A Videogame That Teaches Kids To Code

Kuato Studios is building games for learning that feel like games, not like homework.


I’m sitting in the carpeted hallway of the Austin Convention Center, playing a game on an iPad. Stereo crashes and echoes fill my earbuds as I wheel through different points of view in a beautifully rendered, three-dimensional, dark and moody landscape. This is the arena where my robot, customized out of spare parts from a virtual junkyard, will fight another robot.


The game is called Hakitzu. It’s out this week, the first release from Kuato Studios, a startup based in London and Palo Alto that has assembled a formidable developer team, including SRI, the people who built the iPhone’s Siri, and game designers formerly from Sony Playstation, Idea Works, Blitz, Konami, and more. But Hakitzu isn’t just another versus fighter. Instead of using a touchpad or other controller to play, I have to type in a set of command lines that tell the robot what to do: walk forward, walk back, turn around, and so on. Without really knowing it, I’m learning to code Javascript while I fight. Kuato is trying to redefine what learning games are by making the game come first.

Make It Fun

Frank Meehan, the British founder of Kuato, says, “We talk to lots of parents, as well as the kids themselves,” he said. “Dads are like: do they have to do games? Can’t they just do learning? And mums are like, but is it fun? They know kids better. They see time and time again some sort of learning program or app given to kids, and the kid is bored after 10 minutes. If you don’t make this thing fun, there’s just no point.”

Engage All the Senses

“The kids tell us they like gaming–the achievements, rewards, challenges, puzzles,” says Meehan. “But the current stuff they look at is poorly done. It looks like something out of 1999.” His development team, who’s worked on the Playstation Home platform, games like Call of Duty: Zombies, and films like Titan AE, created a 3-D game with handcolored backgrounds and atmospheric soundscapes.


Their lead educator, David Miller, a former Teacher of the Year in the U.K., has a humanities background and was known for creating rich multimedia presentations to help put across the message of, say, a Robert Frost poem. “You can’t really learn unless there’s an emotional engagement,” he says, and aesthetics–imagery, sound–are an important part of that. “This is what real teaching should be: the richest use of media as a way to understanding something.”

Teach What Kids Want to Learn

Besides the motivation to build and fight robots, says Meehan, learning games have to cover topics that kids are actually interested in, and that aren’t covered well in the traditional curriculum. “We went around and asked loads of kids, how do you want to learn, and what do you want to learn? They told us, I want to learn to code–make apps, movies, games, things like 3-D rendering and Photoshop, and science was really big as well.” So those areas are where Kuato focused its efforts.

Embrace All Technologies

“We wanted to be the first proper learning to code game that’s hit mobile,” says Meehan. But his vision doesn’t stop there. Kuato’s big idea is to advance current technologies to create a virtual, artificially intelligent personal tutor that practically passes the Turing test, and could be used to teach anyone anything they want to know, in any domain of knowledge. Their first AI game, debuting later this year, features a girl crashlanding in an Enterprise-like spaceship. Her computer is damaged and because of the First Law of Robotics, can’t repair itself. So she must hack her way in and fix the computer before she runs out of oxygen. The computer in the game uses conversational AI to help guide the player.

Kuato plans to release an API in further iterations of the game, so that any knowledge domain can be programmed in: the challenges may include biology (learn about the life forms on a new planet so you can farm food and defend yourself), chemistry, or even foreign languages and poetry. “We’re trying to distill a teacher’s intelligence and empathy into a machine and lead a child towards learning a concept,” says Miller. “We’re working really hard with the AI people in order to create an intelligence that mimicks a teacher’s encouragement and feedback. That’s the end goal. Games should be about the experience of learning, rather than the experience of being taught.”

[IMAGE: Hands with Gamepad via Shutterstock]

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation