"Today's children are part of a connected generation – they are born onto the internet, so let them connect and share and collaborate and hack their own knowledge. Then they'll become digital makers – they'll build an app, make a game, do something with robotics, design a website, anything like that. This fragmented world we live in requires kids to be problem solvers, to be coders, to be communicators. It's common sense, I think."
When I interviewed Ian Livingstone, a video games industry legend turned ardent campaigner for greater computer education in British schools, he was absolutely adamant that our tech future depends on today's children understanding their digital surroundings. He's not alone. I've spoken in the past to David Braben, famous for his games Elite and the new Elite: Dangerous but also celebrated for his involvement in launching the Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer designed to encourage the learning of basic computer science skills. He's equally passionate about getting kids in front of computers with creative purpose, and the Pi has sold five million units worldwide since its introduction in early 2012.
In the 1980s, programming was a part of the school curriculum – I know, as I was there, in junior school, aged seven, tapping away on a boxy, black-and-yellowed BBC Micro. "In the 1980s, we had programming in schools, with the BBC Micro," Livingstone tells me, validating my memories, "and that ultimately gave rise to the British games industry. But the creative component (of ICT) got shut down, and it became so dull."
The British government might represent a bunch of incredible shits in so many ways, but it has listened to people like Braben and Livingstone, and significant moves have been made to bring programming back into the national curriculum – these new classes came into effect in 2014. And now the BBC has made its commitment to nurturing the next generation of British games industry (and beyond) talents by making its new, Pi-like computer, the micro:bit, available for free to a million year-seven children aged between 11 and 12 this coming October. It'll also be made available to purchase by any other budding coders.
The BBC's director general, Tony Hall, hopes that the micro:bit will bridge the gap between user knowledge and creative application. "We all know there's a critical and growing digital skills gap in this country," he said at the minute system's launch event. "That's why it's so important that we come together and do something about it."
But what does the micro:bit, which measures only 4cm by 5cm, actually do? Eurogamer has published a handy guide to its specifications and potential, highlighting its Bluetooth connectivity and integrated accelerometer. The micro:bit might be used to control cameras or DVD players, to sense different types of metal, or as a peripheral for games using motion control. An array of LEDs present the opportunity to create simple games contained on the system itself, with all inputs made via two programming buttons. Compatible software will soon come online via a dedicated website, while web-based micro:bit simulation has already been made possible in collaboration with Microsoft. The system's specifications will be made open source.
"I'm so passionate about kids having more games-based learning, and getting this positive side of games out there," Livingstone told me. "I want people to develop greater skills, and not just the knowledge, and that's so important. That's what I'm really excited about." Him, the BBC and all of us, hopefully, and the micro:bit's arrival is a fantastically forward step in guaranteeing that the UK remains an essential hub of the global games industry. Nice one, Auntie.
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