[ExI] Logo on Steroids: The new video game Kodu will teach you (or your kid) about programming. It's also actually fun.

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Sun Jul 12 00:05:29 UTC 2009

I'm always on the lookout for programming environments that might
capture my kids' imaginations. My son really got into MIT's Scratch
for a while, but unfortunately it has two major problems. Firstly, you
hit the walls of what you can do very quickly (or what you can do
without serious programming evil). Secondly, and more importantly,
it's trapped in MIT Scratch land. Your stuff goes online on their
site, but you can't embed it into your own site (a huge mistake on
their part). That second thing is what really doomed it for my 9 year
old son. He hates a walled garden.

Kodo looks interesting, but I can't help thinking the walled garden
thing again applies to anything on a console. Still, it could be fun.
Hmm, actually, isn't this exactly the same concept as Little Big

Logo on Steroids
The new video game Kodu will teach you (or your kid) about
programming. It's also actually fun.

The first computer program I ever wrote, in the second grade, was
composed in pencil and ran on the platform known as my friend
Nicholas. We were about to start learning Logo, the program that
teaches kids how to draw things on the screen by writing out commands
for a turtle. Before we got some face time with an Apple II, we had to
act out the simple commands—Forward 10 steps, Left 90 degrees—in real
life. I eventually succeeded in programming Nicholas to walk in a

Logo is the most memorable in a lineage of games that have tried to
make programming fun and intuitive. I was reminded of it recently when
I saw a demonstration of Kodu, a newly released video game from
Microsoft aimed at the 9-and-over crowd. Kodu is light years beyond
Logo, with modern 3-D graphics, a world players can landscape to their
liking, and a cast of characters that isn't limited to the Terrapene
genus. But the mission is pretty much the same: to place kids in an
open-ended environment and arm them with a simple language that lets
them build things. At the risk of blaspheming my youth, I dare say
that Kodu is more fun than Logo. It's also a reminder that the mission
of games like these is not actually to teach kids how to write code.
It's to teach them how to think like programmers.

The first thing you should do in Kodu, before any of the programming
stuff, is build a little world. To start with, you pave out a bit of
earth and do some decorating, building mountains, digging holes, maybe
filling a lake or two. Then you populate that world with trees, rocks,
buildings, and other inanimate objects. Next come the characters.
Among your options here are the eponymous Kodus, which look like
porcine, floating submarines.

Once the props and characters are in place, you start composing rules
for your denizens. This is where the learning begins. First, you
choose what object or character (an apple, a Kodu, a rock) your new
rule will affect. Next, you choose the situation that will prompt the
rule to execute (a collision or a press of a button). Last, you
dictate what the object in question should do when this situation
occurs (run away, fire a missile, change color). All of this is done
using on-screen, graphical menus—no writing required. The end result:
a command like When something bumps into this tree, make the tree glow
orange or When the Kodu sees a green apple, run away. (You can watch a
video demo that shows all of this in action.)

Kodu offers enough different commands and characters that can be used
to make games within the game. UFOs can be programmed to shoot
missiles and dodge enemy combatants at the press of a button,
accumulating points toward a "win condition" that ends the game when
you reach a certain total. If you want to make a side-scrolling game
like Super Mario Bros., you can alter the camera perspective. Equally
satisfying, I found, was to build peaceful worlds that change and
evolve according to my rules—a digital terrarium in which trees launch
glowing fruit and little creatures mingle peacefully and multiply. As
you build your world, it becomes increasingly likely you will get
strange and unexpected results when all of your rules interact. In my
first game, I unwittingly created a never-ending cascade of exploding
apples as two of my trees perpetually provoked one another—a fantastic
demonstration of the dangers of coding an infinite loop.

The marriage of games and coding has often felt forced. Most attempts
err on the side of being educational, which is probably why they're
more often associated with school than home. The graphics in these
programs have gotten progressively better since Logo's heyday, but
most of them—Alice and Scratch, for example—still involve writing
code. (Lego, which used to collaborate with Logo, now offers a
sophisticated robotics line with a more graphical programming
interface.) I loved playing Logo, but I was always aware that I was
learning. Super Mario Bros. had come out three years earlier, and not
too many of us would have chosen turtles over their mutant cousins the
Koopa Troopas. Kodu's pedagogical mission, in contrast to its
predecessors, doesn't feel contrived because it doesn't require any of
that pesky writing and it has the same production quality as any other
video game for kids.

What are kids who play with Kodu actually learning? While Logo puts
code in the foreground, Kodu deliberately keeps out any mention of
variables, functions, recursion, or any other programming argot. In
fact, the interface is so friendly that players can be forgiven if
they don't realize that they're learning anything at all. There is not
currently any obvious bridge between the game and traditional
coding—you aren't taught how to write out commands, and there's no way
to look under the hood to see your rules translated into traditional
code. What you are learning is how to build an environment.

>From a programming perspective, this is an advanced concept. Most
software is still written sequentially, like Logo, with one command
running after another, the same way you read a book line by line. Kodu
is more like a piece of orchestral music, with lots of individual
parts all playing at once. The characters you create do not patiently
wait their turn to act—all of the UFOs react to all of the other UFOs,
all at the same time—which is why delightful complexity is almost
unavoidable after you've written a few lines of Kodu legislation.

Without making any bold predictions about the future of computer
science, this feels like a useful way to think about how to write a
program, particularly as we move to a computing environment in which
lots of parallel processors are running in tandem. That being said,
Kodu's built-in language probably won't escape the bounds of the game
anytime soon. Matt MacLaurin, the game's creator, says he's thought
about expanding Kodu to allow players to write their own rules in code
when they want to do something that's not included in the game's
considerable library of tools. (By way of analogy, think of blogging
platforms that let you write posts in a word-processor window but give
you the option of messing with the HTML directly if you're trying to
do something fancy.)

While this is a sensible thing to offer down the line, it's not an
essential part of Kodu's mission. Even without tinkering with code,
kids will develop reasoning skills by simply messing around. That's
why I recommend the game even for those of us who are over the age of
9. There is something innately appealing about dabbling in a
mechanical world of your own making. Building a game forces you to
think of complicated situations as the sum of simple rules. It also
makes you realize that, even when you write the rules yourself,
understanding the whole system isn't as easy as understanding each
individual part. Predicting how lots of pieces will or won't work
together is a central question in any number of fields, and Kodu is a
surprisingly good microcosm of this problem. Give it a shot, even if
Logo lost you at Forward 10.

http://emlyntech.wordpress.com - coding related
http://point7.wordpress.com - ranting
http://emlynoregan.com - main site

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list