No humble Pi for coding campaigners

The 22 PC is off to a flyer - and its timing couldn't be better says Johnny Minkley

If you picked up a national newspaper, or tuned into a major news broadcaster over the past few days, it will have been hard to miss the excitable reporting of it.

Even the most obdurate antagonists of video games, such as the Mail, the Metro and film critic Roger Ebert, hailed the arrival of the 22 credit card-sized PC expected to inspire a new generation of game designers.

Naturally, much of the coverage outside the games media did not lead with the gaming angle -Raspberry Pi's mission to get kids coding takes in a wide spectrum of industries, from visual effects to banking and beyond.

But, whether it's Frontier chairman and Raspberry Pi trustee David Braben taking to the airwaves to extol the virtues of programming, or the indefatigable Ian Livingstone pestering the Government into backing the teaching of it, the media hype and consumer hysteria surrounding Pi's launch has marked the latest success in a broader campaign in which the games industry has played the defining role - and from which it now stands to reap the rewards.

It's worth reflecting on how startlingly well the planets have aligned here. Raspberry Pi arrives three months after the 30th anniversary of BBC Micro, the computer that sparked the coding craze of the '80s, and not quite two months since Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, announced plans to ditch the teaching of "dull and demotivating" ICT in favour of programming in UK schools - the main recommendation of last February's Livingstone-Hope Next Gen report.

Meanwhile, on the 30th anniversary of the BBC's Computer Literacy Project, early details have emerged of the corporation's own "BBC Micro 2" initiative, a development platform understood to be tied to a new series of supporting educational broadcasts designed, again, to help children learn to code.

With an intoxicating mix of amazing new technology and timely nostalgia for the 'good old days', sharpened by bleak visions of Britain's technologically handicapped future, it's little wonder the story caught on.

As clever as it is, Raspberry Pi, six years in development, could have ended up as little more than an eccentric novelty had it emerged in a different climate. Now, the goal to get one into the hands of every British school kid seems a lot more plausible with coding set to return to the classroom.

"With an intoxicating mix of amazing new technology and timely nostalgia for the 'good old days', sharpened by bleak visions of Britain's technologically handicapped future, it's little wonder the story caught on."

Equally, in the case of the Livingstone-Hope report, what could have been idly dismissed as special-pleading gained serious weight when Google chairman Eric Schmidt was persuaded to commit the tech colossus to the cause.

Where the Government could have ignored the games industry, it was already in bed with Google - literally in the case of David Cameron's outgoing strategy guru, Steve Hilton, married to Google's public policy chief, Rachel Whetstone, the couple also acting as godparents to Cameron's late son, Ivan.

The Next Gen Skills "coalition" craftily spun together by Livingstone and his team thus ensured the lobbying operation gained irresistible momentum following Schmidt's widely-reported intervention during a speech in Edinburgh.

In an industry still paranoid about its public image, the games industry's contribution to the new coding revolution could do a great deal to help change perceptions for the better.

I recently chaired a debate at BAFTA during which two of the panelists, UKIE CEO Dr Jo Twist and Rebellion co-founder Jason Kingsley, clashed over the thorny issue of diversity in the workplace, which extended out into an impassioned discussion with the audience.

If we want more diversity in games development, then democratising and destigmatising the paths to entry seems like a good place to start. "Who says kids want to code?" is the main criticism levelled at Raspberry Pi. And, sure, many will not take to it or be that interested in it, just like any other subject.

But by exposing as many children as possible to computer science as a routine part of their education - rather than sidelining it as impenetrably weird to most, the preserve only of the saddest geeks - you create an environment in which talent and passion can flourish naturally.

Children should, of course, be empowered to experiment with programming and play around with the things they are already passionate about - which, in many cases, will be games.

With affordable, durable hardware such as Raspberry Pi, kids can learn the basics in school and carry on at their leisure using kit which, unlike regular PCs, has been designed to encourage imaginations to positively flirt with failure by removing the fear of breaking anything irreparably. Rather like the computers of the '80s, in fact.

A further potential benefit is in tackling the shameful state of numeracy amongst school leavers. Less than 60 percent achieved at least a pass at GCSE level last year, and 20 percent of 11 year-olds in England failed to meet basic standards in maths.

Plainly, a lot of children find traditional methods of teaching maths to be as fun as having a tooth pulled. Titles such as Dr Kawashima's Brain Training have in recent years inadvertently shown the valuable role video games can play in "stealth learning", turning simple sums into an enjoyable activity. When my niece was eight, it was her favourite game because it made her homework easier.

Meanwhile, professional game makers bemoaning the sharp decline in students taking up computer science courses at university understandably point to the failure, all the way down to primary school age, to articulate the importance of core subjects like maths and physics in the making of video games.

"Wouldn't it help kids who love games but hate doing sums to know that the latter is essential to the creation of the former?"

