for their creatures and manage a sustainable zoo.
Cons: Doesn't allow teachers or parents to track or evaluate student progress. Some tutorials aren't completely clear.
Bottom Line: A great way for budding zoologists to learn more about animals and the business of caring for them.
Due to system and space requirements -- an Xbox 360 or Xbox One is necessary, along with a living room-sized space for Kinect sensor bar interactions -- Zoo Tycoon is best played by home-schooling students, afterschool programs, or small groups of students together in a classroom taking turns and cooperating on a zoo's design. After giving students the design experience, teachers could lead a discussion about what the game taught the players about animal conservation and how zoos function as businesses. Engage students in a discussion of why they built their zoo the way they did.
Zoo Tycoon is a zoo simulation game that allows students to create, manage, and explore a fully functioning zoo. They'll get to create enclosures, populate them with animals, make sure each creature has everything it needs to survive and thrive, and even make their avatar interact with animals by washing, feeding, or -- in the case of the monkeys -- making faces in front of the Kinect camera for them to mimic. Specific scenarios and objectives within the campaign mode encourage kids to try breeding various animals; task them to keep their wards healthy, happy, and clean; and challenge them to meet specific business and growth goals by expanding their menageries with new facilities and attractions, all while keeping an eye on the zoo's bottom line.
This game is much better suited for learning than most commercial games not designed with educational intent. Its zoopedia provides good and accurate information on more than 100 different animal types, including where they live, what their habits are, and what their nutritional and hygenic needs may be. More than that, kids get to apply this information as they build their zoos and exhibits, taking into account each animal's requirements -- such as whether they're social, and whether they like interacting with visitors -- as they add elements to their living space.
The game also has a strong conservation theme, providing information on how properly run zoos help endangered animals by breeding them, sharing them with other facilities, and eventually releasing them back into the wild to help grow the natural population. These elements even become goals within the game. Students can research and build breeding centers in hopes of producing baby animals, import animals from other zoos, and, when animals are mature enough, send them back to wildlife preserves.
All this, and they'll learn the basics of how zoos function as businesses, too. Students need to devise strategies and schedules for expansion, maintenance, marketing, and staffing in order to keep their zoos growing and profitable. The business element is pretty basic and mostly just a matter of keeping ticket sales up by introducing new attractions and keeping them clean, but on the bright side it means the zoo's economics shouldn't overwhelm kids in lower grades.