Integrating City Building Games in the Classroom

Video games have long been a popular pastime and their popularity has only continued to grow as they become more realistic and complex. New technologies and better games have made it possible to bring the video game world into the classroom, creating an exciting new instructional frontier for teachers to explore.

In this post, I will be discussing the integration of ‘city building’ games into the classroom. City building games require the user to build their own city from scratch. There are many angles with which to analyze the city building process and each one can lead students to deep understandings and connections.

What are City Building Games?

City building games are games that require the user to build their own city from scratch. As with real cities, the user starts by building basic homes and public services to form a small town.  As the user continues to improve city amenities and meet the needs of their citizens, the town’s population will grow and more building options will become available. Over time, the user will end up with a large, thriving city.

In order to be successful, the user has to be able to gather resources and decide how to allocate them in order to create a thriving community. As with any real society, the virtual community the user creates needs to have access to recreation areas, energy, public services, places to work/shop, and more. They must also have a center of government that administers laws and manages the city’s resources. All city building games have these functions however; more developed games allow the user to delve into each function in greater detail.

Shown below is a review of one of the newest city building games available. This particular game (“Cities: Skylines”) is not available for free but is one of the most developed. The video discusses Cities: Skyline in comparison to another popular city building game, Sims City 2013, but goes through some of the major functions of the game. To see the overview, start the video at 1:43.

City Building Games in the Classroom

Like most video games, city building games push the user to gain and apply major understandings and a vast amount of information in order to succeed. Even though these understandings are fundamentally desirable, the processing and application of this knowledge in the game occurs almost instantaneously. While impressive, this hinders the user’s ability to acknowledge what they are learning and apply it to other situations.  In order to use city building games (or any other video games) in the classroom, instructors must find a way to slow this processing down.

Slowing the information flow in city building games happens by combining a more narrowed focus with discussion. With so many things occurring all at once, having a focus will help bring students’ attention to the specific knowledge you are looking for them to gain during the gaming experience. The discussion element ensures that the necessary connections are made and solidifies the understandings that are gained. Below are a few ideas of what conceptual focuses teachers can have using city building games and what these might look like in practice.

What Does a Thriving Society Need?

In order to be successful at any City Building game, the user must have or gain understanding if what a society needs in order to grow and thrive. Key elements include gathering and allocating resources, earning an income through taxation and trade, and providing for civilian needs (i.e. housing, recreation, electricity, etc.). Since the game in its entirety is an experiment in the interaction and manipulation of these elements, it is best to use guided play through for instruction.

In this instance, guided play through means that students are allowed to start their own games from scratch and play through as they see fit. A teacher can assign the game over a certain period of time and dedicate short periods of time each day to check up on the cities. As students play, the teacher can assign questions and/or challenges that prompt students to observe different aspects of their society and explore in more detail. Teachers can even make the game a competition, assigning points every time a student achieves a goal.


Video games excel at pushing the user to gain and apply a large amount of information instantaneously in order to succeed. However, since these understandings are gained the ‘simulation bubble’ of the game, students will likely struggle to apply them to the real-world material of the classroom. In order to get the most out of the gaming experience, themes and connections to the game should be made in most if not all lessons during the gaming period. These connections can be made briefly or can be the basis of a larger class discussion. If done consistently, the teacher will be able to tap into the knowledge students have gained and students will have the opportunity to exercise the skill of applying conceptual knowledge to varied real-life situations.

Physical Inequality

Physical inequality refers to the tendency for individuals within the same income bracket to live in the same areas. As a result, cities are often socioeconomically segregated. So how do these areas form and why is it so hard to make improvements? City building games offer two observable ways to understand how these areas form. When a society (city) is established, all of the housing and other elements that help it function are focused in a small area. As the population grows, the original buildings are expanded and the facilities created to accommodate this growth are placed on the periphery of the existing town where there is more room to expand.

