Teaching Kids To Make Games

A teacher writing on a blackboard.

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I subscribe to Steven Johnson‘s premise in his book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, in which he details why videogames and other "bad forms of entertainment" are actually great learning experiences for kids. We have always encouraged our kids to play games and master them. There are limits like anything else in our home, but we certainly do not think that games are bad.

But this year we went one step further. We got our son Josh a young teacher who came over in the evening once a week and taught him how to write code and make a rudimentary computer game. We didn’t know of anywhere in the city to send Josh for this kind of class, so we contacted a local company, Blue Tomato, that provides supplemental tutoring and test preparation. They located an ITP student named Pravin who was fantastic. I mentioned Pravin in this post about the ITP spring show.

So it is with that background that I came upon David Kirkpatrick’s weekly Fast Forward column in Fortune Magazine. David writes about doing a panel at the Games For Change Conference last week. And he says:

But some educators are going a step further, teaching kids to make the
games themselves. It turns out to be perhaps the ultimate form of
liberal arts. In order to create a computer game you have to think
about the content. You have to write a script. The programming involves
logic, math and science. And to understand how you distribute a game
you have to get into issues of marketing, sociology, and Internet

I sent David’s column to the Director of my kids’ school. I believe in engaged education and I believe in pushing the envelope and trying new things. Things like this.

Our kids are growing up in a different world than we did. We have to teach them using these new tools. Not just the ones that were used on us.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. Michael Megalli

    I have found game programming to teach my daughter (she’s 6) about computers, logic, the internet etc. Its been really fun for both of us.Two great resources for anyone interested in working with kids game programming:http://phrogram.com/http://www.popfly.com/Defau

    1. fredwilson

      thanks for those links very helpful

  2. NickN

    I could not agree with you more. My daughter is too young for school, but it’s already on my mind. The obsession most schools seem to have for learning by rote really doesn’t prepare kids to be thinkers and problem solvers.The nice thing about learning to make a game is that there are enough resources available to compensate for things that you (as a student) don’t do well while still delivering a great end product. e.g. better at code than art? you can probably find some stock art. Have trouble with coding? take a look at all the reference code that’s out there.It’s much closer to the “real world”. If I can’t do something myself, I figure out whether I can fake it or if I need someone else’s help. The key thing is the critical thinking that helps you identify what needs to happen.And learning by rote can never teach that…

  3. Martin Owen

    The people behind Squeak (eg Alan Kay) are still carrying a flag they have been carrying for a long time (see http://www.squeak.org).MIT MediaLab have done great work with Scratch.If you want something that looks like a PC first person game…. Mission Maker from UK developer immersive education is a good choice (see http://www.imed.co.uk)

  4. andyswan

    Artistic AND useful? Now that’s a winner. I’m sold.

  5. ppearlman

    well done fw!

  6. gregtracy

    There’s a great article from Edutopia a few months ago that talks about the importance of teaching a new form of literacy – http://www.edutopia.org/lit…It can be inspirational for parents trying to find new outlets for their kids to learn.

  7. sweller

    During undergrad, I took a computer science & social issues class, which was by far the most interesting CS class I took (mainly because the prof forced everyone to think outside the box). One day, our prof took an open survey and asked the class why we decided to major in Computer Science or Computer Engineering.Out of 40 students, 100% of all the men said they were driven in the direction of CS or CE because they were interested in how to make video games, or because computer games got them interested in learning more about working with computers. The remaining students, 2 women, claimed it was because they thought it would be a fruitful and interesting career choice.Granted, a small sample… But I continue to find it interesting.

    1. aaronwhite

      Hah! Anecdotally I can add this was true for me as well. And while I’m not making video games (per se), my desire at one point to make them has had a major impact on what areas in CS I ventured into.

    2. Robert Seidman

      100% even of a small sample is still pretty amazing!like Fred, it makes perfect sense to me too. Computer games are definitely what inspired me to learn more about computers.

  8. fredwilson

    i reblogged that on fredwilson.vcit makes perfect sense to meit’s why i learned how to write software in high school

  9. BillSeitz

    What language is Josh using?Note that an early version of SimCity has been OpenSource-d and ported to the OLPC by DonHopkins.http://webseitz.fluxent.com

    1. fredwilson

      html, css, and flash so farfront end stuff

  10. Don Jones

    Excellent, Fred. We do lots of extra learning opportunities like this (not programming, yet) for our 3.5 yr old daughter. Kids have a tremendous capacity for and interest in learning – traditional school seems to deal with the lowest common denominator.

  11. Guest

    This is a great post and I could not agree more (especially as a very recent college graduate in Electrical Engineering). I was fortunate enough to have a high school teacher that recognizes the importance of technology. I was building robots in 9th grade and didn’t even learn about semiconductors until my junior year of my EE program. His website is here: http://www.robodyssey.com.Why can’t today’s classrooms teach math, science, and creativity with new and engaged methods?

