Why SDL Perl Matters

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I read a book proposal years ago on the subject of teaching kids to program with C++. "After a week," it said, "children will know enough to create their own simple text games and animations."

I was perhaps six years old when I saw my first minicomputer. I flipped open the first page of the manual and typed in the lines verbatim—except I left off the line numbers, likely thinking that they were merely a convenience for readers. Perhaps I've had good taste from the beginning.

My typing skills were, as you might expect, abysmal. Even so, I had feedback from the computer within fifteen minutes or less. If I'd had to spend a week learning things to move characters around on the screen, I'd have given up.

I like games. I enjoy thinking about how they work. I like writing stories. I play games. The mechanics of rules and balance and design and enjoyment and player participation and perception are fascinating. Even more important is the idea that games can have a didactic purpose.

I spent a lot of time in my childhood years playing games but also breaking games. A bit of work with a hex editor could give my party more experience points so that two or three well-placed fireball spells would clean out the kobold lair. (Any role-playing system which starts magic users with four hit points won't have them surviving the tetanus shot before they get their passports.)

Because I could only get time on computers at school if they had an educational purpose, I taught myself how to write programs so I could write games. I don't suggest my experience is representative of all children, but it's not so far different from that of many of my friends.

A few years ago, I tried to help revive SDL Perl when the maintainer retired. The experience was difficult; it's a big wad of XS code that needs plenty of probing and configuration for a handful of somewhat-optional libraries. I don't even want to think about everything required to detect which version of OpenGL you have installed and available in a cross-platform fashion.

Fortunately, Kartik Thakore is everyone's hero (and plenty of other people are helping too).

I've heard the arguments that "Kids these days are too busy texting each other!" or "It's okay that kids make YouTube mashups of pop songs and clips of their favorite anime characters, that's creativity!" and "You can teach a kid PHP and HTML and call him a programmer, and that's super fun!" I don't believe any of them.

I think instead that you can plop your smart seven year old in front of a real computer with a real keyboard and show her that typing something makes a picture appear and typing something else makes it move and give her a few other commands and boom she'll play with that for a while. Not everyone's suited to the deep, dark logic of understanding the bindings from a high level language to a shared library and memory management techniques thereof, but what a privilege to teach a younger generation that a computer isn't merely an appliance to read Wikipedia and text their friends, but a general purpose device they can control.

Show a few of them how to make pretty graphics move around on screen per their command—per textual instructions they have to reason about and maintain themselves—and you just might have something. Sure, Pygame and Pyglet are great. I've used them productively. Even so, more options for free software and free environments can only help.

1 Comment

To follow Python thread, on Pygame site you mentioned there is a link to "Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python", described as:

Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python" is a free e-Book that teaches you how to program in the Python programming language. Each chapter gives you the complete source code for a new game, and then teaches the programming concepts from the example.

Exactly what you're talking about.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on February 17, 2010 10:59 AM.

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