A Sandbox for Learning: SimCityEDU

by Allison Mishkin
March 13, 2013

SimCityEDUI’m old enough (or young enough, based on whom you ask) to have fond memories of experimenting with both SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000, the first two sequels to Will Wright’s popular SimCity game. The ability to design and wreak havoc on my own community offered mixed feelings of power and helplessness that, as a 9-year-old, I would have had few opportunities to experiment with beyond the computer. My mother, an urban planner, would use my city’s pitfalls as a springboard to discuss broader questions of resource management and city design. So it is exciting to me that a new generation of students will be able to experience the game’s educational value in SimCityEDU.

Before the release of the original game, Wright struggled for four years to find a publisher for SimCity, the first computer game which one could neither win nor lose. Fourteen years later, Wright is again redefining what computer games can do. Now SimCity and Electronic Arts, its developer, are partnering with GLASSLabs to release SimCityEDU, an online community where teachers can develop and share tools and assessments to drive STEM achievement through gameplay.

As described by its creators, “SimCity is more than a game–it is a way for the next generation of leaders to hone their skills through urban planning, environmental management and socio-economic development.” In many ways, SimCity’s open play model harnesses the same fundamentals of traditional child’s play that allow for creative learning. It creates a sandbox where users try on different roles and create their own experience. In SimCity, players don’t fail; they learn from their choices and witness tangible impacts based on their decisions. Rather than punishing students for mistakes by forcing them to start from the beginning, the game encourages players to develop more nuanced solutions based on their prior actions.

The new online community around SimCity directly targets teachers, who may be familiar with the game from their own childhood. Teachers can embed the tool into their existing curricula, with the help of Common Core-aligned lessons and assessments. They can choose to use SimCity as a short-form activity within a class period or to develop longer-term lessons to encourage deep problem solving and a greater emotional investment in one’s city. In many ways, the SimCityEDU platform is as much a sandbox as the game itself.

We are excited by EA’s contribution to the educational game space. In John Richards’ recent report, he highlighted opportunities for commercial developers to enter the educational space and argued that more commercial developers should see educational games as a new market. Rather than solely develop new tools, EA has repurposed existing content to harness its educational potential. SimCityEDU is easily adapted to a teacher’s needs, and its brand recognition may excite students who use it within an educational context. More importantly, this large-scale entry by game giant EA hopefully forecasts the entry of commercial developers into the educational game market.

What do you think about SimCityEDU. Are you an educator or parent? What impacts do you think this may have?