‘SimCity,’ Poised to Relaunch, Still an Influence in Education

by Omar L. Gallaga

Austin American-Statesman (MCT)

20 February 2013


The city of Austonio was well-planned. Its founding engineers, working under the guiding principles of “Clean,” “Conserve” and “Capacity,” responded to a crisis that took place around 2033 that contaminated water systems and — horrifyingly! — caused Schlitterbahn New Braunfels to shut down.

One hundred thirty years later, by the year 2163, Austonio was in great shape, a smart mix of water storage conservation principles, extensive use of pervious concrete and hydroponic farming across a great expanse of central Texas.

But would it win a national competition as best city?

On Monday, students from West Ridge Middle School in the Eanes Independent School District outside of Austin, Texas, will show off Austonio at the National Engineers Week Future City Competition in Washington. With the guidance of their teacher, Carol Reese, who runs Future City as an extracurricular activity available to anyone at the school, students built Austonio in the video game “SimCity 4 Deluxe.”

Then, they built a physical model (complete with water, lights and moving parts, all made from recycled materials) based on the virtual one. Out of several cities the students planned and constructed, this was the one that made it through regionals and will be presented at the national competition, which has the theme, “Rethink Runoff: Design Clean Solutions to Manage Stormwater Pollution.”

It wasn’t easy. Reese says the students spent “hours and hours, working, working and working” both on the model and on the virtual city game, which students had installed on school computers and at home. They wrote essays as well about their city design projected 150 years into the future and about the theme.

The hard work has paid off; Reese’s students have made it to nationals for three years in a row.

Reese said the program not only teaches math, engineering and science skills, but it challenges students to take on a complex set of problems as a group and come up with innovative solutions. “It’s about creative thinking. You apply creative thinking to solve problems of the future,” Reese said.

The teaching tool that’s the foundation of the future city is just one example of how the “SimCity” franchise has been influential to ongoing generations of students, architects, city planners and even just gamers who might have never expected to have an interest in urban development.

When it debuted in 1989, an eon ago in video gaming years, “SimCity” was, even in its first incarnation, a brilliant example of digital entertainment transcending mere gameplay. Designed by Will Wright, it was about keeping the citizens of your little virtual city happy while adhering to principles of good urban planning.

Each successive version of “SimCity” has gotten a graphical facelift and lots of new options, like the ability to transform terrain, build new kinds of buildings or deal with waste management. In 2000, the American-Statesman’s Michael Barnes wrote about the current edition of the game, “SimCity 3000,” which at the time was wowing Austin designers and planners. A city of Austin architect at the time said “SimCity” games had been played as Austin Smart Growth land development was being planned. (Did that work out? You’ll have to judge that for yourself.)

There’ve been countless spinoffs and Sim-knockoffs, but on March 5, Electronic Arts will release a game called simply “SimCity,” the fifth major version of the game. It’ll be out for Windows PCs for $60-$80 with a Mac version soon to follow.

It will have gorgeous graphics — glistening domes, scary natural disasters! — but will also emphasize online, communal play because no city is an island unless it’s an actual island.

Leon Urdahl, one of the students who’ll travel to the capital to show off Austonio, had the chance to play a one-hour beta version of the new “SimCity.” “I really liked how in this new one, it seemed more user friendly. You could get curved roads and there are brighter colors. It just looks a lot more appealing than the last one,” he said.

If you look at video game shelves, they’re typically dominated by anonymous space marines and calls of duty with big guns, which makes it refreshing that this many years since the first version, “SimCity” is highly anticipated by even the most jaded gamers. Electronic Arts appears to be making the game more social with the online play and livened up with options like a “Heroes and Villains” set in the Limited Edition version of the game, which allows for superheroes and organized crime if industrial zoning and aquifers aren’t your thing.

It’s encouraging, however, that “SimCity” won’t abandon its educational roots. A online community offering teaching tools and resources called SimCityEDU (at simcityedu.org) will launch alongside the video game.

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