Unity: a Great Tool for Kids Learning to Code Games

Over the Christmas break while many were munching mince-pies and stuffing in the turkey, my son Finn and I were coding games in Unity 🙂

Finn’s 11. He’s currently in his first year of Secondary School. He’s a keen gamer on his Xbox and iPad. Tempting him to try and learn a little code to understand what goes on behind the scenes of the games he plays started as a bit of an experiment. We began by chatting about his favourite games. With the list of favourites including Stick Hero and Flappy Bird it was clear that a game didn’t need to have the level of complexity of huge budget hits such as Fifa, Call of Duty or Clash of Clans to make a lasting impression on an 11 year old boy with a short attention span!

I wanted to see if I could rouse Finn’s interest for long enough to get him coding a simple game. Unity was my tool of choice. With my own experience of many tools and languages including iOS, SpriteKit, Android and Flash, Unity is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition as the best tool for making mobile games these days. There’s also a relatively low barrier to entry to get up and running and quickly see immediate results from just a few lines of JavaScript code or simply by dragging and dropping game objects onto your canvas and applying simple built in physics your game objects immediately begin to interact with one another. It’s a very satisfying experience!

Not only is Unity easy to get up and running with, it’s also a very powerful tool that enables developers to publish to a long list of platforms that includes iOS, Android and Window’s Phone. Around 70% of games in Apple’s App Store are now being developed in Unity. I created Poker Royale and Wordsy natively in Objective-C and iOS but with hindsight Unity would have been a better choice 😕

My method of getting Finn into writing code has been for us to follow this wonderful video course on how to make a 2D Game (Pong) by Asbjørn Thirslund @ Brackeys. I highly recommend the free video courses you can find at Brackeys.com. You build a simple game from scratch following the clear step-by-step bite-size videos.

Finn and I followed the course together on our laptops. It was great to see how quickly he was able to pick up the process of navigating the Unity GUI: how easy it was to import graphic assets into his game and then position and size them on the canvas. Asbjørn moves at a fast pace and with his quirky English accent he keeps things quite amusing. Finn and I joked together throughout the course and I noticed how his competitive instinct kicked in while working alongside dad – he was keen to show me each time he finished writing some code before me or discovered a new short cut to get the job done quicker!

Finn has highlighted the similarities between his experience with Unity so far and learning to code with Scratch at school. I don’t know Scratch that well but my understanding is that it provides a simplistic drag and drop UI to help kids to learn the basics of how an application or game is built. It’s clearly a great foundation for taking coding to the next level.

Finn’s interest in coding seems to increase each time we spend a new Unity session together. With each session his understanding of the power of programming progresses and further opens his imagination to all of the possibilities that being a programmer offers! It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out 🙂