Learning with SimCity: Valuable Lessons Kids Can Learn Playing Mayor

SimCity screenshot
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SimCity is a classic city-building simulation game that’s been around in various forms since 1989. It’s very engaging and great fun to play for kids and adults alike. I remember playing it for hours on end as a teen, and I still play it for hours at a time as a grown-up (when I get a chance!).

What’s more, SimCity is full of useful lessons for kids to learn. These include economics and environmental issues, as well as understanding how towns and cities are put together and run.

In this article you’ll get a quick introduction to SimCity, find out how you can play the game, and discover some of the things kids will learn as they play. You’ll also explore some other fantastic city-building games, many of which teach similar concepts to SimCity.

SimCity versions

Since the original SimCity was released in 1989, there have been many different versions of the game. Here are some of the more popular versions that you can buy today:

  • SimCity 2000, released way back in 1994, is the second title in the series after the original SimCity, and the first to introduce a 3D view. While obviously dated in many respects, this version is still a classic. It’s also one of the easiest versions to learn and play, due to its simplicity. You can pick it up a Windows and Mac version of SimCity 2000 super-cheaply over at GOG.com.
  • SimCity 4 Deluxe combines SimCity 4 and the Rush Hour expansion pack, which includes lots of extra features. First published in 2003, SimCity 4 is a really immersive game, with tons of ways to build and customise your city. It was the first version to introduce regions, which allows you to build several cities and connect them up. There are also tons of mods available to enhance the game further. You can get SimCity 4 for Windows and Mac on Steam.
  • SimCity — also known as SimCity 2013 or SimCity 5 — is the latest instalment of the game at the time of writing. Beautiful to look at and incredibly detailed, it also finally introduced multiplayer capability to the game. However, the game got off to a bad start and received heavy criticism due to problems with online play and DRM issues. While some of these issues have been resolved, many still criticise this version for the small size of the cities that you can build, as well as other limitations. However, if you want the latest version of the game with the prettiest graphics and multiplayer, this is the one to get. It’s available for Windows and Mac via the SimCity official website.
SimCity (2013)

The latest version of SimCity is the most beautiful, and it has multiplayer features too.

In this article I concentrate on SimCity 4 Deluxe; however most of the concepts also apply to other versions of the game.

Is my kid old enough for SimCity?

What’s a suitable age for kids to start playing SimCity?

The game isn’t particularly violent. You can create various disasters to wreck your city, from tornadoes and fires through to zombie attacks, but none of these disasters is shown in gory detail.

The game does require some fairly good reading skills since there is a lot of text in the game. You also need to be reasonably good with numbers in order to balance your city’s budget.

Depending on your kid’s particular skills and temperament, I would say that SimCity is a good game for anyone aged ten or over.

Things kids can learn from SimCity

So what can children learn while playing SimCity? As with most strategy and simulation games, playing SimCity can kindle an interest in a broad range of topics. It can also exercise kids’ creativity and planning skills.

Here is a small selection of specific things that SimCity can teach young players.

Supply and demand

While playing SimCity, kids learn the important economic concepts of supply and demand.

The city’s population has an ever-changing demand for different types of land zones: residential, commercial and industrial. You can see the current demand in graphical form, broken down by different categories. You then map out more of each type of zone in order to meet the demand.

SimCity's demand graph shows citizens' needs for various types of land, from residential through to commercial and industrial.

SimCity’s demand graph shows citizens’ needs for various types of land, from residential through to commercial and industrial.

As well as land zoning, your citizens demand decent power and water supplies, fire and police stations, hospitals and schools, which you must supply — at a cost — in order to keep people happy.


Budgeting is an essential skill that all kids need to learn as they grow older. What better way to learn this skill than by managing the budget of an entire city!

SimCity lets you tweak your city’s monthly budget in fine detail, from taxes for different land zones through to expenditure on the fire, police, health and education departments. Manage your budget carefully, or your city will go bankrupt!

Urban planning

A well-planned city is a smooth-running city! To be successful in the game, kids need to plan ahead.

You need to keep your polluting industrial areas away from homes, but plan good transport links between the two. You need to plan how your transport systems will evolve over time. As your city grows, you need to build in space for parks, hospitals, schools and transport networks. You need to anticipate the needs of your citizens, and plan ways to expand your city while keeping the population happy. Not an easy task!

Managing the environment

SimCity teaches kids about pollution and the environment. Usually, your city starts out with a coal power station and some heavy industry, but over time this creates smog problems for your citizens.

You can see air and water pollution overlaid on the map, and also view graphs to see how pollution has changed over time. Your citizens will also let you know if their city is too polluted!

To reduce pollution, you need to start using more sustainable energy sources, keep heavy industry away from residential areas and install water treatment plants.

Designing transport systems

SimCity lets you build a wide range of different transport systems, from streets, roads and highways through to rail networks, buses, subways, airports and seaports.

Each type of transport has its own benefits and drawbacks, including speed, capacity, cost to build, and pollution potential. Transport systems also need regular maintenance, so you need to factor this into your monthly budget too.

