The quest began with a simple remark by my 9-year-old son: "Dad, can we make our own video game?"
My initial reply was a long-winded explanation about how complicated video games are, and how much you have to know about programming, and how much time it takes to create them. But that didn't dampen his desire to make his own.
So I began to poke around the Web. And as it turns out, I was wrong. There's a growing list of educators, startups and researchers focused on teaching kids how to make their own video games. The goal is to leverage their passion for playing video games and turn them into creators, and along the way sneak in some programming and math skills.
"The earlier they get into programming, the more successful they'll be in all types of science and math in school," said Alex Peake, an independent video game designer.
I first heard about Peake this summer at the Maker Faire, where he was discussing his current project, "Code Hero: A Game That Teaches You To Make Games." He announced the project last year and started a successful crowdsourced funding campaign that raised $170,954 to fund development.
"Code Hero" is set to be officially released in the next couple of weeks. But in the demo back in May, he showed a character walking through a virtual world using a ray gun to shoot code at various objects to make them perform certain behaviors.
Peake offers a good critique of the way we typically think
There are two problems with that logic. First, it could weed out a lot of creative people just because they don't like math. Second, it seems plausible that learning to program and build something first would inspire a lot of kids to learn math and logic because they could see a practicable application.
Peake, now 30, said he started learning programming when he was 8. And he argues that programming deserves a place next to writing and mathematics as an essential skill kids should learn in school.
"We want to prepare kids to be the innovators of the future," Peake said. "We don't want to just prepare them to get a job. So you need to give people a grounding in literacy, mathematics and code. Those are the components the world is made of. It used to be two. Now, it's three."
If you're wondering whether kids are really ready at such early age, just ask Jonathan Chung, a video game designer who wanted to build a gaming engine that would allow him to quickly build his own video games.
That led to the creation of Stencyl, a Cupertino-based service that allows users to create games using a series of Lego-like blocks that they stack on each other to create behaviors. I've tried Stencyl, and it's not easy. But there are tutorials and, with a little time, you can grasp the basics. And because it works by dragging around colorful blocks rather than staring at infinite lines of code makes Stencyl feel less intimidating.
"There are different facets of programming, like the syntax, that people are afraid of," Chung said. "But there are some fundamental rules and pieces of logic, that kids can pick up on. If you take away the scary parts, there's some incentive to pick it up and try it."
When Chung released Stencyl, he assumed it would mainly be used by older video game developers. But to his surprise, it developed a big following among teenagers, with users as young as 9. Chung bootstrapped Stencyl and just added paid features in December.
It's a remarkable start, but he still has a ways to go to catch Redwood City-based Roblox, which has emerged as a leading gaming platform for kids. Roblox was created in 2006 by David Baszucki as a "physics engine," or a sophisticated piece of software that helps create models of real-world interactions such as the affect of gravity on a ball.
Matthew Finick, Roblox's chief financial officer, notes that it evolved over time and was embraced by teenage boys.
Last year, Roblox raised $4 million in venture capital and now has 55 employees. Using a point-and-click interface, players can drag around objects to create their games. They can also just play games other people have built at roblox.com. In 2011, there were 5.4 million games created in Roblox.
While exploring all of these gaming options with my kids, some friends happened to mention they had attended a programming class for kids in Oakland at the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment, or "The MADE."
The MADE opened last year in downtown Oakland in a modest office with the goal of creating a massive video game museum. While they pursue that ambitious goal, they have started offering a variety of programming classes, include one on Saturday morning that focuses on "Scratch."
Scratch was built in 2006 by the MIT Media Lab as an educational tool to teach kids about programming. Like Stencyl, it uses blocks that kids drag around to build programs. On a recent Saturday, I took my son Liam, 9, and daughter Kalian, 7, to the MADE for a two-hour Scratch class, where they each built a small game involving landing a vehicle on the ground using the arrow keys.
By the end of the two hours, Liam was racing around the room, checking out the other kids' games, showing off his, and asking if we could come back again. Scratch was a bit more of a challenge for Kalian, but the instructors were helpful and I was proud she stuck with it.
I hope we'll be doing more with Scratch and some of these other tools at home. Inspiring a desire to learn more and create is ultimately the goal, says MADE co-founder Alex Handy.
"We wanted to do something in our mission that created change in the world immediately by inspiring in kids a desire to create," Handy said. "All kids love video games. And if you ask any kids if they want to learn how to make video games, the answer is almost always yes."
One of those answering yes was 11-year-old Max Shepard.
"I think it was fun," he said after the class at the MADE. "Every kid knows how to play games on the computer, but making your own, not many kids can say they can do that."
"Yeah," said his friend, Ben Leung, also 11. "This was pretty cool."
How to get started
If you want to get started making video games with your kids, here are a few places to start:
Scratch: This coding platform was designed by the MIT Media Lab to teach kids the basics of programming without needing to write code. Available as a free download: http://scratch.mit.edu/
Roblox: Free gaming platform where kids build their own games, but can also play games built by others: http://www.roblox.com/
Code Hero: A virtual-world experience where kids play a character who carries a ray gun that shoots code onto objects: http://primerlabs.com/codehero/
Stencyl: Use blocks to create games in Flash and for iOS: http://www.stencyl.com/
MADE: The Museum of Arts and Digital Entertainment. This new video game museum offers classes throughout the week. Check the schedule here: http://www.themade.org/
Source: Mercury New reporting