Earth Day Should Be Everyday – SimCity, Eat Your Heart Out!
I’m a recovering hardcore gamer. In college, I would purchase at least 2 to 3 video games a month, play Mario Kart well past midnight (but then again, who didn’t in the late ’90s), and once stayed up all night with my roommate not because we were at the hottest party on campus, but because we were attempting to build a massive transportation empire that would drive our competitors into bankruptcy.
These days, with a family, a 40 minute commute, and having purchased a house worthy of Tom Hank’s Money Pit, there’s little left to purchase games, and thus I’ve been limited in my choices. Which is why I spent a small part of my Spring Break today playing several games of the entirely free ElectroCity. It’s a fabulous city building simulation created for the educational outreach program of Genesis Energy, the largest producer of energy in New Zealand. To be fair, I can’t take credit for discovering it, as I found it via a post on Larry Ferlazzo’s excellent ESL Blog.
To start with, the game is completely FREE (I love that word). Better than that, this is a perfect game simulation for middle school and high school teachers looking to provide a reflective learning experience for students interested in how the environment is affected by choices made by local or state government concerning energy production and use. It combines the addictiveness of Lemonade Stand with the deep control and management tools of SimCity. With only 150 turns to create a thriving economy and growing population based on realistic environmental practices, I thought I would be presented with simplistic choices, and be railroaded into some pre-scripted “save the Earth, reduce energy consumption”, but I was happily wrong.
Players start with 10,000 people, a small town, and $400. You can choose to set the tax rate at whatever percent you like, use the city funds to play the energy commodities market where you can buy or sell coal and natural gas, enact environmental policies within your city, and even improve or demolish the landscape to suit your economical or environmental needs. I had two dismal starts to the game; I lost once due to bankruptcy after buying natural gas heavily and then seeing the market drop out, and then lost again when my city became a ghost town because of the people leaving in droves after building numerous coal mines and gas wells around the city. The third time was the charm, and although I didn’t create a booming population, I managed to maintain a balance of ecologically-friendly energy production (geothermal plant) and more traditional means of energy production (I built a natural gas rig out in the ocean). Enacting programs like energy efficiency education and solar panels in the city drained my city funds each turn, but I managed to offset that with a slightly higher tax rate and by selling off the excess gas I was producing from the drilling rig. You can see from my report card above that I received an “A+” on my environmental record, as well as “A”s in energy management and popularity, but I earned a “D” for my population growth and well-being.
Which is why I think that this game should be a center piece for any secondary classroom talking about climate change, energy use, and the repercussions for making certain decisions regarding land use. Sure, it’s nice to talk about establishing national parks and riverside campgrounds instead of lumber mills and aluminum smelting plants (both of which are available to build in the game), but making strict ecologically friendly decisions meant that my city was nearly bankrupt at the end of 150 turns, and my population severely “rollercoastered” as I had to adjust the taxation rate in order to make money. A stable economy, I did not have. Which is the second reason I love this game. Just like in SimCity, it’s based on a limited supply of resources, both environmentally and monetarily. If you don’t have the funds to purchase additional energy each turn for your citizens they start to become upset with you and your popularity drops. Likewise, if you decide to build a natural gas well to offset the cost of building expensive geothermal plants, you’ll pay a price to clean up the wells once the gas runs dry, which further eats into your budget.
I can’t recommend this game enough, as every time you replay it, there are deeper and deeper questions that must be asked, and not just questions about how we interact with the environment and produce our energy. This simulation could easily aide conversations of sustainable and responsible growth within communities. Or it could just as easily be an introduction into stock market trading, and how real world events affect the price of commodities, and why “buy low, sell high” actually matters. At the very least, ElectroCity is an engaging way to get students thinking about real world solutions when it comes to making changes in our energy use, and not just the typical “let’s make everything Earth friendly” lesson plans and activities that often ignore the real world costs and sustainability of such changes.
Other Posts in my Earth Day Series: