Raising a Video Game Designer
Insider Advice from an Astrophysicist and Computer Superman
Jon Woodcock was seven years old when he saw the future of gaming.
To be honest, it wasn’t much.
“My family had gone to an open day at the local college,” he remembers, “and there was a computer running a car racing game. The computer printed out on paper a description of each corner of an imaginary racetrack and you typed what speed and gear you thought would get you round that corner the fastest. No graphics, just typing and printing—more often than not just: ‘*** YOU CRASHED***’. Something about interacting with that imaginary world inside a computer spoke to me very deeply.” Jon left that simple computer game awestruck, and hungry for more.
Fast-forward a few decades and today Jon Woodcock is an internationally-known astrophysicist who builds giant, computer-model space simulations and intelligent robots from spare parts. The UK-based scientist also has a soft spot for video-game-loving kids likewise fascinated by “that imaginary world inside a computer.” That’s why he agreed to share a few thoughts with you on how to raise the next great video game designer.
PopFam: Parents have enormous influence in helping kids succeed with technology. In what ways did your parents encourage creative growth in computer programming?
Jon Woodcock: My dad was an engineer and the company he worked for had lots of early adopters of the first home computers—primitive by today’s standards, often supplied as kits of electronic components that you had to solder together. These guys met every Monday evening to swap programs and share ideas, and Dad took me along.
I desperately wanted to write my own programs and fairly soon my dad brought home a computer for the family. I realize in retrospect that it must have cost a lot of money, but my dad had the vision to see computing was the future—then as now. That humming box enabled me to build my own imaginary worlds. Little did I realize where that would lead!
Nearly all kids today are hooked on video games. How can parents use that “addiction” to foster a healthy interest in computer coding?
Engage with the games your kids are playing. There’s growing evidence that kids and parents playing games together is a positive thing. Ask them to explain the internal logic of the game world where they’re playing—what are the rules of that world? Ask your kids what they like about the games they’re playing. They’ve probably not analyzed their own motivations, but in my experience, they will give interesting answers. Ask if they have any ideas for games? What would be their perfect game? Could they design it? Have they ever designed their own levels for games they play—many games allow this these days. MIT has a great website called Scratch (scratch.mit.edu) where you can play lots of games created by other kids. You can look inside the code to learn and tinker. It’s a great bridge between games and coding.
Tell us about your book, Help Kids With Computer Coding (DK Books). How might families with aspiring game designers use this to get a jump-start on a video-game career?
The key to games design and development is to be able to think creatively. Computer coding is just expressing creative ideas in a way that computers can understand. Computers are very rigid in their outlook—you have to talk to them in their own language if you want them to do things. Help Your Kids With Computer Coding starts by introducing Scratch (as mentioned earlier)—a brilliant invention from MIT. Scratch allows you to start writing fun programs with moving characters, sound and interaction from the first minute. You make programs by dragging and dropping colored code blocks on the screen—no typing out cryptic lines of symbols—but all the time you’re learning real programming concepts that set you to tackle more complex coding. It’s free, great fun and rewarding from the beginning.
I’ve worked with kids 5-11 using Scratch and the all love it. They “get it” straight away. For the first time they are in control of what the computer’s up to. The book goes on to cover Python (a more conventional computer language) and also has a good helping of information about what’s going on behind the scenes when you use a computer. The book takes the reader by the hand, making a real effort to preempt problems and difficulties, and is packed with fun examples that can be modified or extended by the reader to express their own creative ideas.
What are the “Top Tips” you’d give parents about raising a video game designer?
1. Consoles won’t let you write your own games—you need access to a programmable computer like a PC or the Raspberry Pi. Don’t be afraid to let kids play and experiment on computers. Running Scratch and Python on your family PC or Mac won’t cause any trouble and you don’t need the latest model.
2. Create your own games. Start simple—invent ‘Guess the Number’ or ‘Chase the Mouse’. Each game you write will require you to solve problems along the way. This builds competence and complexity, so your next game can do something new and even more exciting.
3. Get creative. Keep a notebook—jot down any idea that comes to you. Sketch characters and scenes. Rough out and expand your plans. Review your old ideas and see how they fit with your new ones
4. Join a coding club at your local school or library. You’ll learn from others and have more experienced coders on hand to help you when you get stuck. No local club? Then start one! There are lots of great organizations to help—for example, codeclubworld.org
5. Code code code! No experience is wasted. Take any opportunity you get to code on different computers and in a variety of programming languages as your competence grows. The web is an amazing resource for any programmer—bursting with free courses, information and programming tools.
Any last words you’d like to share with parents and kids?
Games are a huge industry, but the world of code and computers touches every aspect of our lives. There’s a huge overlap between gaming and ‘serious’ applications in our age of smart phones and the like. You might start writing games, but end up changing the world by coming up with the next Twitter or Facebook.
As a child I became fascinated by creating worlds inside computers, and that’s taken me on an amazing intellectual journey, one which I’m now sharing with my own children. What worlds will you and your kids create?
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