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Changing The World, One (Sim)City At A Time
Eleanor Lang, 15 Nov 07
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When I was a kid, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was an exclusive geek compound with architecture that would have been the pride of a Soviet-block country.

While the campus still lacks structural beauty and the school remains an academically exclusive mecca for the mathematically gifted, MIT has also become a major center for transformative culture and world-changing applications of technology. It's now home to Henry Jenkins, who, in books like Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide is changing the way we view media and popular culture. It's also the academic base of Nicholas Negroponte, who thinks that giving every kid a laptop can transform our future.

One Laptop Per Child is built on technological innovations, but with a very simple concept: by giving every kid a computer, especially in underdeveloped countries, it's possible to enable learning in places where it would be all but impossible. In some parts of the globe, educational budgets can be as low as $20 per student -- per year. In some places, there are no textbooks, few teachers and frequently, no electricity or telephones. The laptop, called the XO, costs about $200. The basic machine uses an open source operating system, and even in a village without electricity, simple human power is enough to recharge the battery via a hand crank. It's durable, designed to survive a drop on rough terrain, exposure to extreme heat or cold, or being caught in a rainstorm.

While these computers can't run the kinds of games or huge applications Americans expect from their computers, they do have a web browser, a rich media player, and an e-book reader. Children can experience other cultures by using the built-in camera and exchanging pictures with other kids all over the world. They can learn to read. And in addition to educational possibilities, the XO allows students in the devleoping world to engage in participatory culture alongside their counterparts in more developed and affluent countries.

Participatory culture sounds like a mouthful, and Henry Jenkins has devoted considerable academic talent to the subject, both in a MacArthur Foundation white paper and in his books, but it's something that everyone using a web browser is familiar with. YouTube, Wikipedia and Flickr are all included under its umbrella, and so is the online community Second Life and MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games) like World of Warcraft. Far from being just the new entertainment for the Web 2.0 generation, these things all have some important qualities in common, such as the ability to create and share creative content, and the feeling of social connection with other members of the community. Trying something first hand is always a great teacher, and the skills kids develop in engaging with these environments are the same skills they will be called upon to use later in life; lack of access to these skills puts kids at a disadvantage, even in developed countries. Someone who leads a guild in World of Warcraft may learn important leadership skills and someone who builds a Facebook community may have learned networking skills important to a fundraising initiative. Nabuur, which allows people in developing countries to ask for and receive help on projects from people with particular types of knowledge, is a more adult example of how participatory culture can work.

Most mammals learn survival skills through play, and humans are no exception to this. The history of games is as old as history itself, literally: the earliest documented game, a Mancala variant, date back to 5700 BC. Ancient games like Senet, which dates from about 3500 BC and Go, which dates to about 500 BC (and was recently featured on the silver screen in A Beautiful Mind) were and are still played today for entertainment. But originally, they almost certainly had a learning component as well, whether it was counting skills needed for trade or strategy skills needed for military conflict. Modern electronic games are no exception; SimCity is a game that's been called "unintentionally educational." The game is a challenge to design a city using limited geographic and budgetary resources; potential disasters are built in.

Electronic Arts, one of the 800 pound gorillas of the games industry, announced recently that it will donate the original and seminal SimCity to the One Laptop Per Child project, adding one game per laptop to the mix.

SimCity was designed by Will Wright as an entertainment, not a game for change. Originally released in 1989 (I first played it on a 286, a PC model developed shortly after the abacus), the size and memory requirements of the game are small enough that it can be played on an average cell phone; it will run easily on the XO. It's fun, engaging, and compelling: players may well feel badly if a neighborhood succumbs to crime or poverty. The player can make his or her own city or play a real world challenge, like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

In the best of all possible worlds, every child who receives a XO laptop will learn to read, and read well. Still, I imagine that even the best reader would have some difficulty making sense of Jane Jacobs' critiques in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or the career of Robert Moses as decribed in The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York if she or he has never seen a city. And yet, many of the kids who play SimCity on an XO laptop will be designing cities without ever having seen a city street, elevated highway or suspension bridge.

For the next two weeks, through November 26, One Laptop Per Child is running a "Give One Get One" promotion. The group will send an XO to you if you donate one to a child (something you'll appreciate even more if your own laptop has ever had a close encounter with a small person). Then you, too, will be able to play classic SimCity for free. In a few weeks SimCity Societies will be released, a version of the game that focuses on city citizens rather than city zoning, and allows a green city option. It promises to be as fun and enlightening as the original version -- and just may turn out a new generation of kids for whom environmentally sensible decisions require little thought because they are second nature.

That's the beauty and the true strength of games: they can take you places you didn't know existed. They can create a safe space to try out new ideas. And in the process of having fun, they are capable of stealth education.

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Great article, very positive!

However, I don't really understand the "give one get one" initiative - why exactly would a western consumer want one of these computers, when even the most basic home PC performs the same, if not better?

I guess it would be useful for children's education here too, but it seems somewhat of a luxury if most people already have home PCs.

Posted by: Mike on 17 Nov 07

A nice article, and a wonderful cause, but I would like to point out here that I am worried by the constant assertion that fun things only have value because they force some lesson down some child's throat. It concerns me especially because this idea is most often extolled by Western societies (America in particular), driving home the streamlining of capitalism to the sole point of turning a profit at all other costs - including the simple enjoyment of life.

Posted by: Elinor on 18 Nov 07



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