Periphery areas are areas that fall outside the ‘core city’ and tend to grow a little slower than inner city areas. In order to upgrade housing, the population occupying the housing block must desire to do so. This decision is based on the inhabitants’ access to city resources and amenities as well as the development of neighboring housing developments. At the beginning of the game, teachers can draw attention to how the living plots change as students continue to upgrade and have students analyze what they feel the lifestyle of someone living in those types of houses would be. After a while, students can be challenged to observe the periphery pattern and come up with ideas of why this kind of development occurs. What students will likely observe (and what can be observed in real cities) is that the apartments at the periphery of the city core are associated with a lower income bracket than the sub-city brownstones beyond them. Further out still, the single family homes of the ‘suburbs’ may also be perceived even more positively despite having few upgrades. Why do these patterns exist?

Cities: Skylines periphery dividing line
Cities: Skylines periphery dividing line

Another area where physical inequality can be observed and discussed is areas closest to city factories and maintenance facilities. Factories not only take up physical space on the city map, they also negatively affect a certain amount of space around them due to ‘pollution’ or other hazards. The problem is that as the city runs out of places to expand, neighborhoods spill over into these ‘red’ areas. As expected, these neighborhoods fail to grow and thrive as others do and there are more disastrous incidences (i.e. fires). In a classroom setting, the teacher should have students to form a community in a factory ‘red zone’ near the beginning in order to ensure this observation is made. Part of the follow up discussion can center on how city expansion can force people into these areas and what the perceived lifestyle of the people living in types of areas is.


I eliminated jobs from this section as they only play a significant factor in some of the more developed (and by extension more expensive) games. However, this factor need not be eliminated from discussion. Part of the ‘lifestyle’ discussion could be what kind of jobs people who live in each section would hold.

Gathering and Allocating Resources

The gathering and allocation of resources is a core economic understanding that city building games excel at demonstrating. In order to build their city, students need to have the material and monetary resources to do so. They are limited in how many resource production facilities they can build at any given time as they must have a sufficient population to run them. Students also must rely on taxation and eventually trade for their monetary income. Though students can try to expedite the money-making process by raising taxes, doing so will make the population unhappy and unable to expand. These patterns exist from the very beginning of the game and make a powerful platform for lessons and discussions about limited resources.


Since students are limited in how much they can earn and produce at a given time, they must carefully plan how they are going to use the limited resources they have to help the existing community thrive and promote expansion. If they do not allocate resources wisely, they will eventually get stuck until they can figure out where resources are needed. The teacher can connect the existence of limited resources in the game to limited resources in society and guide students to see how their decision making in the game is reflected in real societies worldwide.

Which Games Do You Recommend?

 Plan it Green: The Big Switch: This is a free, online city building game that can be accessed from any device. Since a download is not required and the game is developed by National Geographic and the Center of Science, it is probably the easiest game to get approval for out of the games I have found. An additional plus is that you have a login so students can either access their own or pre-made cities you assign no matter what device they use. The down side is that it is a geared toward a younger group and is not as realistic as some other games. Additionally, the main focus of the game is to eventually develop a ‘green’ city, which might harm or help the focus of your lesson (there are some cool things to discuss with this too!).

SimCity BuildIt: This is a free app available for iOS and Android devices. The game has all of the bells and whistles most online city building games have but can be used easily on mobile devices. It is easy to use and understand. Minuses might be having to go through the process of gaining download approval for school devices and monitoring to ensure students do not get carried away and make in-game purchases.

SimCity (2013): SimCity is one of the original city building games and is a computer program compatible with PC and Mac. The latest version, released in 2013, costs $29.99 without expansion. The game offers an in-depth experience with more micro-managing options than even its accompanying app. Money can be saved by purchasing the prior version of the game without sacrificing too much functionality. Though SimCity is a high quality game, the need to purchase and download a physical game on a computer could be challenging.

Cities: Skylines: Arguably the best and most in-depth city building game available, Cities: Sklines is a brand new PC/Mac game released early this year. It can be purchased for $29.99. Like SimCity, this game is high-quality and has many micro-managing options not present in other games. Also like SimCity, the need to purchase and download the game could pose a challenge for teachers.

Click on the game names to link to their website. There are many other city building games, free and paid, available in app stores and online. Teachers should start by assessing what device(s) they have at their disposal and what they would like to use the game for before seeking out other game options.

Have any more ideas about how to use city building games in the classroom? Share in the comments below!

((Disclaimer: FUTD is not associated with any of the games mentioned above or their creators and does not benefit from the download/purchase of these games in any way))


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