A character dressed in chainmail was pinned on the pebble-paved ground. To pass, it must avoid shells from left and right and outrun the monsters from behind. This is near the final level of the video game CodeCombat (极客战记 in Chinese). Jun Pan, a 12-year-old boy, was staring at the scene on a computer screen and ready for the challenge.

Instead of using arrow keys, the game requires players to write Python or JavaScrip to direct the character’s movements, so Pan run the 60 lines of codes he had written and his character started running zigzag. Then, he found the way out.

CodeCombat was first developed by the company of the same name, a startup educational gaming company in San Francisco, US and introduced to China by Nasdaq listed NetEase. It aims to teach students coding by having them play their game and supports Python, JavaScript, Lua, and CoffeeScript. Partnering with eight public middle schools, the game is officially one of the school students’ compulsory courses.

The game offers both free and paid packages: RMB 66 per month or RMB 648 for lifetime access. All players have access to main quests while paid users will have some extra quests and more characters to choose from as their avatars in the game.

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(Screenshot of CodeCombat)

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(Screenshot of CodeCombat)

A teacherless solution

The State Council of China issued the Development Plan on the New Generation of Artificial Intelligence last July, urging educational institutes to train more experts. In January, the Ministry of Education added AI-related subjects, such as big data and data visualization to the existing high school computer science curriculum.

Despite the fanfare from officials to develop the industry, shortage in teaching resources and the fact that coding isn’t in China’s “gaokao” (高考, High School Entrance Examination)—the exam that will decide which university students can attend—are holding back adoption in China’s schools.

Liang Zhang, a postdoc in Information Education at East China Normal University, said there are only 2,000 information and technology teachers in Shanghai, including primary, junior, and junior high schools and only 20 percent of them hold a relevant degree. Compared with 1.4 million in-school students in 2016, according to data from the Ministry of Education, that means one teacher has to look after 680 students on average.

Zhang said if computer science is to be included in the middle or high school entrance exams—which seems likely considering the attention the state government has been given to—then how information and technology is taught at school should be adjusted. Games like CodeCombat can really help.

Learning by playing

“Our students really love the game and it is entertaining and educating at the same time,” said Suying Zhou, party secretary of Jianlan Middle School, one of the eight schools using the game. Pan has played the game for two years and he told TechNode that he’s ready to take the second level of the National Computer Rank Examination, which most students usually take in universities. He said the game gave him a basic understanding of computer science.

“The thing about CodeCombat is that schools won’t need teachers to teach coding. Students can learn themselves by playing the game. Learning by playing is a bit low efficient, but the game gives instant feedbacks through how the characters are moving, which will increase students’ engagement,” Kai Weng told TechNode. He holds a doctorate degree in computer science and teaches at Zhejiang University’s College of Computer Science and Technology in Hangzhou.

The career path for future computer science experts remains promising as the industry is expanding rapidly. “Companies ask me for talented graduates so they can recruit, but the fact is that I don’t have many because we don’t have enough graduates,” Weng said, “Our graduates receive the most handsome salary package across the university.”

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(Screenshot of a Scratch project)

CodeCombat isn’t the first company trying to combine video games and coding. Neither is China the first to use video games in class. In 2002, MIT Media lab developed the first prototype of Scratch, a visual programming language, to help children ages 8 or up to develop computational thinking. Unlike CodeCombat, it uses drag-and-drop programming tools to build up algorithms and control characters.

As technology continues to shape the world and children are exposed to different forms of technology earlier and earlier, knowledge in computer science is vital. “It’s not like that we are trying to make every kid a future engineer,” said Shan Lin , vice president of RDFZ Xishan School, another of the eight public schools, “After learning computer science, we hope students not only be inspired by the learning process and continue to be curious about the word but be able to solve real-life problems and satisfy their curiosity themselves.”