Could Scratch be the Key to Maintaining Canada’s Video Game Lead over the UK?

In 2010, Canada overtook the UK as the world’s third-largest video game developer, thanks in large part to an ecosystem of government grants and tax breaks. This support has angered some critics who see it as wasteful government spending, but smart people know which way the wind blows: since we don’t manufacture things any more, it’s in wealthy countries’ best interest to stimulate industries with well-educated and highly-paid knowledge workers who pay a lot of taxes and generally raise the property value of the entire nation.

Nerds: good for the economy.

The UK’s recently-announced 2012 budget makes new allowances for animation and video game tax breaks – a move clearly made to help the United Kingdom regain its foothold and, possibly, the coveted third place spot. But the Brits have another ace in the hole that i think puts them in a better position to leave Canada in the dust in a few decades: Scratch.

Scratch is a programming language from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s designed for kids, but it’s primarily a learning tool, and has seen use in first-year Computer Science programs. Scratch allows you to snap together LEGO-like blocks of code (computer instructions) to control graphics, sounds, and interactivity. (Indeed, the man who led the development team behind Scratch, Mitchel Resnick, also built the original programmable bricks that eventually became the foundation of the LEGO Mindstorms robotics sets.)

You can upload your creations to the Scratch website, along with the millions of projects that are already there. Best of all, you can download anyone else’s Scratch project and take it apart, remixing any of the project’s code, sounds or assets into your own file. Scratch is free, and it runs on Mac, PC and Linux computers.

Enter Skynet

i’ve said, time and again, that i believe kids should be taught how to program computers from a very young age. It’s looking more and more like the children of developed nations will exclusively use computers as their primary windows into the worlds of work and pleasure, and i’d rather see a generation of people who can make computers work for them, rather than a terrifying dystopia where the machines themselves gain more and more control (see Apple) until we’re just banally pushing a single button like George Jetson, unable to harness the amazing power and possibility these machines provide. The more kids learn to tinker with machines and write computer code, the less likely we are to flip the script on this master/slave relationship between humans and machines.

(If that all sounds a bit dire, talk to any mechanic who used to tinker with cars prior to 2000. You can’t tinker with cars any longer, because their systems are controlled by computerized instead of mechanical processes. If we don’t keep up, we get left in the dust.)

It starts with putting all of our information on the cloud …

The Livingston-and-Hope of a Nation

Finding that in two short years, the UK had slipped from #3 to #6 in world video game development rankings, the UK’s Minister for Culture commissioned a report from Ian Livingston (President of Edios) and Alex Hope (Co-Founder of Double Negative, an effects shop) last year to figure out what was going on and how to fix it. The resulting findings determined that the problem was seated squarely in (mis)education:

Twelve percent is a lousy number. And i defy Ontario to run a similar report on its schools and get a better score. As anemic as the UK’s placement rate is, anecdotally, i guarantee you it’s far worse here in Ontario. i can’t vouch for the rest of the country, but what we have here in this province is a system akin to jacking a wounded football player up on painkillers so he can finish the game. Eventually, the torn hamstring of a weak education system will bring us down, and Canada will feel its cushy #3 position slipping just as the UK recently has.

And then the UK will do a touchdown dance or something. i dunno … my metaphor doesn’t cross the pond all that gracefully.

Half of Livingston and Hope’s twenty recommendations pertain to elementary-level schools, the first among them being

Bring computer science into the National Curriculum as an essential discipline.

We have no such concept here. i’ve spoken with a number of companies who are developing material for the Prometheus Smartboards that are present in many of the Toronto District School Board’s classrooms, who have told me that they’ve met with resistance from parents and educators if they mistakenly called any of their projects “games”. There’s a sensitivity to the word “game” here that suggests games are an anathema to learning – that somehow games are preventing kids from getting a good education. You need to trojan-horse your way into many schools by using terms like “interactive storytelling” and “interactive digital media” to fly under the anti-game sentiment radar.

