Where Are The (Mainstream) Games Where You Program Stuff?

Every couple of months I have to do a quick nose to see if there’s much new stuff on games and learning. We’ve got a load of material on how you could use this or that particular game in education (e.g. Kirriemuir & Mcfarlane, 2004). It’s argued that gameplay can be a useful way of introducing young minds to knowledge which is otherwise too abstract(Ceci and Roazzi, 1994; Gee, 2003; Arnseth, 2004). We’ve also got an underlying trend towards using kids’ enthusiasm for making games as a way of sneaking in computing concepts (although, surprisingly, most studies I’ve read on game design with kids tend to focus on areas like narrative etc. with the acquisition of programming skills usually being a secondary goal).

I’ve been thinking about whether there are any good examples of commercial, mainstream games which require the application of some sort of programming concepts, but which aren’t necessarily bundled as edutainment products (ruling out software like Kodu Game Lab, for example). There is a pretty extensive list of freeware games like RoboWar (1992) where players compete by programming in-game actors. There’s also a great list over here of “games in which one competes by writing code and and having the programs then compete against each other”. As you’d expect, games fitting this description are pretty rare in the flashy ‘splosions space of mainstream console gaming. And I think it’s important to focus on consoles sometimes, because for a lot of kids, that’s their main thing.

carnage heartcarnage screen

Carnage Heart: A Weird Little Japanese Gem

My big brother bought Carnage Heart (1997) for the PlayStation in the late 1990s when I was small-ish. The cover art indicates a Japanese game about big robots, possibly featuring at least one explosion. No points for originality there. But this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill game about directly piloting said robots. Oh no. You had to program them, using the flow-diagram style system shown above to create series of conditions and actions which will hopefully (but probably not) result in victory. Probably the closest you’ll get to one of those aforementioned games on a mainstream console. There’s a PSP/Vita version out too, which is seriously making me consider eventually getting a Vita.


Any Other, More Recent Examples?

Could you go as far as saying that the tactics screen in DragonAge 2 (arguably the only improvement on the first game) involved some entry-level programming concepts? What most squad-based games do is have a series of sets of AI behaviours which you might trigger with a button (e.g. up for attack point, down for cover/back, etc.) But what happens in DA2 is a much closer defining of the parameters of the characters’ actions. I think it’s interesting because it’s unusual for a mainstream, cross-platform release to have this level of “under the hood” involvement. LittleBigPlanet incorporates AI-programming nicely, too, and gets away with it because a. it’s a game about creativity and b. it’s a non-essential advanced feature that a lot of players won’t touch, not a core part of the game as with Carnage Heart. (Also, here’s a pretty good tutorial for LittleBigPlanet, where the author explains how program a sackbot to emote using the game’s inbuilt logic boards.)


It’s Not The Real Thing (Well, Duh)

I’ve used a lot of visual game-making software like RPGMaker and Stencyl over the years. I’m fully aware that there’s a limit to what you can do without actually writing in a programming language. I’m just interested in whether we can find examples of games that kids already know or love, which can get them started on the first couple of steps toward coding.

Ceci, S. J. & Roazzi, A. (1994). The effects of context on cognition: postcards from Brazil. In R. J. Sternberg & R. K. Wagner (Eds.), Mind in context. Interactionist perspectives on human intelligence. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kirriemuir, J. & McFarlane, A. (2004). Literature Review in Games and Learning. Bristol: Nesta Futurelab series, report 8.