SimCity wants to be the killer app of the classroom

November 26, 2013

We've had educational computer games almost since the dawn of the computer age itself. Math Blaster, Oregon Trail, the Incredible Machine. Many of these, particularly the older ones, were built to do one or a few things really well — teach multiplication, say, or physics, or to give a history lesson.

But the future of classroom games has a much more ambitious vision. SimCity, the venerable urban planning simulator, is positioning itself as a Swiss Army knife for teachers. Not only does it aim to convey basic skills such as arithmetic, but an understanding of complex systems such as the economy, the environment and the relationships that tie them together. It's a new supplement for schools that tries to be more comprehensive in scope and more conscious of the challenges our children will someday face.

Jessica Lindl oversees Glasslab — a five-member partnership of academic entities and gaming companies, including the Educational Testing Service and Electronic Arts, SimCity's publisher. For the past two weeks, Lindl has been encouraging schools to start using SimCityEDU, a specially tailored edition of the new SimCity for the classroom setting. It's not quite the same as the full SimCity experience; players don't have as much freedom to launch disasters or plop civic memorials. But that's because Lindl wants to make SimCityEDU a way to convey concepts that don't lend themselves well to boring old textbooks.

"We're really excited about the application of skills, rather than rote learning or memorization of content," Lindl said. "Twenty-first century success isn't based on what you know — it's based on what you learn, and how you acquire and apply those skills."

When I was growing up, SimCity 2000 was the state-of-the-art urban planning game. For the first time, you could set different tax rates for residential, commercial and industrial zones. You could build train tracks and hydroelectric dams. But one thing it didn't do very well was show you your residents' relationship to the place they lived. The whole city functioned (or in my case, malfunctioned) like a machine rather than a living organism. There's a reason for that: All of the SimCity games to date were little more than a static Excel spreadsheet whose values changed depending on your inputs. By playing the game you could begin to perceive how all the hidden formulas worked, but for a middle schooler, getting the full grasp was difficult.

What makes the newest entrant in the SimCity franchise so exciting is that it abandons the algorithms that previously managed all the systems behind the scenes for you. Instead, what happens to your city is a visible function of the Sims you see walking around — each of whom has her own individual needs and interests. Add them all up, and you get these flows of real people that create real traffic jams and real sewage problems. For children, that's a much more intuitive way of understanding how city systems are interconnected, and it's why educators are now turning to SimCity as a teaching tool.

What began as an alpha trial distributed to several hundred students earlier this year has now roped in "thousands" of pupils, though Lindl wouldn't give concrete adoption numbers. More interesting than how many students are using the technology, however, is who they are. One school in Oakland, Calif. is filled with non-native English speakers. While SimCityEDU is nominally geared toward teaching students about pollution, these young English-learners used the game to master their academic vocabulary. The game has also spread among teachers of other subjects, including history, social science, mathematics and the physical sciences. The ad-hoc uptake has convinced Lindl to start building future missions into the game that formally focus on those.

SimCityEDU strikes a balance between guiding players to their objectives and giving them the freedom to experiment. In a demo I played, I needed to plop enough bus stops around town to get at least 200 students into school. I wasn't allowed to build much else besides educational infrastructure — the menus that would ordinarily lead to construction options like parks and fire stations were empty, gone. But in addition to the bus stations, I discovered that opening up the school itself still granted the choice of adding another bus to the motor pool. More buses meant the bus stops would be serviced more frequently.

The 200 number was just an initial target to complete the mission. To the side of the screen was a little meter that filled up as I funneled more students into the school. When I hit my goal and "won," I had still only filled about half the meter. The completionist in me couldn't walk away from the mission until that bar was spilling over and dousing the whole town. The game was urging me to improve my game. For students, that subtle encouragement can be a valuable thing.

Teachers might object to classroom video games on the grounds that they rot kids' brains. But as gaming goes mainstream more generally, teachers are likelier these days to be gamers themselves, and can grasp the appeal of making school fun. And SimCityEDU isn't just for children. Its back-end dashboard is meant to give educators access to incredibly rich data on their students' performance. The software is capable of tracking not only what the kids click on, but also which in-game tools they hover their mouse over, the different data-analysis maps they open up, what they build, what they blow up, and on and on.

"If you think about teaching from a textbook," said Lindl, "you only have about 100 different data points [from a paper-based test] on how a student is learning. When you look at SimCity, there's over 3,000 data points we're gathering."

From this, educators can more finely identify their students' learning styles. In a scenario about cutting urban pollution, Lindl noticed some students jumping right in and tinkering with the different tools the game gave them. Others held back, reading all the information about each tool before planning their approach. That information could be used to better tailor a course to a student's needs.

Lindl also learned which pupils were becoming proficient in multidimensional thinking. Those who failed to understand pollution's mutual connection to both industry and the environment simply wound up bulldozing the offending power plants, which certainly solved the pollution problem but threw the economy into a tailspin as jobs were lost and workers moved out.

On top of the critical thinking and other academic skills we associate with schooling, SimCityEDU may hold unexplored benefits for emotional development.

"Students are just blown away by the engagement," Lindl said. "It's as engaging as stuff they do outside the classroom. They get really emotionally connected to the citizens and their city — they feel like they're being treated like adults because they have this opportunity to manage and save. It's a responsibility they don't traditionally get in the classroom."

The feeling you get when you've mastered something is hard to quantify. But as even most adults might agree, it's worth a ton. It's a feeling I never quite got playing the old SimCity.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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