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The 8-Year-Old Programmer

Posted by jcmaziquemd on September 22, 2010

The 8-Year-Old Programmer

By PAUL BOUTIN

“Our society thinks of computer programming as lucrative, therefore it must be hard and dull,” says the leader of the Kodu project, Matt MacLaurin. He says software development should be like a fourth-grade art class: explore, create, discover.

Kodu, built by a team at Microsoft’s main campus outside Seattle, is a programming environment that runs on an Xbox 360, using the game console’s controller rather than a keyboard. Instead of typing if/then statements in a syntax that must be memorized — as adult programmers do — the student uses the Xbox controller to pop up menus that contain options from which to choose. Kodu itself resembles a video game, with a point-and-click interface instead of the thousand-lines-of-text coding tools used by grown-ups.

A simple Kodu program might work like this: The student concocts a plot for an original video game involving, say, motorcycle racing. He then uses the Xbox controller to paint a landscape onscreen. Then he marks out a road-racing course that runs around the terrain. Finally he creates racers who turn left, turn right, speed up or stop whenever specified keys on the controller are pressed. He can also define how the bikes respond when, for example, one runs into another.

Kodu hackers aren’t just filling in templates; it’s real work. At the least, they extend existing games with new scenery, new characters and, most important, new rules. But a dedicated Kodu student can create an entire game from scratch, complete with original players and actions based on a few Lego-like building blocks of software that can be modified and assembled in ways that no one — not even the grown-ups — has thought of before. One girl concocted a fairy-tale princess protected by a bodyguard of flying fish.

Once the game is defined, it’s time to play it to see if it performs properly or if ­— as often happens — the programmer made a mistake in his thinking. Mitchel Resnick, head of M.I.T.’s Scratch project, says, “It’s like teaching them to write instead of only reading.” Scratch, like Kodu — both can be downloaded free — plants a graphical user interface in front of programmers as young as 8. They can drag and drop music and animation into games they write.

Programming is an iterative process: the programmer conceives an idea, uses Scratch or Kodu to cobble together the objects and interactions between them and then watches in surprise as things don’t go at all as planned. The computer’s role is to be encouraging but, as it is for adult programmers, unforgiving.

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