Popular SimCity Video Game, Now a Classroom Assessment

By Benjamin Herold — November 12, 2013 5 min read
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SimCity, the classic city-building computer-and-video game that has spawned legions of armchair urban planners since its original launch in 1989, has a new purpose: All-in-one interactive science lesson and formative assessment tool for middle school teachers.

“Our hope was to take a game that already has traction in the market and modify it a bit for the classroom,” said Jessica Lindl, a project manager at Redwood City, Calif.-based Institute of Play, the nonprofit that houses SimCityEDU creator GlassLab, a powerhouse team of game developers, assessment designers, and learning scientists.

“The objective for us is to give this away at a very low cost to students to ensure the widest access possible,” Lindl said.

GlassLab officially launched SimCityEDU on Nov. 7 and will be debuting the game Thursday at the Aspen Institute’s Washington Ideas Forum, held in Washington, D.C. It’s the first of six educational video games-slash-assessments that the group plans to develop with $10.3 million in grant money awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundations.

While SimCityEDU, currently available only on PC computers and not Apple products or digital tablets, is available for paid download by individual teachers and students, Lindl said the hope is that schools and districts will purchase bulk licenses at discounted costs that amount to an average of roughly four dollars per student.

[CORRECTION: The original version of this post included an incorrect average per-student price for the game license. The correct cost is $4.]

“There are 10 million middle school kids in this country, and we hope to one day reach all of them,” she said. “We’re wildly optimistic.”

Millions of SimCity devotees are familiar with the commercial game’s basic premise: Users are put into an open-ended virtual environment, then tasked with building up a successful city with a stable budget and happy citizens.

The commercial version of SimCity is the property of game developer Electronic Arts, which is a partner in the GlassLab efforts and granted the group unfettered access to the computer code underlying the most recent commercial version of the game.

Also involved in the GlassLab partnership are the Institute of Play, the Entertainment Software Association, test-maker ETS, and education publisher Pearson, all of whom contributed experts who set about modifying SimCity to make it compatible with the typical middle school classroom.

For starters, violence, graffiti, and other facets that some may not consider appropriate for children were removed.

More significantly, the GlassLab team altered SimCity’s basic structure, changing the game from an open-ended “sandbox” in which players might spend up to 200 hours freely roaming and experimenting to a series of defined, time-limited missions—for example, figuring out how to decrease pollution in their city while simultaneously increasing employment.

“What is lost [with that switch], if anything, is just that sense of exploration and discovery and ownership over the city you’ve created,” Lindl said. “But you’ve got to fit it into a classroom unit.”

And the other big difference is the way that SimCityEDU focuses on teaching and assessing new academic standards, including parts of the Next Generation Science Standards, now adopted by at least seven states, and elements of the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts, versions of which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The standards inform the game’s missions; while students play, they are expected to use so-called “systems thinking,” or the ability to understand how different systems interact with and influence each other within a larger environment, a key component of the new science standards. Just bulldozing the pollution-spewing coal plant without any plan for powering the city or employing its citizens, for example, won’t get you very far.

The game itself is also a test; every decision that users make while playing—clicks, hovers, etc.— is tracked and fed into the game’s “assessment engine,” Lindl said.

“There are literally over 3,000 different data points that we’ve mapped into our assessment model that give teachers a sense of how well their students understand systems thinking,” she said.

The game then quickly analyzes the data and feeds it back to teachers via dashboards. A student who demonstrated proficiency with understanding and applying “multivariate systems thinking,” for example, might be given a rating of 4, while the kid who keeps trying to bulldoze all the plants will be stuck on a 1.

(For a more detailed description of how “clickstream” data is being used to measure student learning, check out this piece I wrote in August about similar work being done by the Games+Learning+Society lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.)

Denise Cruz, a middle school computer education teacher in Orlando, Fla. was one of roughly 200 teachers involved in beta-testing SimCityEDU. She described the game as a “totally awesome” classroom tool.

“You can actually see what students are thinking, and that’s the hardest part of teaching,” Cruz said. “When I know what my students are clicking and why, I can ask better questions.”

Of course, the collection of all that student data will raise concerns for many about privacy. Lindl said she understands and that GlassLab is encouraging those who purchase the game to not enter students’ real names when assigning them within the game’s learning-management system.

It’s better to “leave learners more anonymous” and use unique numerical identifiers to hedge against the possibility of security breaches, she said.

There are also generational challenges; during user-testing, Lindl said, many middle schoolers were unfamiliar with the basic concept of playing a game that required clicking with a mouse, a trend that appears likely to intensify given the growing prevalence of touch-screen tablet computing devices among young children.

And penetrating the notoriously closed K-12 market and catching teachers’ eyes amidst the ocean of digital learning products currently vying for their attention will also be a challenge.

But Lindl said that rather than try to convince teachers to add SimCityEDU to their already full plates, GlassLab’s approach is on meeting an already existing need: The group decided to focus on systems thinking, she said, because middle school teachers have consistently reported that it’s a difficult skill to teach and presents challenges for engaging students.

Having the SimCity name won’t hurt, either—a point that Lindl readily acknowledged.

“More people every day are taking on this challenge” of using games as assessments, she said. “But we’re the only ones who have commercial-quality game [intellectual property] that we’re working with.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.