Give this kid a kick-start in doing clever computer stuff, please?
January 19, 2014 3:28 AM   Subscribe

My awesome 12 year old nerd son has (finally) expressed serious interest in creating his own games, learning coding and whatnot. This is way out of my league, and googling just confuses me because I don't know what we need. Suggestion for sites, learning resources, etc?

I've found this and this, but while the former is the perfect question, it is nearly four years out of date, and the latter just doesn't quite nail what we want.

He's played just about every game know to man. I thought Minecraft would keep him fascinated for a while, but he got bored surprisingly quickly. He writes short stories, plays video/computer games solidly to their end (or until I make him eat or sleep or go outside for some fresh air and sunshine), makes and distributes his own movies online, writes and illustrates comics, he's very creative in his chosen media so I want to channel that interest now. He's into the dark side of superheroes, discovered Dr Who last year and is obsessed, and he writes fan fiction for his own amusement. He's the coolest nerd I know.

He starts high school (year seven) in Australia this year and asked me tonight if he'll learn coding so he can create his own games. I have no idea if that sort of thing will be taught at this small rural school, but seeing as his older sister was taught maths by a science teacher, science by an ag(ricultural) teacher, and ag by a fresh-outta-uni-with-no-idea English teacher, I really don't want to leave it to the school to teach him what he yearns to learn.

His English skills have always been outstanding, his maths skills have improved dramatically in the last year. He would be in the top 10% of his year academically.

Please direct us to some resources that will help this kid learn some awesome stuff.
posted by malibustacey9999 to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps in addition to learning to code, he could also look into a couple of of the many straightforward game creators? Most also include some sort of scripting. Many are not not free though.

As to which game creators, it depends on what sorts of games he'd like to make. Here's one list of free stuff, and you can always google for more. The straightforwardly named GameMaker should be pretty good.

Although I must admit I don't know the complexity of these tools.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:07 AM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

...or basically, come to think of it, give your kid Unity and see what happens. It's basically free unless your son will be an instant commercial success, and it's the thing used by everyone to make everything.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:31 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Three magic words to google: Arduino starter kit.
posted by spitbull at 5:38 AM on January 19, 2014

Another framework that has worked really well for my daughter: Construct2
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:25 AM on January 19, 2014

I usually recommend Invent Your Own Computer Games With Python. Available in a free online version.

It is a very beginner's book and he may race through it, but if he has never coded before at all, the gradual slope might be good.

On the other hand, if he is determined and self motivated, and it sounds like he is, starting him off with Unity would probably be OK too.
posted by mattu at 6:36 AM on January 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hi, I teach game development to college kids, and occasionally do workshops for the younger crowd.

I can't agree more with the suggestion to start out with Game Maker! It's a great introductory technology.

Unity is also fabulous, but there is a steeper learning curve. You have to wrap your head around 3D concepts before you can have something playable, although if he's already done Minecraft, Unity isn't as huge a leap.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:41 AM on January 19, 2014

Another gateway into this is the hobby known as game modding. Basically, taking apart an existing game and changing things. Along the way, you learn how games work internally.

Some game companies actively encourage this, releasing their own internal game editing tools along with the game that they built with it. The example that I'm most familiar with is Bethesda, who have done this for their games in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series of games for years, but their releases tend to have enough violence and other content to get them tagged as for mature audiences. Fortunately there are other companies that are just as welcoming to game modders.

Of course, being just a hobby, it wouldn't teach you everything you need to know to become a video game developer, just as being a shadetree mechanic wouldn't fully prepare someone to be an automotive engineer, but it is a good way to get exposure to the fundamentals.
posted by radwolf76 at 7:16 AM on January 19, 2014

My kids and I had some fun with Gamestar Mechanic a couple of years ago. I am sorry to say that I provincially American and don't know whether there will be access issues from Australia, but it might be worth looking into.
posted by not that girl at 8:29 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about Code Academy?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:40 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding the suggestion of Python. I haven't used the Pygame library myself, but for a beginning coder, Python is a fantastic language. It's simple enough that you can learn the basics quickly, but powerful enough that you can do pretty much anything you can think of, including creating games. (For instance, EVE Online is written in a variant of Python.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:02 AM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Processing is a nice starter language, since you leap into graphics and games right away.
posted by redlines at 3:03 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

If your child is interested in puzzle games, puzzlescript is darn minimal but might work. There's also flixel, but my impression is that Unity really is The Thing.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:37 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

What seemed to work for my nephew of similar age and interest: I wrote a small program in Python which, when executed, revealed a secret message. I sent it to him with no explanation but the code hinted at its purpose. I figured he'd start googling and might ask his father for help. Within a day, and without help from his father, he'd decoded the message and accepted the challenge it posed to figure out how to adapt the program to send me a secret message in reply.

Not too long after, my mother happened to give him a copy of "Invent your own computer game with python" mentioned above. He worked through that for a while and then found Scratch, which seems to be his preferred environment. This past christmas, I got him an inexpensive Arduino based robot kit, and he seems to be getting it to do things. I think I'd also pointed him towards some iOS game kits that he didn't really pursue.

My general approach has been to expose him to relatively inexpensive opportunities to dig in, and then encourage the ones that seem to stick. My father didn't want me to learn 6502 assembly, even though it was the only way to do the graphics programming I really wanted to do on my Atari 800, instead preferring a stick with BASIC, or, even better, Pascal. If I'd been similarly opinionated, I would have tried pushing my nephew away from Scratch and back to Python. Instead, I took him seriously, engaged him and asked him about why he favored Scratch to Python.
posted by Good Brain at 5:15 PM on January 19, 2014

Twine might also be good, depending on how much he wants graphics or wants to start making interactive game experiences.

I've been told that Lua is very simple to learn; it's the scripting engine of choice for various game studios. (Back when I browsed jobs for Double Fine, that was their story.)

Assuming your child has a steam account, you might want to see if any of the games that he uses on Steam are designed to work with the Steam Workshop. If so, they might already have native tools that he can use to make mods or levels. (e.g. Portal 2)

While learning how to program is an excellent thing to do, if he's interested in making games it might be worth emphasizing that knowing how to program a good game engine and knowing how to make a good game are very different skills that don't necessarily have any bearing on each other.
posted by Going To Maine at 5:45 PM on January 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

For this particular kid, Code Academy has done the trick. I showed him your answers, he'd heard of some but not others, and he did a bit of browsing through the suggested sites yesterday.

I asked him this morning which I should mark as 'best answer', and he said Code Academy was perfect because 'it's challenging because it makes me think, mum, but it's not so hard that I can't figure out a solution, and there's videos and stuff'. I guess that's high praise?

And as I've barely seen him over the last 36 hours - except for running in to tell me that he's given monsters blonde hair, or turned girly girls into cavemen, or inserted a Portal gun into a Mario game - I'm guessing Code Academy is a big hit.

Thanks, y'all, and especially Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 12:07 AM on January 21, 2014

Happy to help! Glad it's been such a success!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:28 PM on January 26, 2014

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