CodeSpells: Teach Kids Coding


CodeSpells is an immersive 3D video game designed to teach kids Java programming from 8 years and above. Players assume the role of an apprentice wizard and create spells (Java programs) that affect the world around them. Teaching Computer Science and programming to high school students is a topical issue. Curriculums need a radical overhaul, but the problem is being tackled through government funded grants aimed at changing the situation and innovative educational technology companies.

Nevertheless, the fact remains there are not enough high school teachers available to teach the millions of students who should be exposed to programming. CodeSpells aims to teach programming constructs using an industry-standard language, so that the transfer rate to applications outside of the game-world will be minimized, while the motivation for learning is maximized.

The game is set in a magical world controlled by wizardry. As an apprentice wizard, the player complete quests and casts spells in a land called ‘The Enchanted Crater’, formed 100 years ago in an epic magical battle. Non-player characters, represented as gnomes, encourage players to modify and write programs to solve simple quests throughout the world. In addition to specified quests, players are able to manipulate the world using their spells in creative and explorative ways, guiding their own learning.

CodeSpells mimics the experiences of expert programmers when they first learned to program, attempting to recreate that experience to inspire and motivate users to become experts themselves.

Two PhD students Sarah Esper and Stephen Foster lead the game development, from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Working with another graduate student, Sam Wood, and a couple of computer science undergraduates, the team has deployed the game in a local elementary school. Thirty students in the 4th grade of Spreckels Elementary are currently playing CodeSpells, while the team are continuously doing research on the learning effects of the game.

Sarah Esper said: ‘We are specifically interested in students being able to use it outside of a formal school setting. One of the best features of CodeSpells is that it does not require that teachers be proficient in programming, as it is stand-alone.’

Sarah has published a paper describing the necessity of “Computing as the 4th R” proposing that programming should be a necessary skill such as “The 3 R’s” (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic). Sarah continued:

‘Even if the students do not become programmers, exposing them to the logical thinking and making computers less mysterious and more accessible is critical for creating technological citizens’.

CodeSpells is free and available for Mac with a PC version due for release next month. Future developments will include an online community where students can discuss spells (programs) with other CodeSpells players and further their exploration of programming.

Images courtesy of Sarah Esper taken at Spreckels Elementary.