Bright kid needs a hobby.
November 9, 2011 5:51 PM   Subscribe

My 9 year old nephew does very well in math. He also has a voracious appetite for video games. How can I help him acquire a better understanding of how these games are made? I'd like to see him become more creative with a computer, rather than just spending his time clutching a game controller.

My nephew scored great on the math section of the provincial standardized test for the third grade and I'm wondering if he might have an aptitude for computer coding but lacks the direction or educational resources to pursue it. His mum has a powerful PC and grandma has an iMac but nobody in the family has any kind of technical education.

Last fall, he asked me to explain how computer games work. I have an animation background, so I could tell him the little that I know about that aspect of it but I'm not around enough to give him ongoing animation lessons. I got him a kids animation program last Christmas but I don't think he's really done anything with it. I don't think he really feels compelled to draw and I'm wondering if coding might be more up his alley.

Is it realistic to expect that a book could kickstart an interest in writing simple games? Is it something he could pursue without a lot of direction?
posted by bonobothegreat to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
When I was 9 years old, I was playing with LogoWriter!

Logo seems a little...archaic these days, but you could do the same thing with Processing?
posted by unexpected at 6:02 PM on November 9, 2011

Challenge him to learn some basic computer programming? Ask him to make some stuff in Java for you. Think he'd be interested in learning it for knowledge's sake?
posted by Strass at 6:04 PM on November 9, 2011

You could introduce him to Scratch, MIT's project meant specifically to introduce kids to the kinds of logical thinking that code requires.
posted by Andrhia at 6:26 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've seen recommendations elsewhere on Ask Mefi for "Invent Your Own Computer Games With Python."
posted by Lifeson at 6:46 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I agree with unexpected, Processing is a good suggestion if you think he might be interested in doing a little programming. Its easy to install, very user-friendly (designed specifically for visual people to learn programming) and you get instant feedback, which is very important for kids to keep up their interest.

Another possibility might be to introduce him to minecraft. Once he has spent a little time playing the game, encourage him to try building stuff, which is a super-simplified version of creating your own games.
posted by Joh at 7:09 PM on November 9, 2011

Minecraft's older cousin Roblox has scripting in-built so you can make your objects work the way you want. Similar in concept to Second Life but, you know... blocks.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:21 PM on November 9, 2011

I'd like to second the recommendation for Scratch.

I have not used it myself, but the recommendation comes from the half a dozen kids of my various coworkers in the 9-12 year old range who've been playing with Scratch and loving it. I don't know how much help they get from their parents, but it's definitely accessible at their age range. One kid's teacher is using it for a project in their class.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 7:36 PM on November 9, 2011

posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:38 PM on November 9, 2011

The first thing I would do is to let him chew on the vague idea that computer programs and games are built with 'programming languages' that you can use to tell the computer what to do, that look partially like normal language and partially like gibberish and that it takes quite a bit of work to understand them but being skilled in maths is actually very useful if he's interested in learning.

I'd add that some big parts of the work are done with easier tools but that you can't really make an original game without using a programming language.

I would show him some real code, perhaps from an open-source mod to some game he knows, explaining what part of the game it relates to, but I'd be very much on the lookout for any signs of intimidation, taking a playful 'looks scary, doesn't it?' attitude and remind him again that his maths will be very useful along the way.

I'd then get him started with some of the tools mentioned above designed for introducing people to programming.
posted by Anything at 10:05 PM on November 9, 2011

Each of the steps above of course taken when or if he's actually interested at the moment.
posted by Anything at 10:13 PM on November 9, 2011

And if you're interested in the real game code idea I could probably help you find a sample and give a few pointers about it.
posted by Anything at 10:43 PM on November 9, 2011

Your kid needs to start playing with Scratch.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:53 PM on November 9, 2011

In all seriousness, I lost my love of math when I was young because I pushed myself/was pushed too hard.

