Why you should care
It’s like Meccano for the computer generation, letting little nerds get their game on via DIY.
Remember Meccano or Erector kits of old — a random assortment of components in gunmetal gray and bright acrylic that kids used to build toy cranes and locomotives? A new kind of toy aims to kick those Erector sets up a notch, with serious bits of electronica, and with the goal of turning kids of all ages into the computer programmers of tomorrow — by allowing them to develop their own games, do-it-yourself style.
We need folks who can imagine the machine in its broadest sense, see it working in their mind’s eye and improve it.
Quintin Cutts, computer science education professor, University of Glasgow
The DIY Gamer Kit provides the building blocks to create a homemade handheld gaming device. It includes all the stuff you need to code and then play your own game once it’s built. Soldering, problem-solving and debugging are all part of the process. It’s the brainchild of a husband-and-wife team who already have their 3-year-old electronically engaged. The kit, aimed at 10-year-olds and up, has also captured the imagination of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It acquired the kit as one of five new “Humble Masterpieces” — a permanent collection started 10 years ago that shows the role that technology and interface design play in education, production and everyday life — an exhibit showcasing simple but world-changing inventions like the Post-it note and Bic disposable ballpoint pen.
MoMA says the world significance of the gamer kit, as for fellow acquisitions, is set to be a game changer. Bethany Koby, co-founder and CEO of makers Technology Will Save Us, agrees, saying it teaches kids to use technology as a creative tool — “to make their own computer game instead of just watching a bought one.” Case in point: She wants her child to be able to make a game before he actually plays one.
Quintin Cutts, professor of computer science education at the University of Glasgow, believes activities that demand reasoning about systems have the potential to produce whiz kids by promoting systems analysis and processing: “We need folks who can imagine the machine in its broadest sense, see it working in their mind’s eye and improve it.” However, it doesn’t mean parents need to buy expensive high-tech kits for their kids, he says. Mechanized systems like Meccano and Lego, or even helping Mom bake cupcakes, stimulate reasoning as much as gadgets that help kids make computer games and other electronic toys.
What you get for upwards of $102 doesn’t look like much in the box. The 36-piece kit consists of a circuit board, resistors, matrix, switch, infrared transmitter and controller. Then there are the sundry nuts, bolts, chips, sockets, buttons and shiny acrylic casing for the finished game. But once connected to a 9-volt battery, the custom circuit board and 8×8 LED screen is ready to play one built-in game, Snake, and a downloadable game, Breakout. (If you want to skip the soldering bit, you can buy a pre-built Gamer.) Next, nascent nerds can use the custom library, cheat sheets and how-to videos to create their own games.
So everyone’s a winner, right — kids absorbed in creating their own high-tech entertainment, and a growing market waiting for them to help run a digital world? Sounds great in theory, but not everyone can afford a three-figure toy for their budding developer. While Cutts is committed to the idea of engaging kids with technology from the time they hit grade school, he thinks the price tag makes it a bit elitist. “Not everyone will have one, so some sections of the population will be disenfranchised.”
Five thousand kits have been sold across the world since launching last year, of which 1,000 have been funded by Google Rise for use in code clubs springing up in British schools and community centers. But while kids might just see it as learning programming for fun, they also might be setting themselves up for a future job.