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Gaming Tuesday, April 9th 2013 at 9:30 am

Learn Java By Casting Spells, Saving Gnomes in a First-Person Video Game

What skills does your favorite video game give you? When you’re done burning through the 12+ hours of BioShock Infinite, what’ll you have to show for it? Probably a few enhanced motor skills and the aesthetic appreciation that comes with being immersed in a compelling story. That’s certainly not nothing. For developing employable, useful skills, though, one game’s got all the rest beat. Computer scientists at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) have created a video game that teaches students how to program in Java by casting spells and saving the world. A world of creepy, creepy little gnomes.

The game, called CodeSpells, is a first-person, problem-solving adventure game, where the player takes the role of a wizard exploring a fantasy world inhabited by…well, they’re calling them gnomes, but I’m not so sure. They also look a lot like aliens, or strange little ghosts. In order to help the “gnomes” get their magic back, you’ll have complete a series of quests in which you solve puzzles by make things levitate or burst into flame. To cast those spells, though, you’ll first need to write them — in Java.

CodeSpells is aimed at elementary and high school students, which means kids these days will get all the good programming jobs before you do. Unless you get your hands on this game, too. Sarah Esper, one of the lead graduate students involved in the game, tested it on a group of 40 girls of ages 10 to 12 who had no prior exposure to programming. Within an hour of playing, the girls had mastered fundamentals of Java and thereby surpassed my knowledge of computer programming. They were also reportedly disappointed when the test was over, because it meant they had to stop playing.

Here’s the CodeSpells demo from last year to give you a sense of what it looks and feels like. It’s no World of Warcraft graphically, but as far as educational games go, it puts classics like Math Blasters and Reader Rabbit to shame.

Researchers point out that teaching computer science courses prior to college can be difficult, because qualified instructors are hard to come by. Sneak that training directly into a video game, though, and kids — and let’s face it, adults — will be engaged enough to start picking up the basics on their own. That’s the aim, anyway.

The study was presented at the SIGSE conference in March. William Griswold, a computer scientist at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UCSD and one of the developers of the game, said that CodeSpells is the only video game out there that integrates computer programming into gameplay, and that the ultimate goal remains to make the game available, for free, to any educational institution interested in it.

“We’re hoping that they will get as addicted to learning programming as they get addicted to video games,” said Stephen Foster, another lead student in the study.

I certainly like the idea of video games that you technological skills. But is anyone as freaked out by the “gnomes” in this game as I am?

Dude. That’s a zipper.

They look like something you would find skittering about in Coraline or any Tim Burton movie, just waiting to steal your children. Or worse, the Silent Hill franchise.

(PhysOrg, images courtesy of YouTube and Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego)

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