Developing Student Programmers with Kodu Game Lab

Computer gaming has become one of the most popular after school activities for students, with over 68% of US households owning a games console and $14.8 billion being spent in 2012 on computer and video games in the US alone. Imagine how excited students would be if they could not only play computer and video games in school, but could create games themselves using their imagination. With Kodu from Microsoft, students can create their own games for PC and Xbox, and can then share their games in the Kodu Game Lab so other students can play them too.

Kodu is a visual programming language made specifically for creating games. By using an Xbox controller or keyboard, games are made using an icon-based user interface. The technology uses program concepts such as vision, hearing, and time to control character behavior, and different editors for terrain, paths and bridges allow almost unlimited creativity for game development.

Creating Games with Kodu

At first glance, it may seem too difficult for students to create their own video games, but Kodu makes it possible through a simple visual programming language and a step-by-step approach to game design. Rather than writing text-based code, students move icons around the screen as they design their games. Three types of games can be created with the visual programming language – 2D side-scrolling games, 3D racing games and 3D adventure/storytelling games.

Kodu Game LabThe amount of creativity students need to design a game through Kodu varies. Students can choose to create a game within a pre-existing world or can design their own worlds, including making and editing the terrain. They also have control over characters, camera angles, timing, scoring and other crucial aspects of game play. All of these features can be successfully utilized by students 8 and up, making Kodu a useful game design tool even at elementary school level.

Students who need ideas can browse the games created by other users, arranged by the newest, most popular and highest rating. They will find a wide variety of games created using Kodu, some familiar and some much more creative. For example, one of the highest rated games is Airhockey Multiplayer, a digital version of a popular arcade game. Some games are also used to help students learn. For example, Identify the Bad URL teaches students about cybersecurity.

While creating a popular game may not be the goal, students can also learn about what makes a game popular. For example, those that reference popular video games, such as Call of Duty Black Ops: Zombies or Super Mario Bros., get a lot of downloads. Naming a game, writing the instructions and interacting in the discussion forums can help bring some English instruction into the game as well.

Kodu in the Classroom

The main goals of Kodu are not only to teach programming and reinforce key math and critical thinking skills, but also to teach storytelling, narrative creation and logic. Kodu provides a complete Classroom Kit for educators and offers introductory how to videos to get teachers up to scratch. The technology also offers bespoke curriculums for students to follow while they are designing and developing games. The Math Module Curriculum is designed for 4th and 5th grade and aligns to NCTM standards. During the 10 lessons, students study concepts such as the geometric properties of 2D and 3D shapes, coordinates and general data collection. In some of the lessons, students are asked to create a specific type of game, object or scoring system. In others, while they are freely creating their own games, students are provided with tasks and objects to include in their games to help reinforce the key concepts. Other curriculums offered, Keyboard and Mouse, and Xbox Controller, give detailed instruction, step-by-step guidelines and student activities for when Kodu is being introduced to new student users.

In addition to the curriculum Kodu provides, teachers can also connect with other educators using Kodu in their classrooms through the teacher forum. Here they can find student lesson ideas, help with assessing students, and get answers to some of the general questions that will arise. Students can also interact with other creators, helping them to seek out solutions to their problems rather than just asking the teacher for help.

For students based in the UK, Microsoft have a yearly game creation competition, the Kodu Kup, for students aged between 7 and 14. This year’s winners, Artemis Games, from Afon Taf High School in Wales, were a group of three girls who created ‘The Dark Side of Mars’. This single person horror game impressed judges for its originality and creativity, and demonstrated how hard work and some imagination can create a successful entertaining game.

Kodu Case Studies

Kodu has been successfully used by many classrooms over the world. In a pilot study of 25 Australian classrooms using Kodu, the technology brought about many successes, not only for students, but also for teachers. One teacher felt that the technology helped students who struggled to ‘include complexity in their story writing’, by encouraging them to use ‘multiple characters, story lines and plot events whilst maintaining sequence, cohesion and interest’. Teachers also noticed how some low achieving students outshone high achieving students when using Kodu. These students had ‘not only found a valuable talent but they and their peers now see them in a different light.’ In another school, a student with attention and behavioral difficulties was given the Kodu controller without any instructions, and within 10 minutes had created a game. This highlighted for the teacher the need to relook at the learning experiences she needed to use with him in the future.

Kodu has also been successfully used in smaller projects such as Kodudes. This initiative in the UK aims to stimulate creative writing, 3D story creation and game design using Kodu. Kodudes have produced an excellent narrative on how Kodu was used in the project detailing each session with Grade 5 students. This is an invaluable resource for any teachers looking to implement similar projects in their own classrooms.

While Kodu is designed for use in math and computer classes, it can be easily become a cross-curricular tool. English teachers can use the technology to help students build writing skills. Science teachers can use it to discuss principles of physics or encourage students to incorporate elements of biology or specific habitats within the games. Social studies teachers can incorporate lessons on digital citizenship and geography within the games. While learning about all those concepts, students will get to have fun creating their own games and sharing them with others.

Download Kodu Game Lab from the Microsoft Download Center for free for the PC or Xbox.