Learning Sustainability with Sim City

Sybil Hill, Oakland Community College, Royal Oak, MI, based on a activity given by Dr. Debra Rowe, Oakland Community College, Royal Oak, MI

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Initial Publication Date: April 22, 2013


Sim City is a computer game that has the player design a city. They become the mayor. While designing the city from the ground up, they can choose sustainability energy options such as wind farms, geothermal, and solar. The game includes greening options and pollution factors. Teachers in a variety of disciplines can utilize this to bring their core course concepts to life.

What is SimCity?

SimCity is an engaging city-building simulation and continues to evolve. With this game, every choice you make will affect your city, your region and the world within the game.

Educators will be able to create and share digital SimCity-based lesson plans that will encourage students to think critically about the challenges facing modern cities. In the classroom, SimCity will be more than a game – it will be a way for the next generation of leaders to hone their skills through urban planning, environmental management and socio-economic development.

"For decades, SimCity has been embraced by the educational community as an engaging videogame that also provides a powerful learning experience, teaching problem solving skills through imaginative civic gameplay," said Lucy Bradshaw, Senior Vice President and General Manager of EA's Maxis Label. "We want to up the ante of SimCity's educational influence. Through our collaboration with GlassLab, SimCity will become the foundation of a program to re-imagine learning in a way that will inspire today's youth to get excited about STEM education and become the problem solvers of tomorrow."

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Learning Goals

Motivates students to participate in systemic changes that will create a more sustainable future (changing society not just personal behaviors).

Prepares students to build effective coalitions
Engages students in civil discourse/ communications that lead to more effective decisions
Catalyzes collective actions.

It advances students and encourages self-reflection and personal and development of their voice for solving societal challenges.

Promotes creative visioning around sustainable futures.

In SimCity the students also learn about:

Cycles & Systems

Design & Planning

Ecosystem Health



Food Systems & Agriculture

Future Studies & Visioning

Human Impact & Environmental Footprint


Lifestyles & Consumption

Natural Resources

Pollution & Waste

Social & Environmental & Well-being

Climate Change

Sustainability Concepts & Practices

Water & Watersheds

Context for Use

This video game is rated by ESRB for 10 and up, STEM, High School Students and Freshman College Students

Description and Teaching Materials

Playing the Game

The player, acting as mayor, is given a blank map to start with. Players start from an undeveloped greenfield. Cars are the default form of transportation. Earthquakes happen, zoning separates residential, commercial, and industrial land uses, and the player must expand their city with the budget they have. As the city matures, the player may get to place government and other special buildings, such as a mayor's house or court house, depending on how large their city has become.

The player must supply services to their citizens. These include health, education, safety, parks and leisure. These come in the form of different buildings, where each building covers a "range" of service. Inadequate funding of these services can lead to strikes.

Cities must also provide basic utilities, namely electricity, water and waste management.

Invest in heavy industry and your economy will soar - but at the expense of the Sim's peoples' health as pollution spreads. Implement green technology and improve your peoples' lives. Apply wise policies to avoid higher taxes and unemployment. The player can also enact policies such as declaring one's city a nuclear free zone.

The residential zones, in green, provide housing for Sims; the commercial zones, in blue, provide shops and offices; and the industrial zones, in yellow, provide factories, laboratories and farms. There are three different densities in the game: low density for small buildings, medium density for low to mid-sized buildings, and high density for anything up to large tower blocks.

The player is given the task of founding and developing a city, while maintaining the happiness and health of the citizens and keeping a stable budget.

This video is an example of someone building a SimCity that is "going green".


Click on the link. If it doesn't work, paste into a new window.

How Teachers can create and/or share SimCity based digital lesson plans.

Instructions: How to logon to SimCity EDU beta version

Logon to a computer which has the Internet and go to


  • Click on the Signup for free Tab.
  • Then login with your email or sign in with your Facebook account.
  • Click on the tab BROWSE to see the lesson Plan by Grade levels.

  • Did You Know?

    You don't have to start your unit from scratch! Remix any existing unit by using the "Copy and Edit Unit" feature!
  • Master Planners: What Does SimCity-based Curriculum Look Like?

    This is a video is an visual example of how you can create lesson plans:


This video is an example of how the game is played.


Multicity - Build a region of cities with friends for the first time! Share resources and work together to construct huge projects such as the International Airport!

This video is an example of multicity and mutiplayer game play.



GlassLab plans to offer the downloadable game at little to no cost for schools and teachers. However, the clear narrative and objectives within SimCityEDU depart from other commercial games that have been appropriated by teachers — like Minecraft. That game offers a free-form experience that teachers can easily manipulate to serve their lessons, a quality many teachers like.

[RELATED READING: Teachers Transform Commercial Game for Class Use]

"We want teachers to be able to choose between a free exploration or something more focused," Lindl said. But there's a catch. If educators want to use the broader SimCity world for free-form exploration they'll have to buy the commercial license – a cost of about $60. Getting both the focused and free-form experience could cost more than many educators are willing to pay.

(If the links do not work, please open a new Window and copy and paste the links in the address box of the new window).

Master Planners: What Does SimCity-based Curriculum Look Like?

This is a video is an visual example of how you can create lesson plans:


(If the links do not work, please open a new Window and copy and paste the links in the address box of the new window).


References and Resources

U.K. Higher Education Blog - http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ukhe/archive/2013/04/04/simcity-in-education.aspx

SimCity | How Will Wright Play's The New SimCity - http://youtu.be/_9P_z1iWK_8



"Learning in game studies encompasses the following subject areas: science education, mathe-matics, language arts, reading, physics, and health, among others (Ke, 2008). Substantially fewer studies to date have examined the development of cognitive processes in games (e.g., Alkan & Cagiltay, 2007; Pillay, 2002; Pillay, Brownlee, & Wilss, 1999).

While games can support content learning, we believe that games are actually better suited to support more complex competencies. As many researchers have pointed out (e.g., Gee, 2003; Malone & Lepper, 1987; Rieber, 1996), games, as a vehicle for play, can be viewed as a natural cognitive tool or toy for both children and adults (Hogel, 1996). And rather than being used as a means to achieve an external goal (e.g., learning mathematics), games are often made to align with players' intrinsic interests and challenge learners to use skills they would not otherwise tend to use (Malone & Lepper, 1987), thus enabling the design of intrinsically motivating environments, with knowl-edge and skill acquisition as a positive by-product of gameplay.

Besides providing opportunities for play, games enable extensive and multiple types of cognitive learning strategies. For example, games can be used as an anchor for learning-by-design to reinforce creativity of learners (Kafai, 2005). Games can involve players in forming, experimenting with, interpreting, and adapting playing strategy in order to solve problems, thus enabling players to practice persistent problem solving (Kiili, 2007). Games can also be developed as dynamic systems with which players can observe and play out key principles inherent in the systems, and hence develop organizational and systemic thinking skills (Klopfer et al., 2009). Finally, games can express and inspire certain underlying epistemic frames, values, beliefs, and identities (Shaffer, 2005).

There is a convergence between the core elements of a good game and the char-acteristics of productive learning. The constructivist problem-based and inquiry learning methods indicated the success of learning in the context of challenging, open-ended problems (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Goal-based scenarios have long been viewed as an active primer for situated learning (Bransford et al., 2000). Correspondingly, in a good game a player is involved in an iterative cycle of goal-based, interactive problem solving. Psychologists (e.g., Falmagne, Cosyn, Doignon, & Thiery, 2003; Vygotsky, 1987) have long argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence.";