It’s a um … interactive physics simulation with a protagonist from the skilled trades that explores the Quiller-Couch conflict of man vs. nature.

Conversely, here’s what the Livingston-Hope Report says:

Recommendation 3: Use video games and visual effects to draw in greater numbers of young people to computer science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Among the learning languages and toolsets the report recommends for schools is MIT’s Scratch. Get ’em while they’re young – don’t wait until they’ve graduated high school. Ontario’s colleges do a great job of using video games to draw in great numbers of young people, but to what end? Our strategy is more akin to Honest John luring Pinocchio to Pleasure Island so the boy can smash windows and smoke cigars and make 3D models in Maya with impunity. But we wind up with the same result: a big pile of jackasses who are only fit to work in the salt mines.

We thought we were going to call the shots on the next Splinter Cell game for UbiSoft! Hee-HAW!

Artificial Intelligence

Will the UK regain its #3 video game industry position two decades from now by investing in education? It’s possible. But i think the UK’s efforts should serve as a cue to Canada to investigate its own education system to ensure that the video game economy we’ve nurtured through funding and tax credits isn’t just serum flowing through an IV meant to keep the patient alive, while we fail to feed the patient or change his bedpan … or show any care or concern over whether the patient will one day leave the hospital and walk on his own.

Canada needs its own Livingston-Hope report, with a commitment to act on its findings. The Ministry of Education in Ontario in particular should take a hard look at schools’ programs and success rates, and start denying accreditation to diploma mills in both private and public colleges. The Minstry should audit the use of technology in elementary schools, rather than the existence of it. (You can put a Smartboard in a classroom, but you can’t make it drink.)

We’re paid actors! Handheld devices like Smartphones are banned in most elementary schools, and the Ontario teachers’ union wants to ban wifi too!

Baby Steps

The good news is that we’re taking some steps in the right direction. The joint OCAD/U of T program, which pairs the University of Toronto’s game programmers with the Ontario College of Art’s artists, is having its second annual student showcase soon. The game developers from UOIT (the University of Ontario Institute of Technology) a few towns over are once again joining forces to present their games as well, along with students from Seneca College, Humber College, and the HervĂ© Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined. Eventually, i would like to see ALL of the schools in the region combine their graduate shows into one big event, which could double as a job fair and a one-stop shop for Ontario (and even national and international) companies seeking to hire new talent. This show means we’re almost there!

In April, the TIFF Nexus group is holding a New Media Literacies conference to try to get kids and educators who give damn about this stuff to meet up and learn from each other. There are lots of great components to this day, including panels and talks from developers, funders and researches. The highlight of the day (for me, because i’m teaching it :) will be a hands-on Scratch workshop geared at introducing the tool to teachers so they can bring it back to their classrooms or kids’ groups and start mucking around with it right away. (TDSB teachers: did i mention that Scratch is on the Board’s approved list of software, and that getting it installed in YOUR lab/classroom/library is just a phonecall away?? Run, don’t walk!)

The UK might be feeling the sting of losing a leading position in the video games industry, but with the recent incentives announcement and the education recommendations in the Livingston-Hope Report, they’re on the right track to building a sound infrastructure. i worry that Canada, generally (and Ontario specifically) is building a house of cards that’s only one election away from pulling funding and seeing it all topple over.

The incentives and funding the country and its provinces have offered are an important component to accelerating Canada’s lead in the industry, but education is a crucial pillar that is being largely overlooked here. i firmly believe that the first step to investing in the future is sitting down at a computer with an eight-year-old, and showing that kid how to make a cartoon cat walk across a computer using a snap-together code loop in Scratch.

UPDATE

3 thoughts on “Could Scratch be the Key to Maintaining Canada’s Video Game Lead over the UK?

  1. Damian

    Cool post. I agree with a lot of what you say. Computers are so pervasive today. Having some idea of coding seems like a basic life skill. Plus, video games are the perfect hook to get kids interested in programming, in my opinion. Didn’t know about the conference. Sounds interesting. Good luck with your talk!

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