SimCity in education

Originally posted on the Higher Innovation blog

On March 5th 2013, Electronic Arts released the highly-anticipated SimCity for Windows PCs everywhere.  SimCity is an interactive and immersive simulation where you are the mayor of a virtual city with people known as Sims that just want to be happy. As mayor you take the heat or the credit for how your city fares under your leadership and decision-making. It is just a game…or is it?

Magee City - Mayor Cameron Evans (SimCity)

Stimulating Learning Through Simulation
As a learning simulation, SimCity is a rich and immersive experience for students learning the complexities and subtleties of the world we live in.  From the decisions of where to place a road to what your city should have as a specialisation, SimCity makes the complex decisions of our national, state, and local leaders approachable through play.

Play is an important dynamic. I watched my daughter just “jump in” the SimCity world. She resisted reading the manual, the companion guide, or any text before entering the Sim experience.  Games are like that. You learn through play, as you play, and from your mistakes while you play. Early simple decisions become more complex over time when the conditions of your world change.

In our schools, we do the reverse of play.  We provide all of the facts, details, knowledge, and concepts so that you will not make a mistake when it comes times to assess your ability. The only learning that comes from mistakes in our traditional approach is—well you do not want to make too many mistakes.

Relevancy for Next Generation Learning Standards
What I like most is the contextual introduction of new vocabulary that would otherwise be irrelevant for young learners. Even though you can drop into SimCity without using a manual, there is a substantial amount of reading at varying levels of text complexity. You will not grow your Sim’s happiness or your city without strong reading fluency.

Surprisingly, the challenges of SimCity can be found in the real world. For example, after dealing with finding a safe place to dispose of sewage in SimCity, our real local news reported on a story about citizens complaining about a sewage being run through their community and waterways. The simulation prompts learners to pay attention to and inspect local real world events. Very few learning simulations provide that scope, context, and relevance for learning.

There is a substantial amount of mathematics and science in SimCity.  The maths is introduced through the city’s budget mechanism for taxes, expenses, revenues, gifts, and bond projects.  It does not take long to bankrupt your growing city if you are not paying attention to your budget, residents, and businesses.  There is additional mathematics for measurement and data by using the cities various data layers to track everything from pollution and crime to sick residents and unschooled children. Geometry is incorporated in the very design of your city and its various zones. If you build roads too close together, you will lose your ability to establish residents or commercial businesses (read tax revenue). Students also deal with fractions on a human scale. As mayor, you have to decide how much of your population will be “blue collar,” middle income, and affluent class. Those decisions are highly dependent on the industries, education, and specialisations you choose for the city.

The science of SimCity is equally clever. Decisions on how to provide basic services of power, water, sewage, and garbage all have a consequence on the environment. You can place wind turbines to power a small city and reduce air pollution. However, that decision will not hold as the limited amount of real estate for your city and the increasing density of residents, businesses, and industries demand more power. Fossil fuels provide more energy for large cities, but with a cost on the environment and health of your residents.

Health issues have multiple layers from sick Sims to injured Sims. Sickness brought about through low education, poor sanitation, and improper waste disposal can cause a riot at City Hall. There are so many cross-cutting concepts taught through the simulation that it really pushes the boundaries of learning.

The final education perspective of SimCity is the collaborative nature of the game. Mayors do not work in isolation. They can invite and partner with other city mayors from the SimCity universe to collaborate on services, specialisations, and even do great works together. Reimagine what project-based learning could be for your students. This is truly a novel way to approach collaborative learning and work in our schools.

College, Career, and Citizen Ready
As we prepare our young citizens for the modern world, SimCity provides a great canvas for provocative discussions, reflections on decisions-making, and learning the differences between how our real world works versus the simulations. The approach to the content provides multiple levels of college and career readiness. Moreover, the context provides a deep awareness for citizenship development. Kudos to the team at Maxis from bringing an award-winning franchise to such a modern scale and deep engagement.

I am not the only one excited about learning through simulation with SimCity. EA and Glasslabs have announced a project to bring SimCityEDU to schools aligned with curriculum, tools, and the Common Core State Standards. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and MacArthur Foundation, SimCityEDU may be heading to your schools very soon. You can learn more at

In the meantime, you can download a copy of the game from Or you can go old school like I did and buy a copy from your local retailer (at least some of that money will support your local schools.)  But all of this brings me to my last and very important point.

An Uncompromising Choice for Learning
SimCity requires a real PC. It does not run on an iPad. It does not run on an Android tablet. It will not run on a Chromebook or in a web browser. Educators and parents should be mindful that the most immersive experiences continue to be delivered on the most flexible platform there is—the PC.

The EA recommended experience is a Windows PC with an Intel Core i5 or faster processor and preferably a dedicated graphics card. Why is this important? Schools are making tradeoffs between modern technology, support resources, raises, benefits, and people every day. This is one of those times where you realise that you do not have to compromise or splurge to provide the best for your student’s learning.

Modern Windows 8 devices provide all the power and performance of a PC in whatever form you want to experience it: tablet, slate, notebook, all-in-one desktop, virtualized desktop, 80” interactive touchscreen, or workstation class device. You choose.

Choose wisely your honor.

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