City Farm is a free, browser-based game from PBS Learning Media about urban gardening. The game aims to help students understand the life cycle of plants, the relationships between organisms and our place in the food chain, and what sustainable farming practices look like. The set up is simple: players get $1000 to spend on crops and upgrades, and must try to maximize crop yields while conserving water. The game covers five years of planting, and players contend with different problems each round. The final sustainability score is based on crop yields, soil health, and water conservation.
The game is filled with useful info buttons to help you decide what to plant and what upgrades to buy. There are eight plant choices with different levels of water use, soil depletion, supply and labor costs, and expected yields, while upgrades include things like chickens, composters, irrigation systems, and soil treatments. Choosing what to buy is a tricky prospect at first, but the information is there to help you decide. There is still an element of random chance, though, with the weather wheel, which keeps the game from being overly predictable and boring. The graphics are also delightful: the plants are beautiful and the chickens are charming. The capacity for learning about sustainable farming practice is high if you pay attention.
There’s not much to complain about in City Farm. It’s possible to come away from the game without absorbing much about plant life cycles or system interactions, but a follow up discussion can help tease out some of the lessons embedded in the game. Since it’s browser based, it doesn’t require any special devices—just a computer with an internet connection—but it wouldn’t work as well in a classroom without enough computers for each student.
You can play through the game quickly, but it’s fun and informative to replay it to discover how different choices affect your outcomes. For classroom use, it might be useful to let students play through once on their own, discuss the results in the context of a lesson, and then have the students try to improve their outcome after exploring some of the issues they faced the first time. The game works well with science curriculum in a variety of contexts (technologies related to food production, ecosystems, plant life cycles, and thinking about complex, dynamic systems) but it also fits in nicely with some social studies topics. It’s also fun and satisfying to watch your crops flourish (or struggle!) throughout each growing season. City Farm is well supported with educational materials like background essays and sample discussion questions, and it’s also a great game to play.