SimCityEDU Aims to Be the First of a New Generation of Learning Games

With the support of a formidable array of game designers, testing experts and distribution networks, SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge! hit the market today following a unique collaborative development process.

The goal is ambitious: to get this learning game in front of all 10 million middle school students in the country. But more than widespread distribution, GlassLab, the partnership behind the game, aims to change education.

Jessica Lindl, the general manager of GlassLab, said they operate from two key principles. First, closing the “engagement” gap between what kids do at school and outside of school.

“How do we close that chasm and make the classroom just as exciting as what they are doing outside of the classroom?” she said about a group that spends 10 hours a week playing video games and four hours doing homework. And second, “As opposed to waiting months for test results, how do we give that feedback immediately to the teacher, the administrator, the parent or the learner?”

Listen to the full conversation here:

In the game, students serve as mayor of a community and must balance between creating jobs and impacting the environment with the intention of having students think critically about the issues facing cities.

This focus on the student and teacher has driven all of GlassLab’s work, Lindl said. But GlassLab itself is a unique operation. A project of the Institute of Play and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates and MacArthur Foundations, the lab is a partnership between the commercial and nonprofit worlds, including Electronic Arts, the Entertainment Software Association, the Educational Testing Service, Pearson and others.

“Video games are empowering and educating today’s youth by harnessing their excitement for the medium. Today’s launch of SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge! underscores video games’ potential beyond entertainment. The American classroom is transforming and games are emerging as a critical and effective tool in educating tomorrow’s leaders and innovators,” said Michael D. Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association.

The “Engine” Under the Hood

But in reality the game is only part game, relying on an enormous “assessment engine” that converts the actions of the middle school students into tools a teacher can use to assess their student’s individual knowledge and understanding.

[W]e are tracking every time a student is hovering a mouse over a specific object, every time they are clicking on something, every choice, decision and action they make within the game to be able to solve that problem.

Jessica Lindl, GlassLab General Manager

These thousands of data points per player per game-play have to be transformed into something a teacher can use, Lindl added, saying “That’s for me where the real art happens… is how you translate that into a couple of key data points for the teacher that are actionable and meaningful?”

Those tools are also all connected directly to the new Common Core learning standards that are being implemented in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The Creative and Distribution Questions

A major part of SimCityEDU is its ability to assess a student’s learning using all aspect of the game, but it is also SimCity, a brand known 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.”

And that anteing up included ensuring that the new game, while delivering on the educational goals, still looked and felt like SimCity, said both EA and GlassLab officials.

GlassLab offered an early view of the game earlier this summer:

SimCityEDU Demo (June 2013) from Institute of Play on Vimeo.

“What I really like about the GlassLab initiative is they’re taking that software and they are able to take the time and energy to focus it just for educational uses,” Stone Librande, the creative director of SimCity, said in one interview about the project. “So they can go into our interfaces. They can change them around. They can custom tailor them exactly to a certain age-range of kid or a certain classroom setting and a lesson plan that they’ve devised and then gear everything and focus it right towards that one point.”

Lindl agreed that the close work with the SimCity team made for a far more effective product.

“When you have professional game designers working on your products, it’s just night and day in what you can achieve from an engagement perspective,” Lindl said.

But she added that working with an existing game was a tricky business, saying, “You have to be very respectful about what the game is delivering, what the game is already teaching and modify it in a way that it is just a little more focused.

So GlassLab and its partners carefully crafted a game that sits upon a complicated and unique assessment tool and yet they knew they needed a plan to actually get the game into the classroom.

“The heartbreak I have in the amount of time I have been in the industry is how many amazing products have died because of the lack of a distribution foundation or the lack of understanding about how it could really be used in the classroom,” Lindl said.

To avoid that fate, GlassLab has engaged a variety of distribution firms to get the product in front of the different types of buyers in the formal education market. And she added that those distributors were not “contacted two weeks before launch,” but were involved in the development process to ensure the needs of teachers, administrators and others actively informed the design of the product, rather than hoping it would work for them.

The result is one of the most anticipated learning games in some time.

One question remains: Will teachers, districts and other respond by shelling out the $20 – $650 to implement it in schools?