  12. Glen Moriarty

    I also couldn’t agree with you more. The paradigms that currently drive much of education really need to be updated. Serious games, or educational gaming, is going to be a key part of this process. I also really like the idea of teaching kids how to program games. We are hopeful that there will be a number of games that integrate with the OpenSocial API, so that educational gaming can occur across social networks and around the Web. It’ll be great when educational gaming becomes part of the overall educational process. At nixty.com, we are hopeful that different school districts, fields, areas – more broadly, tribes – will compete with one another and help each other learn. I posted something along these lines here: http://nixty.com/blog/2008/….

  13. Kevin Prentiss

    The social graph is a game. It’s a game we’ve always played – belonging and status – it’s just that our new tools give us a visual layer to what used to just be emotional. I think the definition of “game” is and should be blurry. Twitter is a fun game.Teaching your kids how to build tools will help them see the forest instead of being just caught up on/in any one tree. This is a great lesson.Whether it’s Facebook or DisqUs they are all tools with their own logic, math and science that can be played like a game. The people, students or “adults,” that can see and understand the context of these tools and play the game well have a massive advantage.I would argue that many kids in school know how to use the tools – or can pick it up quickly – what they need from parents and from their schools is the bigger context of the tools. How else can they use Facebook? How can their location based iphone app be used for learning, jobs, or activism? (They’ll figure out how to use it for parties just fine.)You are a rare parent steeped in this stuff.Most schools are fighting this wave of tech the same way they fought television and the telephone before that. Institutions don’t react well to change, especially when that change is legitimately threatening their control.

  14. Paul

    I’m surprised no one mentioned Alice. I have a 2.5 year old girl, and I’ve been figuring out what to push at her (when she can read…) Alice was my first idea (alice.org) but all the rest are ideas I’m going to explore.

  15. RacerRick

    I bet there are only a handful of liberal arts colleges that have any programming classes, besides like basic econ stuff.Still to this day, my only programming class, ever, was basic in 7th grade circa 1987. A class taught by Mrs. Hacker (no joke!).

  16. Martin Owen

    Anecdotally… Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto) are based in Dundee, Scotland. One hypothesis for the existence of a games industry on the banks of the Tay goes back to the time that the local Timex factory produced Clive Sinclair’s computers- a computer that midwived many great computer games companies. Most local kids had Sinclair computers ( however).A strong case for OLPC unconstrained from having to run MSOffice. OX needs Sugar more than Windows.

    1. fredwilson


  17. Martin Owen

    Anecdotally… Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto) are based in Dundee, Scotland. One hypothesis for the existence of a games industry on the banks of the Tay goes back to the time that the local Timex factory produced Clive Sinclair’s computers- a computer that midwived many great computer games companies. Most local kids had Sinclair computers ( however).A strong case for OLPC unconstrained from having to run MSOffice. OX needs Sugar more than Windows.

  18. Iain

    * good for you and your son Josh* I need to get re-motivated on this project with my daughter (grade 9)* She followed a similar path that you mentioned — her first response was let’s write a game. – I was going to use pygame http://www.pygame.org/ and their first tutorial http://rene.f0o.com/mywiki/… – anyone have experience with that?

  19. Austin Hill

    Hi Fred,The best example I’ve seen in this area which was also highlighted at the Games4Change conference (which was great BTW) was GameStar Mechanic which is an MMOG that is based on learning to build new games. You can join guilds, gain experience and contribute to the community by designing games.http://www.gamestarmechanic…It’s designed by GameLabs and won a McArthur grant. What is great about Games is they teach children how to think critically about systems, logic and complexity.There was a lot of good data at the conference about kids learning through games, but this was the best example of how it might actually go mainstream.

    1. Justin Hall

      I was going to post a link to Gamestar Mechanic but you beat me Austin!!!You win, this round.

  20. howardlindzon

    does this teacher delve into how to pick long term winners in the gaming sector. i think not! I have a different angle for max; young teacher :)good idea you have there just the same. in our ghousegold though, we canr fund the on off switch so you work with what you got.

  21. Freeman Murray

    Nice to see such a collection of game programming education resources.I recently met this guy in India teaching game programming to a bunch of kids._______from: http://www.fangengine.org -The FANG Engine API is simple enough for novice programmers to use and advanced enough to create networked real-time applets. The gaming engine has been used in many introductory programming courses since 2003. Students from 5th grade to college senior have used the FANG Engine in online classes, traditional classrooms and in short programming workshops. You can even write games using only a web broswer now that the FANG Engine has been combined with the Java Wiki Integrated Development Environment.

  22. michaelgalpert

    there is a neat program over at MIT Labs called Scratch http://scratch.mit.edu/ that tries to teach the logic and mathematics to kids by building computer games in a social setting. Currently you have to download the application but they are currently working on a web version as well.

  23. hersh

    http://www.playcrafter.com is a new easy-to-use flash game creation web site as well. It has a physics engine, so there are lots of opportunities for interesting interactions between pieces.