Teaching the language of the future
A revolutionary computer game is teaching kids to code in a playful way. Originally designed to encourage girls to take up programming, with its cool graphics and entertaining story, Erase all Kittens is unisex and timeless.
The jobs of the future will be concentrated in ICT and the digital industries. So today’s kids have to learn a foreign language that is fairly new to the curriculum: code. And as with any language, the earlier they start, the better.
Gamification is an exciting trend in education, and game designers have experimented with a variety of ways to playfully introduce children to programming languages. Some have worked quite well so far – at least with boys. This may come as no surprise, given that the developer scene is still dominated by men. Big boys are more likely to create learning games that target the expectations and desires of little boys. They are unlikely to line up as well with the interests of their female peers, which mean girls quickly lose any motivation to play and thus learn.
Three young women from the UK have set out to correct this imbalance. Two and a half years ago, Dee Saigal, Leonie Van Der Linde and Shwetal Shah sat down together for the first time and began drafting their idea. They wanted to move beyond the princesses and unicorns and develop a really cool game for girls.
So Erase all Kittens was born (we all know how much the internet loves cats). The goal of this jump-and-run game is to free as many kittens as possible from the clutches of the evil Erase all Kittens corporation. Players have to enter code commands correctly to move forward. Cat gifs in all shapes and forms await as a well-earned reward.
Leonie was responsible for the illustrations and animations. Most are based on the kind of game she would have interested in playing. “There's a massive gap on the market for girl-games that have to do with coding. There are a lot of games with little princesses and so on, but as we were not the girlie-girls ourselves that's definitely not what we would have loved to play. So we decided to set up something more cool.”
The first demo version was ready in just a few months. The next step was beta testing on with young girls between the ages of 8-14 to see if they were on the right track. So they contacted the code clubs so popular in the UK with pupils of all ages. Almost every city has several such after-school courses. A few code clubs received the three Erase all Kittens ladies enthusiastically, and as their fame spread via word-of-mouth and cold calls, more and more schools jumped on board the test phase. "In the beginning we also tested the name – like ‘save the kittens’ – but the kids really loved the ‘erase all kittens’ thing. So we stuck to that. We tested everything heavily with kids in schools and code clubs and adopted these experiences to develop the game how it is now." Above all, they repeatedly tested how the children reacted to the different elements in the game and how well they understood the explanations of the code commands.
And kids aren’t the only ones expressing their enthusiasm. Adults are being drawn in by the infamous kitty charm too. Erase all Kittens has won almost every prize the three founders competed for. It soundly beat the European competition at the European Youth Awards, and has done extremely well in international competitions too, winning the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Solve Challenge for a chance to team up with the renowned research institution. The team is particularly proud of being among the last three finalists in the Talent Unleashed Award - judges included Richard Branson and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Still, reactions from some men illustrate how difficult it can still be for female developers to be taken seriously in the gaming scene: “So you're just three girls? Have you ever thought about hiring a guy?" Leonie just shakes her head, and hopes the success of Erase all Kittens will soon show a chauvinist ignoramus or two the error of his ways.