Program notes

My last few posts have been circling around my experiences this past week at the fabulous VIEW Conference in Torino, Italy. I’ve been trying to let it all settle in my brain before writing anything definitive.

The program got off to a really great start with Will Wright’s keynote lecture, in which he used a description of his game SPORE to issue several grand challenges. One of those challenges was to figure out an accessible way to let game players direct critters like the ones in SPORE while giving those players real programming power – not just the sorts of combination-through-menu-selection that a game like SPORE currently provides.

The next day I gave my talk, and I answered Will’s challenge by leading the audience in playing a computer game I’d written, which happens also to be a programming language. As you play the game, you send critters around a game board to play sequences of musical notes, somewhat like in SimTunes. The difference is that when you play this game you are actually creating loops, conditionals, setting variables, all the tools of programming. But it doesn’t feel like programming as most people currently know it; it feels like playing a game.

The audience was totally into it. They were enjoying the game, and they were also getting the point that as we were directing the game characters to roam around the board creating melodies, we were actually programming a computer.

I think they also realized that unlike traditional programming, we were engaged in an activity in which all choices lead to a kind of success. Contrast this with the standard approach to teaching programming, which seems too brittle to most learners: either you “get it” – ie: here’s how you write a loop, this is where you need to insert a conditional – or you don’t. And if you don’t get it, then your programs don’t run, end of story.

Brad Lewis was the last speaker on the VIEW program – he gave the closing keynote. Brad is a wonderful producer at PIXAR (eg: Ratatouille), and a man with a long and storied career. He was the speaker I was praising the other day, for his great observation that in order to truly succeed we must also embrace our failures, that only by being ready to accept those failures can we become free to explore and try new things.

After a day or so of mulling over in my mind what I had heard, I realized that I was groping toward a synthesis of these thoughts from Will and Brad. And I see now what that synthesis is: That engagement in “play” is, at its core, the hearty and enthusiastic embrace of the possibility of failure – when we are at play, failure holds no fear.

This notion provides an underpinning for our entire enterprise of using games for learning. Games are the things that invite us into a “magic circle” – a place where our actions have no dire consequences. If failure modes on the way to learning are presented as a game – as fun paths to explore – then kids can learn without fear.

I think that might also help explain why people of certain political persuasions are mistrustful of using games for learning. Fear is a useful political weapon – if you can drill it into kids early and often, then you can prepare them to be compliant citizens, unwilling to question authority.

A child who grows up learning and thinking without the cudgel of fear is the bane of an authoritarian society. I, on the other hand, am quite happy to help create a generation of children who are comfortable saying to themselves “Yes I can.”

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