"How many hours of your life have you wasted playing video games?"
This question, often issued from the mouths of frustrated (non-gaming) parents, teachers, and guidance counselors, was meant to make you feel as if the passion that's coming between you and actual work or play leads nowhere except to the couch. But it's more likely that gaming – at least within reason and with some games – teaches logic and programming skills that open doors in the mind to coding and game design. Of course, gaming to the exclusion of all other activities is unhealthy. (As is eating and sleeping to the exclusion of all other things.) But some games – Minecraft and Project Spark for Xbox One for example – make it easy to go from gamer to coder. Or as Anoop Gupta, distinguished scientist at Microsoft Research puts it, "I like to look for ways to encourage people to go from consumer to creator. Even creating small things makes them feel empowered."
In a game like Minecraft or Project Spark, the obstacles between playing a game and creating one is so small that children cross it easily. It's not clear if the creators of Minecraft intended to lure players into becoming coders. But that is certainly Microsoft's intention with Project Spark, which is now in a public beta.
"The greatest obstacle we have to overcome when encouraging people to become creators is that they have a block," explains Gupta. "They tell themselves, ‘I am not a creator. I am not a coder. I am not this. Or I am not that.' Helping them to get past that block is the key to unlocking creativity."
In sandbox games where creativity is the object of the game, that's what happens. Without stopping to consider first if you are good at it or if anyone will like what you create, you simply play – and create. If you don't like it, you blow it up. And so on, building logic and coding skills – and unlocking creativity -- along the way. The leap from there to game designer is no longer an obstacle. It becomes more a simple decision.
"The path to acquiring coding as a skill is clear," says Matt Wallaert, behavioral scientist at Bing. "It starts with increased attention." If you like playing games, they have your attention. "From there the idea of creating them comes easily. You think, ‘I want to be a creator because this is cool.''' Next you need the persistence to overcome the barriers to acquiring the technical skills to do that. And the smaller the digital barrier, the more people will have success with that last step.
"I like to use photography as an example," says Wallaert. "It used to be extremely expensive and difficult to be a photographer. But digital cameras made it so easy that everyone has thousands of photos. It's so easy that you don't have to be great at it to persist. That's what games like Minecraft and Project Spark do. They make creating games so easy and inexpensive that it's okay to not be great at it. So people just play – and learn to create and code along the way. These games break down the barrier between consuming and creating."
It's no secret that Minecraft has turned an entire generation into addicted gamers, many of whom also become creators within the game. (Kids still in elementary school have created beautiful buildings, worlds, and experiences in the game.) Microsoft's Project Spark starts with the intention of making the barrier to that kind of in-gaming creativity even smaller.
Download the game to the Xbox One or Windows 8 and it is a simple matter to step in and build a world, design characters, and create a game. Or a new designer can easily modify a game that was uploaded by someone in the community of gamers.
And when players do build or make changes to characters or landscapes they are introduced to the language and logic of mathematics and coding within a familiar and easy-to-understand gaming menu. So, with a just an Xbox controller and a little creativity, they can alter code or create their own game, then test how that code plays. It's fun. And the results are beautiful and easy to share. And building the games is coding. In fact, this is essentially Microsoft's visual coding language Kodu expanded, re-envisioned, and made into a game for the Xbox One.
"If someone wants to be a game designer," says Michael Wolf of Xbox Marketing. "Why not create a portfolio of beautiful games to show potential employers?"