June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

What Is Systems Thinking?: Interactive Components of Video Games Are Perfect Examples

“Why didn’t we do this sooner?” This question was posed by a student at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon, who was failing Diana Fisher’s math class. Many people dislike math because it is so abstract and just not a natural way to think about problems, Fisher candidly admits. So she’s on a constant quest to make it easier for her students. She found the answer by integrating a systems thinking model into her classroom.

Diana Fisher recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the System Dynamics Society, an international, nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the development and use of system dynamics and systems thinking,for her work in bringing system dynamics to her high school classes and for creating a year-long course of systems modeling. The software she started using 20 years ago and still uses today is STELLA from isee systems.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how a group of interacting, interrelated, interdependent components influence each other within the whole. Rather than viewing each problem as an independent entity, it must be considered in the context of its relationship to other parts of the system. Systems thinking teaches students how to solve problems, communicate, use data, and design policies for greater success.

By making or modifying a model and plugging in data, students can almost immediately see the influence of their choices. This type of interactive learning is the key to engaging their interests. “Systems thinking is a very disciplined way of understanding the dynamic relationships between things so that you can make better choices and avoid unintended consequences,” according to isee systems, a New Hampshire-based company that sells software products that help build systems thinking models for educators and businesses.

How is it like a game?

When playing a video game, we make decisions for the characters based on noticeable patterns. For example, in Nintendo’s Mario Kart, players drive on a race track and try to avoid falling. Every time they leave the path, they slow down or crash into the wall. Also, many things may change the behavior of the players or the characters throughout the race. For example, by driving into a multicolored box, they might encounter a Super Mushroom that acts as a speed boost. Players can even change the behavior of their opponents by putting obstacles such as banana peels in their way to slow them down. A video game that is well-designed is like a system with interacting and interrelated parts that influence one another.

Systems thinking in the classroom

When graphs and charts are used in a math class or any other discipline where you are asking students to see relationships and make predictions, a systems thinking approach is being modeled. By making that process interactive for students, like playing a game, they become even more engaged. Introducing systems thinking as a model can be as sophisticated as purchasing software with customizable features to help meet your needs. For example, STELLA, isee system’s software package, helps users visualize and communicate how complex systems and ideas work. It has a very useful model manipulation interface and its storytelling feature allows students to see each phase of their model step by step.

While the STELLA software can be customized to help address 21st-century skills for almost any core subject area, there are also many simulation games that can be easily integrated into the classroom that offer systems thinking models. Among them are a number of web-based games developed by John Sterman, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, MA, that model systems thinking skills, including Fishbanks, a renewable resource simulation; Salt Seller, a commodity pricing simulation; and Eclipsing the Competition, a game about a solar energy company.

Platform Wars

Simulations & EduGames for the Classroom

Forio Online Simulations (Forio.com).

Kodu Classroom Kit for Educators (http://tinyurl.com/csghgwf).

Muzzy Lane (http://muzzylane.com): creator of strategy games.

Whyville for Teachers (http://tinyurl.com/ckq2uht).

World of Warcraft in Schools (http://tinyurl.com/3fhatn5).


Billings, Karen. “Lessons from the Trenches: Best Practices for Using Games and Simulations in the Classroom.” School Library Journal, Oct. 2009 (http://tinyurl.com/d3jkg3u).

CC Modeling Systems (www.ccmodelingsystems.com): helps educators bring dynamic modeling into the classroom.

Creative Learning Exchange (http://clexchange.org/): System Dynamics and Systems Thinking in K-12 Education.

MIT Sloan Teaching Innovation Resources (http://tinyurl.com/d3lhsca): four system dynamics games including Platform Wars.

STELLA Software (http://tinyurl.com/yt5ty6): systems thinking modeling software.

Vensim Software (www.vensim.com/software.html): free systems thinking modeling software for educators.

Waters Foundation: Systems Thinking in Schools (http://www.watersfoundation.org/).

These games, along with a new web-based simulation game, Platform Wars, also developed by Professor Sterman, are all available for free. Platform Wars, which is designed to teach students about the challenges of strategic competition in the video game industry, can be played individually or as a whole class, and is intended for high school as well as college students. It’s based on a case study about the launch of Sony’s PlayStation3 (http://tinyurl.com/c37o6z2). Patricia Favreau, Associate Director, Office of Media Relations at Sloan notes that “Participants play the role of the senior management of a video game hardware platform producer similar to that of Sony, Nintendo, or Microsoft. Participants must make tough decisions about business issues, which include the pricing of hardware, negotiating royalty agreements with the game designers, and whether or not to subsidize game production.”

Sterman says that “classroom learning is important, but deep, actionable knowledge and decision-making skills develop when people have the chance to apply classroom theory in the real world. Especially when the stakes are high or when the consequences of our decisions unfold over years or decades…simulation becomes the main way we can discover for ourselves how complex systems work and develop the management and leadership skills we need to succeed.”

Since Platform Wars has only been available for a few months, there is no hard data available concerning its use in the classroom. However, the reviews from MIT graduate students who tested the game in their strategy class indicate that it is very promising. Introductory videos for students and teachers to help them get started playing Platform Wars can be found on the MIT Sloan Teaching Innovation Resources (MSTIR) web site.

The games runs on your web browser on both Windows and Mac platforms. Teachers can set up different “classes”—customized scenarios—through the Game Settings tab, and view the results for their students. In addition to being motivated by the goal of earning a profit, students will learn how to read and interpret graphs, work with data, and think critically about complex business issues. The issues addressed in Platform Wars extend well beyond gaming consoles to cell phones, personal computers, social networks, and even the challenge of building a market for electric cars. Students (and teachers) are going to have some strong opinions about all the different types of platforms we use every day.

Simulation models

Some instructors believe that using simulation models in the classroom is a superior pedagogy to other forms of teaching because students get the opportunity to acquire information beyond what they need to know to do well on a test. Introducing students to the abstract can be fun and empowering. All students, not just those who score well in reading and math, have been shown to respond positively to a systems thinking-based approach in the classroom.

For example, in the 1990s, English teacher Pamela Lee Hopkins introduced her students in Desert View High School in Tuscon, Arizona, to a systems model for Hamlet. Asked about Hamlet’s motivation for avenging his father’s death, they used a simulation model, supplemented with diagrams and graphs, to plug in data pertaining to the events that would influence Hamlet’s actions. As a result of using this systems approach, Hopkins notes that “students were engrossed throughout the process” (System Dynamics Review 8 [no. 1, Winter 1992]: 91-98. ISSN 0883-7066. John Wiley & Sons. Ltd, 1992.) and their grades dramatically improved.

Using systems thinking might just be the key to unlocking better decision making no matter what the subject!

Kelly Czarnecki is the technology education librarian of ImaginOn, a collaborative venture between the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County and the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, NC, and SLJ’s Gaming Life column editor.