Education should be more like Sim City

With all the hype around the new Sim City, my experience with Sim City 2000 when growing up is top of mind. It is, despite all the high quality education I’ve been fortunate enough to have access to (top 100 public high school, UVA and an Ivy league grad degree), among the most important educational experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

Rounding out the top 5 would be 1) Ken Elzinga’s class on anti-trust economics 2) a 2 week geo-political simulation game I played in 7th grade history 3) Kumon math and 4) charging down the UVA lawn with a 30 ft piece of PVC tubing with 100 classmates in order to understand the heroic level of discipline required to keep a Greek phalanx together while charging at the enemy - thank you Prof Lendon. (I should note that none of these are the typical classroom experiences we routinely jam down students throats day in, day out. The closet would be Elzinga’s class, which was a socratic method class with only 15 students and Elzinga is a 3 sigma professor. So basically it’s an anomaly).

But back to Sim City 2000 and why it’s such a powerful learning device:

Tactile -> Everything was interactive. You raise taxes too high, the citizens leave. Too low, city gets over crowded and crime becomes a problem. It forced you to really think about actions & consequences.

Dynamic -> There are multiple ways to learn each lesson. Unlike a textbook which provides a static limited number of examples (say on the impact of urban development and planning), Sim 2000 would you let you learn the lesson over and over again in completely new ways.

Engaging -> Not much needed here. Sim City 2000 vs. this drab tome. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book but students deserve better. We want them to learn, not suffer through 90 pages cramming for a mid-term.

Cheap -> $40 bucks vs. $150.

There is no doubt in my mind that Sim City 2000 was a better learning tool than ECON 301 at UVA. Unfortunately, the all in cost of the latter is probably north of $2.5K incremental cost. Sure Sim City didn’t cover everything in macro economics BUT that wasn’t the goal of the product. And even then, it did a superior job to a intermediate level economics course at a top tier university. That is sad.

Among the lessons a few hours of Sim City can hammer home are:

  1. role of taxes / city finances & budgeting
  2. supply & demand (enough electricity, police force, commercial business etc for citizens)
  3. importance of zoning laws (particularly city layout and how proximity of heavy industry next to residential will impact real estate prices, etc)
  4. importance of public services and finding the right mix for citizens international trade (represented through neighboring cities)
  5. importance & development cost of infrastructure (highways, subways, water, power, etc)

It makes me sad that Sim City bests ECON 301. But more importantly, it makes me hopeful that a better educational future is within our grasps. We have the tools and technology to significantly up level education. Sim City 2000 is a shining example of how we could better teach economics. And it is only scraping the surface.

I’m excited for what’s to come.


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