Windows XP: Game Over

If you’ve got kids, kids’ games and Windows XP, you’ve problems. You see, Microsoft appears to have ignored an entire category of software during Windows XP compatibility testing: Educational and edutainment software for kids. If you have a closet full of hand-me-down games for that four or five year-old previously used by an older sibling, plan on turning many of them into coffee coasters.

Windows XP may have been on the market for more than two years, but plenty of kids games won’t work well or run at all on the operating system. If your kids have a beloved game for which there is no new version and you’re thinking about getting a shiny, new Windows XP PC, plan on keeping that older Windows machine around for awhile. 

Without a doubt, Windows XP is the most exciting, easiest-to-use operating system ever developed by the guys and gals of Redmond, Wash. Windows XP also shatters the No. 1 complaint about predecessors Windows 95, 98, 98 SE and Me: Constant crashes. For lots of reasons, security among the most important, anyone running older Windows versions should really move to XP.

But, there’s that little aforementioned gotcha for parents. XP shares little else with these operating systems other than name, because its code lineage derives from Windows NT and 2000. Microsoft made this change to get its consumer and business OSes on a single code base, and one that would be fairly robust and stable.

Windows NT and 2000 were built for businesses, with security and stability—not compatibility—in mind. While Microsoft worked to solve software and hardware compatibility problems when building Windows XP, the company could not foresee every problem. Some simply weren’t Microsoft’s responsibility. For example, some software developers used common coding shortcuts designing products for earlier versions of Windows that prevent them from running right on XP—if at all. Other developers had used installers that would check for Windows NT—and thus, Windows 2000 and XP—and stop installation because of potential compatibility problems. Worse, some earlier Microsoft multimedia technologies simply aren’t compatible with the Windows NT/2000 lineage of operating systems. The result is a big headache for parents: Software for kids released before mid 2002 consistently has problems running on Windows XP.

In most cases, educational and kids edutainment software released after mid 2002 works fine on Windows XP. Just check the box for compatibility. But you could be out of luck if you own an older version of the same software title.

To Microsoft’s credit, XP includes a special “Compatibility Mode” utility that tries to trick programs that don’t work right with the OS into perceiving they are running on Windows 95, 98 or Me. But I have yet to see Compatibility Mode solve one single problem with broken kids games in my casual but very extensive testing. (OK, my daughter’s extensive testing.) I’ve tried the same games on different XP PCs with the same or similar problems; that means the hardware is not likely to blame.

Interestingly, most action-oriented games for older kids—those with about as much educational value as shooting ducks in a pond—work just fine under Windows XP. That’s because Microsoft worked with many of these developers back during the early days of Windows 2000 to work out compatibility kinks. The same can be said of most business or productivity programs. Rule of thumb: If the program lists Windows 2000 among the supported Microsoft OS versions, it will likely run on XP.

Educational developers typically design for the lowest common denominator, assuming most homes or schools are using the oldest PCs. Action games for older children, teenagers or adults, by contrast, demand the newest, fastest computers available; so there’s good reason why these game developers solved their problems with the release of Windows 2000. Educational and kids’ game developers weren’t as worried about Windows 2000, although they most certainly now take XP compatibility very seriously.

That’s fine for the newest Arthur or Sesame Street game, but what about the one your five year-old just inherited from her older brother? There’s a fairly good chance the program will choke up when run under Windows XP. This is more than just a problem of hand-me-down games. Some educational software companies are putting together new, special bundles of games with older titles for, say, girls that I know have problems with Windows XP. So once, again, be sure to check compatibility before you buy.

My daughter wines about having Windows XP all the time. You’d think kids would moan about running the oldest computers, but she wishes I had a few. Many of her favorite games are Windows XP flame outs, so she’s relegated to playing her favorite Flying Toasters game at a friends house with a good computer—good because it’s a wheezing antique running Windows 95.

Fixing the problem would seem simple. The company selling the software could simply issue an update or work-around instructions on the Web. Software developers do this all the time. Because of the volatility of the educational and kids’ game market and the lingering aftereffects of the great dot-com meltdown, many of the original publishers have either sold their titles or simply gone out of business. Interestingly, this problem affects a large number of very, very popular kids software series. So the big deal is that in many cases some other company continues to sell the games, but no updates or fixes are issued.

For example, a number of very popular series—Arthur, Reader Rabbit and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, among others—have changed hands several times from Broderbund to the Learning Co. to Riverdeep, which also is the final resting place for Edmark games abandoned by IBM. Plenty other titles have changed hands, too. Humongous Entertainment Putt, Putt and Freddie Fish titles now are published by Atari Games, which also snapped up some Nickelodeon games, such as Blue’s Clues.

New versions of older games may run on Windows XP, but parents looking for patches to fix the games Junior passed onto Missy won’t find much. Granted, some of these titles were released five years ago or more. But that doesn’t mean much to parents handing down “Arthur’s Reading Race” to the next sibling using a computer.

As for one of my daughter’s favorite titles, sorry, the Flying Toasters are grounded.