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Garden Party World is a social site where kids can meet up online and play simple games together while hanging out in each other's homes. But as far as my family are concerned, there was very little socialising going on.
The only one of my children old enough to be interested in Garden Party World is my six year old daughter. So far in her gaming life she has never, ever wanted to do any more than watch her dad play games. You can offer her the joypad and she'll shrink away in fear as if it's some kind of dastardly modern way to get kids to eat sprouts. You can sit her in front of a computer and she'll like the game you're showing her until you ask her if she wants a go, and then she'll just say she'd rather watch you play it. So my expectations for Garden Party World's social website wrapped up in a bundle of mini-games, gardening and home improvement were decidedly low.
Setting up Garden Party World is easy, once you've chosen an online name for yourself (they do tell you not to use your own), and parents have given the okay to play by replying to an email, you land in the somewhat small world of Garden Party. Moving around in Garden Party World is a matter of point and click - put the cursor where you want to go, click your mouse and watch your character stroll towards it. To get an idea of exactly what you're supposed to do in each zone, you simply click on the wise owl and read through the basic rules.
I was edged slowly out of my seat by a virtual Alan Titchmarsh.
You're not alone in Garden Party World. At practically any time of day, you can log on and find someone else to play games with, invite to your tree house or just have a chat. My daughter, however, had absolutely no interest in interacting with anyone else there, and neither did I, as we were both too busy trying to collect as many orbs (Garden Party World's version of currency) so we could go and buy more seeds to sow in our garden.
It took us quite a while to work out exactly what we were supposed to be doing - getting cash to buy seeds to grow everything from ovens to lion suits to pans for wearing as hats - but once we did, we were off. And then we realised that the first thing we really ought to do was get ourselves a bee suit and a duck suit, because without them your gaming options are limited to the Tomato Game or Rock Paper Scissors. Neither of which were ever going to keep our attentions for long. But eventually we made enough money to buy a duck seed and scurried into our private garden to plant it. So far it had been business as usual, me doing the pointing and clicking, my daughter taking up the role of Chief of Operations beside me. Yet inside the garden, it was all change. I lost the mouse in one swift move and I was edged slowly out of my seat by a virtual Alan Titchmarsh.
Using a simple click through menu, she selected her seed, chose a spot to plant it, selected the watering can and gave it a hearty drink. Then she sat back to watch it grow. Which it did, slowly. After what seemed an age, the plant flowered and we got our duck suit, which meant it was time to get into the water and do some fishing. It's a very simple game; you control a fishing line and, using the mouse, you raise and lower it into the path of fish to win points. And this is all that pretty much happened for three days. Scoring about thirty points a go and saving them up till we could afford to buy more seeds. Thank god that my wife fell for this game in a big way because after one day of my daughter's frantic finger pointing from over my shoulder I'd had enough. My wife loved it. Hours and hours of it. Dinners late because of it. But did I mind? Not one bit. It was great to see both the girls in my house playing an online game together. Besides, we were all completely hooked by then.
Whether it was tending our garden, fishing, or playing the side-scrolling jet pack game (Dad eventually found a game for him) we all wanted to play every day. I got to the point where I was playing it close to midnight trying to earn enough money to buy a squirrel seed and get it to fruition before my daughter got back from school the next day so I could show her what I'd done. She got to the point where she would dutifully do her homework without any arguments because she wasn't allowed to play it until afterwards.
It was great to see both the girls in my house playing an online game together.
Along the way, we've made quite a few friends. Or, at least, they've invited us to be their friends but were never to be heard from again. And we've seen very few conversations going on. But we have played some games with other people online - you need to be in a team to win the bee game, it's impossible on your own - and there was one player who just kept on giving us gifts of seeds and hats and pots, so you do feel like you are a member of an online community in part.
In the end, unless your children are old enough to play alone, you're going to be pestered into playing for them. And if that happens, it's very likely that you'll get hooked on some aspects of Garden Party World. What it really feels like to me is a kind of warm up for playing MMORPGs when your kids reach their teens. You have to perform tasks to earn money to buy better things and perform harder tasks, and along the way you can make friends with other, er, gardeners and team up to earn even more money and buy even better things. What I really like about that is that it's a gardening MMORPG game, which really appeals to the daft gamer in me.
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