Students Govern Virtual Cities, Learn Lessons on Writing and Life

Monday, November 12, 2007

When he walks into his "Craft of Language" classroom, Sean Conrey, Ph.D., assistant professor of English, doesn't give his students a traditional writing prompt for the day's assignment; instead, he tells them to get out their laptops and start gaming.

In an age when technology is being increasingly incorporated into the classroom, it's no surprise that Conrey uses the computer game Sim City 4 to enhance his students' writing abilities and connect them with reality, albeit a virtual one.

The class is all about engaging with the real world, and what better way to do so than to erect a detailed city and play mayor for a semester. Throughout their test run as city leaders, students must deal with issues that affect real mayors: natural disasters, crime, pollution, overpopulation, commercialism, public transportation, metropolitan aesthetics, and more.

The course begins by examining classical rhetorical literature as well as websites from Project for Public Spaces, Congress for the New Urbanism and Smart Growth America, providing them with discussion topics on the ethical and moral issues in zoning and building cities. They proceed with their own ideas by filling out a precise and comprehensive building code, which puts into words what kind of city they would want to live in. As mayors of their own municipalities, they then start erecting their designs in the virtual space of the game, taking note of obstacles and successes throughout the semester.

"This is not a utopia project. I'm trying to get them to think not ideally, but realistically," said Conrey. "By using the simplified civic space of the game, students may directly apply and adapt their civic concerns and principles in an environment much like the one they inhabit in their everyday lives."

Conrey also noted, "The game wakes students up to what's in the built environment, what's around them, what they take for granted in their everyday lives."

Toward the end of the semester, the students will write a letter to the local newspaper of their virtual city, detailing what they've learned about being mayor, particularly how their code worked. They must also articulate a deliberate program for the future, and it must follow the stylistic guidelines of a newspaper column.

According to Conrey, "In using the video game, I'm introducing a level of reality that wasn't there before, that a lot of conventional writing courses don't offer. The students are in direct conversation with the world around them, whereas a lot of composition instructors will assign a particular topic, forcing students to deal only in the hypothetical realm."

--Sarah Whelehon

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