Orson Scott Card was onto something when he wrote his sci-fi classic 'Ender’s Game' two decades ago.

Undeniably, computer games are an effective way to train children (in the absence of warfare, of course) but it’s yet to take off. There's apprehension over giving children more screentime and frankly, it’s just never been necessary - teachers have always done a perfectly good job.

Cognitive computing girl laptop

But curriculums have changed, and the skill sets to teach a new generation aren’t up to scratch.

Learn to code: coding for everyone

When Michael Gove announced coding would become a core subject, teachers across the UK shuddered - not because they weren’t up for a challenge but, like most of the population, they had no idea how computers worked.

With the help of cross-school support groups, teachers swapped ICT and Excel spreadsheets for Boolean logic, swotting up in their spare time.

Despite these admirable efforts, computer games could play a crucial role in teaching younger generations where there is a skills and knowledge gap. Educational software is shaping up as a useful resource to help children learn the basics of maths and physics, while understanding computing logic.

Also, with advances in machine learning, games will begin to learn from the children it’s ‘playing’ with. This means games can be tailored to children’s needs and could take some pressure off the school system.

Artificially intelligent teaching

IBM Watson, the technology company’s supercomputer department, is developing a digital teaching assistant app which can help plan lessons based on approved material (not just Google or Wikipedia). Trials will begin early next year in New York.

Computer generated teaching like this has its place, but for children to learn skills teachers cannot offer, they may need something like esteemed engineering university MIT’s DragonBot.

The machine-learning based tool is less of a digital encyclopedia and more of a tailored learning mechanic.

DragonBot helps with the process of learning itself, helping to engage children while it recognises what works (and doesn’t) through trial and error - akin to how natural language or image recognition AI works.  

Developing tailored children’s games is a difficult balance of the curriculum, learning objectives and ‘gamification’.

London-based Kuato Studios, which is backed both financially and technically by the makers of Apple’s personal assistant Siri, develops free educational games for school children, and just last week released an analytics dashboard that lets teachers see each child’s progress for its app, Code Warriors.

Teachers in the UK are using Dino Tails - a literacy game - and Code Warriors to help support the curriculum.

Creative director Kris Turvey tells Techworld: “Teachers are embracing it - they are keen to use anything to engage kids. They want a bit of Javascript, some Ruby - a real mix and match.”

Using the games has “improved teacher’s confidence,” he adds.

“We’re all told that coding is going to be important, even by chancellor George Osborn who admittedly can’t code. But no one really understands what that means, and what you are supposed to do with it.”

Kuato’s hope is to improve coding skills, and put it into context so that children can understand how the world is beginning to revolve around computer engineering. With the backing of the world’s most recognisable personal assistant - Siri - it is bringing machine learning into its games too.

A still from Code Warriors

Developing a coding game

The development process for Code Warriors was a tricky one, Kuato tells Techworld. The team of developers, designers and educationalists spent a year arguing over how to teach kids Javascript. The affectionately coined “year of friction” centred on striking the balance between teaching and learning.

“We wanted the learning to be propelled by game mechanics,” says creative director Kris Turvey.

They needed to consider whether their coding games should be factually accurate or purely entertainment - but using coding skills to unlock missions.

“We toyed with whether we could send a dinosaur down a piece of rock on a volcano as it’s not factually accurate. Most of the time, children are learning arbitrary information. Why use magic spells to open a door when you could be opening a door with physics. But, you can’t have an education game without teachers involved,” he adds.

Turvey winces as he says it, but the process was very much “gamification over learnification.”

“It’s not about facts,” he says.

The team are working with natural language processing - from the Siri camp - to embed into their games to make them smarter. But young children’s pronunciation and deep neural networks aren’t a match made in heaven. There are several quirks that have been problematic as well.

The Darwin wordpad uses Siri technology

“We have the word ‘poop’ in here [the word wheel where players can ask the game random questions] but when we translated it into different languages it posed some problems,” Turvey says.

Girls in tech: ‘Game developers need to look at their ethos to stop this gender segmenting’

Getting girls into STEM subjects is a hot topic, but Kuato says they didn’t tailor their game for girls. A lead developer - and a woman - decided that girls wanted to be robots, astronauts or warriors much the same way as little boys would.

But Turvey admits that some little girls were put off in the testing stages - which indicates the larger societal problem.

Kuato was keen not to fall into the trap of Mattel - the doll brand that had to take its coding for girls books off shop shelves after they caused uproar.

Mattel's Barbie: I can be a computer engineer had some interesting advice for wannabe programmers.

Duh!

Similarly, Lego fell into the same trap of marketing for girls with their pink range of toys three years ago.

Why be an astronaut when you can hang out in the kitchen? ©Lego

“Someone had a great response to this,” says Tuckey. “If you wanted to make Lego for girls, make it the exact same but just give them a pony-tail. Simply make the same characters female.”

Kuato’s learning director Dave Miller believes giving both boys and girls the same platform will help. From years spent in the classroom, he has witnessed how social conditioning kicks in “with kids who are seven or eight years’ old. The more media they see, they slowly change..it’s monstrous what we do with children’s minds".

He also says the sexualisation of characters within games and the lack of consistent female leads is having a detrimental effect on getting girls engaged with gaming - and potentially development.

“Game developers need to look at their ethos to stop this gender segmenting,” he adds.