SimCityEDU: When Emotion and Engagement Drive Learning Design

Can tough challenges be fun? GlassLab sought to answer this question during a recent play-test with middle schoolers.

From coast to coast – at GlassLab in California and the offices of the Educational Testing Service in New York – over fifty young play-testers gathered to play and critique SimCityEDU, GlassLab’s new educational version of SimCity.

SimCityEDU was developed by game designers working closely with learning and assessment experts to engage kids in complex problem solving in real-world scenarios. In a SimCityEDU science game scenario, middle school test groups played mayors of a booming city, trying to solve a big problem now facing communities around the world: how to break the link between economic growth and negative impact on the environment. The young mayors were charged with finding ways to grow and maintain their city’s employment rate while also reducing pollution. As any world leader will tell you, it’s possible, but not an easy task.

A sense of challenge and excitement were two consistent responses to the scenarios tested. It’s common for kids to want to engage in very challenging play. While most kids commented that the scenarios were difficult, they all wanted to continue playing after their 90 minute session, and all said they would recommend the game to their friends.

That’s the mix of emotions the GlassLab designers were hoping for. The play-testers worked intensely. In addition to playing the game, they also created causal loop diagrams that modeled relationships between their city’s features, all the while following a ‘think-aloud’ protocol that had them describing what they were thinking, and the decisions they were making to improve their city.

Overwhelmingly, the play-testers were concerned for their Sims (SimCity citizens) and valued solving the game’s tough puzzles in order to help their residents. GlassLab and ETS designers think that sense of empathy may help explain the intensity of play, engagement, and focus during the play-tests. The designers also think that kind of emotional investment is one of the factors that is helping kids solve challenging problems and, along the way, sharpen a range of 21 Century skills, from systems thinking to critical thinking.

If you’re a teacher interested in helping GlassLab with further testing of the SimCityEDU game, find out more about opportunities to pilot the game in your summer program or join our community to receive updates on other opportunities.

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