It's important for kids to just be kids sometimes. Introduce him to the behind-the-scenes math and give him more if he's interested, but you're already overthinking this.
posted by victory_laser at 2:58 AM on November 10, 2011

Whether or not a kid is challenged too much or too little or just the right amount is not something you can judge from a post like this. I myself was pretty much left to my own devices and have consequently had some serious opposite issues and hard lessons to learn about how to do disciplined work. So keep in mind that people's mileage may vary, and that this is AskMe where someone asks a question and others answer that question.
posted by Anything at 3:49 AM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does he like Lego? I ask because they are both a predictor for CS-nerdery (literally every person I have ever met who went down the computer science path played with Lego as a kid) and an easy way to bring someone into basic programming techniques. Mindstorm robots in particular come with a very easy-to-understand "brick-oriented" programming interface that is intuitive and fairly powerful, and the ability to hook your robot up to a full Java VM and do some real damage.

At age 9, I loved the robotics end of Lego with a passion, and if I'd had the programming tools to go with it, it probably would have started me down the programming path a few years earlier. And, if he's not into the programming piece, no harm done--he will still have a sweet-ass Lego robot.
posted by Mayor West at 5:44 AM on November 10, 2011

LEGO Mindstorms kits are crazy expensive but if the kids shows lots of interest in robotics or building things it's a good way to combine programming with activities that don't involve staring at a screen.

Also I recommend you also find a copy of Pilgrim in the Microworld by David Sudnow (1983), and then give it to your nephew when he's old enough to 'get it' (read it and judge for yourself). I read a lot of video game theory and study the video game industry, and I think this book, better than anything that's been written since, exposes the foundations on which almost every video game (even today) is built and marketed. Sudnow (as one amazon reviewer has neatly put) "really, really, really gets into breakout".

Sudnow and his writing get a little muddled near the end of the book, after months of marathon Breakout sessions, but it's all worth it...and the ending scene of the book is quite relevant to your question.

Also: I started making computer games in Mac Paint, holding down Apple-Z so the screen would blink where your cursor (the eraser, with the mouse button held down) ran over a line...I made whole series of levels, with ramping difficulty, goals, etc.

When PowerPoint came along, I would spend days making complicated adventure games that linked 'find the object' kind of gameplay and intricate, animated 'shooting galleries'. In PowerPoint.

I really wish someone had given me something more exciting than LOGO to program with, or shown me the code behind a game I liked. Awesome job.
posted by soy bean at 5:46 AM on November 10, 2011

For you to read (not for the 9-year-old), this post describes the mindset it takes to create a game. Summary: persistence, persistence, persistence until the game is finally done.
posted by mark7570 at 7:51 AM on November 10, 2011

Kerbal Space Program.
posted by duomo at 8:18 AM on November 10, 2011

Thanks for the suggestion everyone. I'll check them all out and if any spark his interest, I'll mark them as best answers. Please feel free to add to the list.

Victory_laser, I'll be careful not to push him (I've forgotten all my math after grade 2, so I don't have the capacity). The main purpose of this AskMe is to find out about resources that HE might find of interest but are totally outside my personal experience or understanding. I plan to keep throwing stuff at him and seeing what sticks.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:40 AM on November 10, 2011

I was this child. I needed pushing. I wish I had been pushed towards computers more than my primary schooling allowed for. My parents pushed where they could but they just didn't have the knowledge of the proper pushing to do.

So, I became a mechanical engineer that now, for various reasons, works in a software firm managing source code. Either way, as long as you foster the love of math, this kid will be fine. Life goes on, good luck with the young one.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:51 AM on November 10, 2011

It was dated when I first used it so it would be moreso even now, but for me, at just a couple years older than he is, making games in Klik & Play was a terrific introduction to programming and game making. It works by giving their programming language an easy to use visual and interactive system, and best of all, instant gratification of being able to make his own game right off the bat with default character controls and interactive elements.

It has older and much more powerful and complicated brothers now, but the original is an easy and fun introduction to game design and programming concepts.
posted by gregoryg at 5:59 PM on November 10, 2011

We sat down together this evening with Scratch and had a BLAST!

I led him through the first part of the beginner tutorial and after a few minutes he was jumping ahead on his own. We hit a few interface road bumps but as the time passed, he got more and more confident and bubbled with fun ideas.

There seems to be lots more in it for him to chew on, so I'm hoping he stays interested while I'm gone. For the moment, I'm feeling great and I'm hoping we can mail a few project files back and forth.

I would never have known about Scratch without you fine folks. Thanks!
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:35 PM on November 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

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