In the early 1990s, Will Wright and Maxis introduced a series of open-ended simulation games that abstracted real-life science to get kids engaging with the concepts behind city planning (SimCity), ant colonies (SimAnt), evolution and geology (SimEarth), farming (SimFarm) and ecology (SimLife).
A playful future for science education
Over 20 years later, a new generation of educational games are emerging to carry on their legacy and to carve out an interactive, playful future for science education.
At the forefront of this movement are companies like GlassLab Games. The company works closely with educators on a special version of the 2013 SimCity game called SimCityEDU to teach students about the complex environmental and logistical systems affecting modern cities.
GlassLab is joined by TeacherGaming, an independent game development company that has adapted Minecraft and Kerbal Space Program into teaching tools for developing skills and knowledge in areas such as mathematics, engineering and conceptual thinking.
Rather than rework existing games for educational purposes, Strange Loop Games builds its own from the ground up. Its latest project, Eco, puts sixth to eighth grade students in an online world where they are challenged to build a civilisation without upsetting a delicately-balanced ecosystem.
Eco’s world has finite resources that get replenished only through the same kinds of environmental systems that govern the real world.
If players wipe out all of one animal they might upset the food chain – if there are no wolves perhaps the cows will run rampant and eat all the grass, for instance – and these effects carry on through the ecosystem, potentially wreaking havoc in their budding civilisation. Players can manage the ecosystem by proposing laws that they should all follow, as supported by scientific evidence from in-game data.
The simulated ecosystem runs at an accelerated speed, so players clearly see the consequences of human behaviour – species go extinct, systems break down and the entire ecosystem can collapse.
Earth Primer for iPad, meanwhile, simulates the Earth on a geological scale. Its creator, Chaim Gingold, was the man behind the Spore Creature Creator, and here he’s again applied a playful lens to science by building what is essentially an interactive textbook. Earth Primer keeps the text to a minimum – just enough to contextualise the processes and introduce the concepts – and lets players learn more organically how the forces of nature shape the planet and its continents.
The book sports around 100 pages, most of which offer a miniature simulation that can be poked and manipulated at will, along with a sandbox mode where players can shape landscapes using the 20 tools at their disposal.
69% of the British population now play video games
With studies indicating that 69% of the British population – 99% in the 8-17 age group – now play games, these types of educational games will only grow more important as learning tools. And the science of play tells us this is for the best.
Play has been found to stimulate imagination and creativity as well as improving decision making, conceptual thinking, brain development and more. Textbooks that double as playful sandbox-style simulations might be just the key to overcoming the global shortage in sufficiently-skilled STEM graduates. – Richard Moss