Virginia Tech professor teaches kids to make video games, using basic English commands

Game Changineer uses simple sentences to code complex video games

BLACKSBURG, Va. – A Virginia Tech professor is changing the way coding looks, using video games to teach kids as young as elementary school how to code.

Most school-aged children don't have the first idea about how to code or write JavaScript, but they are learning how to read and write. That basic English is the knowledge that the Game Changineer program uses.

Michael Hsiao, a professor in electrical and computer engineering, said the idea came to him in 2012. Since then, he's been taking simple commands and making them a reality.

"Not everybody knows how to program and learning to program typically takes a long time," Hsiao said. "Nearly everybody knows how to read and write, so I thought it would be very cool to turn English sentences into computer programming."

Take a dozen or more basic sentences:
There are 10 tigers, 1 elephant and 20 cakes.  
The player controls the elephant.
When the right arrow key is pressed, the elephant moves right.
If a tiger and elephant collide, the elephant blows up.
When an elephant collides with a cake, the cake is eaten.
When all of the cakes are gone, you win.

While those basic commands don't sound like much, string them all together and a video game is created. If there are spelling or grammar errors in a sentence or it's not formatted clearly, the students will get an error message. The program will explain what is wrong with the sentence and how to correct it.

Julia Coppinger, taught middle school students how to use Game Changineer at Virginia Tech's Imagination Camp. She said for many of the children, learning to create a video game through this program quickly became second nature.

"A lot of them are talking about the different types of coding they use at home," she says." They're talking with each other and comparing this to that. They love this game."

Emily Leighton is a teacher at Critzer Elementary School in Pulaski County. She said with all the lessons this program teaches, from English to science and simple coding, she wants to bring back to her own classroom.

"My fourth graders are always answering, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' with, 'I want to be a video game programmer.' And I always thought they needed to have a plan B," says Leighton. "I like that I can introduce this to my kids and say, 'This is what programming really looks like.' Admittedly, this is going to be sentences rather than letters and numbers, but they can get an idea for that through this process."

Once the games are complete, students can click to another screen to see the hundreds or thousands of complex lines of coding create their games.

The English to coding system is something that Hsiao hopes will eventually have more uses, like controlling a drone. 

Here's the link to Game Changineer.