Doctor Who’s new web game aims to teach children programming skills

Latest attempt to make coding fun for kids involves rescuing a Dalek and exploring the unscreened world of Sontar

. THE GUARDIAN. 20/10/2014

Doctor Who’s latest adventure sees him teaming up with a Dalek and trying to save the universe, but also teaching children some early computer programming skills.

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This isn’t a TV show, however: it’s a game due to launch on Wednesday 22 October on the broadcaster’s CBBC website. The Doctor and the Dalek includes voice narration from current Doctor Peter Capaldi, and a new story by Phil Ford, who has written for the TV show.

The free web game is aimed at 6-12 year-olds, and involves freeing a battered Dalek from a ship of Cybermen, then building it back up to full strength through puzzles based on the programming elements of the new English computing curriculum.

Children will be combining instructions to accomplish a given goal, using variables to alter behaviour, exploring repetition and loops, and using their logical reasoning skills in order to rebuild the Dalek.

Ford’s story is set on the Sontar homeworld, which the BBC says has never been shown on-screen before, although many Doctor Who fans will be familiar with its aggressive inhabitants, the Sontarans. The action will also take players to the Cyber-tombs of Telos, last seen in a 1985 episode of the drama.

Jo Pearce, creative director of BBC Doctor Who Interactive, told The Guardian that Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and executive producer Bryan Minchin were both involved in the approval process for the game. “It is part of the Doctor Who world: we don’t differentiate it,” she said.

The BBC has also created material for parents and teachers to accompany the game, which also tie in to the new computing curriculum in England.

“This touches predominantly on key stage two, but then goes in to key stage three. We wanted the game to be something that could help teachers in the classroom as well,” said Pearce. “Teachers are getting their heads around this new curriculum, so it was a big aim for us to do these teaching packs.”

The project was the work of BBC Wales and creative agency Somethin’ Else, working with BBC Future Media to a commission from the broadcaster’s BBC Learning division.

“Getting children inspired is the big thing for us around this game. When you say ‘coding and programming’ straight away it feels like a very dry topic, but our aim was to show children you can have fun,” said Pearce, ahead of the game’s launch.

“When we put the game out to tender, we wanted it to be the best Dalek game there can be. It has to be addictive and fun, and the learning elements are core to that.”

The game also aims to be a spur for children to investigate the kind of programming tools they might be using at school, rather than competing with them.

“Because there are excellent platforms like Scratch and Blockly out there, we didn’t want to do any duplication,” said Rich Jenkins, development producer at Doctor Who Interactive. “We talked to teachers and kids, and they were looking for that first step to demystify programming and not make it feel difficult.”

The project included input from Dr Tom Crick, senior lecturer in c

omputing science at Cardiff Metropolitan University and chair of the Computing At Schools body in Wales, and Rik Cross, head of education for Code Club.

“We have taken the learning element very seriously so were really keen to get the right people involved who had that level of authority,” said Pearce. “We want this to be the first step to inspire children into coding, and to gradually take them on to more academic tools like Scratch.”

“This stuff is quite new to the curriculum: some schools have only just started, while others have been doing it for a while. So you get some 10 year-olds who know how to code their own games, and others who don’t know anything,” added Jenkins.

“The game starts at that [latter] level of ability and gradually increases the coding learning. Kids start off on simple sequencing, but by the final chapter they’ll get into things like Boolean logic and quite complex procedures.”

For now, the game is only playable on computers, but the development team is working on future updates that will make it work on tablets too, likely by early 2015. (…)

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