Will SimCityEDU Suffer the Problems of its Big Brother?

Many educators reacted enthusiastically to the idea of turning games towards the task of learning, the actual adoption hasn’t kept pace with these initial bursts of enthusiasm. A non-profit game maker GlassLab thinks the issue could be the fact that the viability of the gamification approach hasn’t been comprehensively assessed quite yet. The solution could be GlassLab’s upcoming launch: SimCityEDU, a game using the mechanics of the EA’s popular SimCity franchise, that will be repurposed as a learning tool for 6th graders.

SimCity seems like a perfect educational tool not only because teachers have already been using the game in their classrooms for years but because of its broad popularity. According to Jessica Lindl, GlassLab’s general manager, SimCity will overcome the barrier that many teachers feel they can’t themselves vault – attracting and keeping students’ attention.

SimCityEDU grew out of research conducted by the MacArthur foundation on how gaming can mirror formative assessments [PDF] – measuring understanding regularly along the learning path, rather than occasionally or at the end of a unit, as is most common. Their research found that games gather data about the player as he or she makes choices within the game, affecting the outcome. In games, players “level-up,” moving on to higher levels when they’ve mastered the necessary skills; similarly teachers scaffold lessons to deepen understanding as a student grasps the easier concepts.

The EDU version – which is also being funded by the MacArthur Foundation as well as by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – will be overlaid on top of the recently-released commercial version but will use student choices to assess their level of learning. Although the final set of challenges confronting the student-players hasn’t been designed yet, GlassLab developers know that environment will play a part because of the high level of interest from kids in the issue.

Although GlassLab anticipates that SimCityEDU will be ready to launch this coming fall, the date might not be set in stone in light of the recent experience EA and its customers have had in the past nine days since the launch of the commercial version of the same game. The highly-anticipated launch has been dubbed the worst game launch in history with buyers reporting problems from poorly designed or implemented gameplay, to constant inability to get online to play at all.

It’s unclear if the EDU version will be online-only as its older brother is, but hopefully not, as the online-only requirement has proven to be hugely unpopular with the game fans this time around. Many are demanding that the company make an offline mode available while it sorts out the server issues that are keeping many from logging on.

Until recently, EA has claimed that an offline mode was an impossibility, but a recent experiment by a code modder has shown that such playing is possible without substantial loss of functionality. This revelation has caused EA to change its tune somewhat.

Maxis chief Lucy Bradshaw comes right out and says it: SimCity could have had an offline mode but it conflicted with the vision the developer had for the game.

“So, could we have built a subset offline mode?” she asks. “Yes.”