Wouldn't it help kids who love games but hate doing sums to know that the latter is essential to the creation of the former?

Art, it should be stressed, is also important in this equation - and the Livingstone-Hope report rightly called for young people to be "given more opportunity to study art and technology together." It's a marriage of disciplines that has worked out quite well at Apple, after all.

In the modern world, where computers control everything from the world's financial systems to "smart" fridges, developing an understanding of how they work is clearly of more value than simply boring children with a few specific examples of what they can do, according to the existing ICT model.

That's not to say learning how to use important software and apps isn't important. Rather, it's like learning to read without learning to write, as Ian Livingstone memorably phrases it.

It'll be years before a detailed picture of how successful this conscious campaign to recapture the spirit of the '80s proves; and there are many obstacles along the path to reform, not least the challenge of teaching the teachers.

Exactly what shape the new approach to computing in schools will take after consultation remains unclear. I understand that, after a meeting of key stakeholders at UKIE's offices this week, there are serious doubts about being ready by September, for instance.

Aside from philosophical considerations of course content, there are also the practical issues of IT logistics within each school. What new software is needed? How will it be paid for? None of this is trivial, and it means headaches all round in the short term. But the broader course is now set.

And the political and industrial will behind it, in tandem with genuine enthusiasm from the public, gives it a fighting chance - with emerging grassroots initiatives, such as Games Britannia, only serving to help.

More broadly, the process of transforming the teaching of computing may also help change the perception of the greater role our medium can play in society. And for some in the games industry, that may be the greatest education of all.

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Latest comments (6)

Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 5 years ago
I was raised on Commodore and Spectrum, then Amiga and PC. At School we learned computing as a core subject and had a lab full of spectrums for an after school computing club. I even remember the name of the teachers who taught me Dr Rose the computer teacher and Mr Swift who also taught electronics as well as running the computing club.

These were times when intellect grew at the hands of teachers who embraced the new technology with enthusiasm that couldn't help but be passed on to me and my fellow students.

If there is even a chance of bringing back that level of learning and joy in knowledge then we have to grasp it with both hands. The pi is definitely a step in that right direction.
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Pier Castonguay Programmer 5 years ago
Raspberry Pi for games? It may be fast enough for simple quick games but nobody will take this seriously, it's an embedded device to connect to electronic and manipulate hardware IO/lights/motors mostly. Also, why learn coding on a slow device on a console linux environment? There are high-tech IDE like Visual Studio that make learning programming much better
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Sam Brown Programmer, Cool Games Ltd.5 years ago
@Pier: But in many ways learning on an IDE means you learn the IDE, not programming. Personally I think it's far better to learn with a text editor and gcc than become reliant on something like Visual Studio. I've had Windows-for-life programmers fall flat on their faces when I get them to work on a Linux platform.

And I think you have the wrong idea about the software and hardware capabilities. LXDE runs on it, it's got GL ES 2.0 and can happily run Quake 3. :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 6th March 2012 2:31pm

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Show all comments (6)
Valery Carpentier Director/Consultant, Polyfonique5 years ago
I'd be much happier to see a proper game engine (like Unity) run on Pi. The amount of knowledge needed now to make something even remotely game like from scratch is far too high and is likely to discourage most kids. Let's not forget other technologies too, like the HTML5 suite of technologies. A lot of fun can be had with those while introducing some higher level programming concepts, as well as maths and art.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 5 years ago
Wow! Aside from Sam I think most in this thread missed the point by a mile. The Pi is primarily to teach school aged children to program and get into creative programming. You don't start out by teaching them an IDE and they aren't going to be sitting in school making the next mario 3D.


School consists of set lessons that take up an hour or two. In these the teachers will be teaching programming principals not how to create a 3D blockbuster from scratch!

You seem to have the pre-conceived idea that these are meant for professionals like yourself and that somehow the school students will be anywhere near your level of knowledge to even think of creating games off the bat! Games may be what draw them in but, that's not where they will start. Most likely that will be the carrot for years two and three.


What is the point of learning a games engine. In order to know how to program anything from a games engine to a planes guidance system we need to start by teaching our children the fundamentals of programming.

I started out and in the programming dicipline and am a fully qualified Software engineer. I know the principals behind computers and their languages and as a result can learn a new language in months, know quality assurance practices, how to write maintainable code etc. etc.

Because I know the principals behind how computers work and how to program them I don't need to have an IDE to get anything done. I am as comfortable in a terminal window as I am in a Visual C IDE and as comfortable using Javascript as I am using C++ or python.

Learning the higher level concepts is meaningless if you don't understand the lower level ones. It's like trying to write a memory manager without understanding what a byte of memory is.
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gi biz ;, 5 years ago
@Pier: VS is a poor choice for learning, for its scarce adherence to the standard on top of the other things they already told you.
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