Appy Hour Rewind: SimCity

July 30, 2014
CATEGORIES Tools, Professional Development, Technology Integration

How can you incorporate SimCity into your classroom instruction? This month’s Appy Hour, hosted by Common Sense Media, features SimCity, an always-online, fast-paced, intuitive, and forgiving city simulator that lets kids build (and destroy) single-player cities in multiplayer regions. Students can learn about what makes a great city and about city management by keeping a budget, running a surplus, or issuing bonds to keep afloat. Kids can play together in the same region, or as a single player who manages all the cities in it.

Jason Jackson, education program manager for Common Sense Media in West Virginia, hosted the session, featuring presenter David Thomas. Thomas is the director of academic technology at CU Online at the University of Colorado at Denver. Thomas is also a game journalist and has taught urban planning classes, as well as classes on games and learning for K-12 teachers.

Thomas begins by describing what SimCity is: a dynamic game system that comes to life when a player makes choices, telling a particular story about how cities are developed and managed. According to Thomas, SimCity is the most successful and well-known educational game ever. However, the game’s popularity is also its downfall as a strictly educational tool.

The game's real-world inaccuracies open the door for the biggest benefit to SimCity as an education tool. Thomas uses the problems in SimCity to get his students to examine what's real and what's fiction in the game's cityscape. He prompts discussions about what parts of the city they identify with, or would change, and why. He uses the game to spark a discussion about media and games. Thomas says that even in elementary school, kids need to have critical discussions about the media they participate in.

Thomas then describes the problems he identifies with SimCity, and how he uses these issues to further teach his students about cities and urban planning. The first issue is that SimCity doesn't have a realistic cityscape. The inconsistencies are subtle, but still make the game inaccurate. For example, the scale of the city is completely unrealistic because the walls are at least twice as high as they would be in real life. Instead of ignoring this, Thomas encourages his students to think critically and identify inaccuracies in the cityscape.

The other issue Thomas identifies is that the student plays SimCity as the mayor. In the real world, a mayor is elected and can be removed if citizens find him or her unaccountable. The lack of responsibility and accountability makes this part of the game somewhat unrealistic, yet it provides students with the ability to make a greater number of decisions for themselves within the game. Thomas says this freedom allows him to more specifically critique a student’s play because each game is unique to each student playing it. In addition, the high levels of freedom and decision-making make SimCity more fun and engaging for students than other educational games. Thomas also uses the game to get at hard-to-teach concepts like dynamic systems, decision-making, unintended consequences, flexibility in planning, and cooperation.

To learn more ideas from David Thomas about how to use SimCity with students, watch the video below.