As kids play the game, they get to learn how each transport system works, and when it’s best to use it. For example, congestion maps show which roads are getting blocked and might benefit from an upgrade, or an added subway line.

SimCity's congestion maps helps you spot traffic jams (in red) so you can plan your transport network effectively.

SimCity’s congestion maps helps you spot traffic jams (in red) so you can plan your transport network effectively.

Understanding utilities and services

Where do electricity and water come from, and how do they get into our homes? What happens to the trash once it’s taken away? SimCity gives kids insights into how utilities and services work.

You can build a range of different power sources for your city, including coal, oil, natural gas, wind, solar, nuclear and hydrogen power plants. You can also add power lines to supply different areas of your city with power.

To supply water to your citizens, you need to install water towers and water pumps, then add underground water pipes to join everything up.

Once your city starts producing a lot of trash, you’ll need to dispose of it somehow. You can choose between landfill sites, recycling centres and plants that convert waste to energy. Each type of site has its pros and cons to weigh up.

Reading skills

SimCity is a pretty text-heavy game, so it gives kids a chance to practice their reading skills and improve their vocabulary. As well as the pop-up tooltips on buttons, there’s a set of advisors that regularly give you lengthy updates on your city’s finances, crime, pollution and so on.

Maths skills

To balance the monthly budget in SimCity, kids need to understand basic arithmetic. For example, they need to be able to compare the actual number of students attending a school with its total capacity, and compare their monthly income and expenses to see if they’re making a profit or a loss. They also need to have a good grasp of figures as they allocate the city’s budget to different utilities and services.

As you add more roads and services, you need to do some quick subtraction in order to estimate how the monthly upkeep will affect your city’s bottom line. You also need to be able to read the various line and bar charts in the game that show trends such as crime, power usage and demographics.

Balancing the city budget requires a good grasp of numbers and arithmetic.

Balancing the city budget requires a good grasp of numbers and arithmetic.

Everything is connected

Finally, perhaps one of the most powerful lessons kids can learn from SimCity is that a society works as a whole system. A decision made in one area can affect other areas. For example:

  • If you provide decent living conditions with good employment and plenty of schools, crime rate drops, so you need less police stations. Good education systems also lead to richer Sims that work in high-tech industries, reducing pollution in your city.
  • If you create a good-quality health care system with plenty of hospitals and clinics then you improve the health of your citizens. This makes them work more effectively and brings more business to your city, which in turn increases tax revenue.
  • If you’re running short of cash, you can up your tax rates, but this may drive people away from your city. Alternatively you can choose to legalise gambling; however, this can push your city’s crime rate up!

Find out more about SimCity

Want to explore the game in more detail? Check out these SimCity-related websites for lots of useful info and tips:

  • Simtropolis is a great community website for SimCity fans. You’ll find lots of helpful SimCity experts on the forums; a files area packed with user-made mods; and an omnibus full of useful tips.
  • The SimCity Wiki is an online encyclopaedia covering most of the features in the SimCity games.
  • YouTube user Dwyrin has a great collection of Let’s Play videos that cover both SimCity 4 and SimCity 2013.
  • The SimCity Subreddit is a great community that shares gameplay tips and opinions on all versions of SimCity.

Dwyrin’s SimCity tutorials and Let’s Play videos are a great way to learn how to play the game.

Other city-building games

SimCity is the longest-running city-building game out there. However, there are plenty of other similar games that your kid might enjoy, depending on their age and interests. Here is a small selection:

  • Hoopa City is a charming sandbox city-builder for younger kids, available for iOS and Android devices. You’re given a circular world onto which you can place various tiles to build your city, such as water areas, roads, houses, shops and rail systems. While there’s no strategy element to the game, young kids will enjoy discovering how to build different things by combining the tiles together. They’ll also learn about the different buildings and services that make up a city.
  • Tropico 5 is a humorous city-building game series where you play a dictator that runs a Caribbean island. Where SimCity focuses on building and managing your city and its services, Tropico focuses more on politics, combat and strategy. There’s also a good multiplayer element. Tropico does have some violent gameplay, so it recommended for older teens only. It’s available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • 1849 is a city-management game set in the California Gold Rush period. You start with a lump of cash, and you need to build up your gold rush town, get resources, add public services and trade with nearby cities. 1849 is available for Windows, Mac, iPad and Android tablets.
  • Anno is a long-running series of city-building games for Windows with strong real-time strategy and business elements. It’s available in many different versions, from Anno 1404, which covers the medieval and renaissance periods, through to Anno 2070, where you build and manage cities in the future. There’s also Anno Online, a free-to-play browser version with microtransactions and online multiplayer elements.
Hoopa City is a simple city-building sandbox game that younger kids will enjoy.

Hoopa City is a simple city-building sandbox game that younger kids will enjoy.

Get building!

I hope you’ve found this article useful, and that you and your kid enjoy playing SimCity and other city-building games. They really are a great way for kids to learn and have fun at the same time. Happy playing! 🙂

[Image credit: SimCity (2013) screenshot by Electronic Arts]

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