Product: Kodu Game Lab is a free Microsoft program for Windows that allows kids to create their own games and share them with others. It is a graphic-based programming tool, so kids won’t need to write any code. Instead, they place objects and then attach a series of commands with the format of [WHEN] this happens, [DO] this.
Glows: Unlike many other graphics-based programming tools for kids, Kodu Game Lab has room for a lot of creativity and the ability to design some interesting and reasonably complex games. As an example, the inclusion of paths for objects to automatically follow opens up doors for games that are not typically feasible in this type of early programming experience.
Grows: The interface is clumsy and the tutorial doesn’t automatically begin for new users. New players will need to load each phase of the tutorial manually and may not even realize that help is available. Many of the instructions refer to an old Xbox Live version which no longer seems to be available. And although there are video tutorials to help get started, there is no way to search for help on a specific topic or feature. Graphics are mediocre, menus are frustrating to navigate, and the entire application feels like it needs an overhaul. Users can use an Xbox controller with their PC, but some kids may find all of the controller button references to be confusing.
Bottom Line: Kodu Game Lab has promise, but will only draw in kids who have a lot of support and guidance or who are already passionate about creating their own content. Kids who are advanced enough to dive right in might be better suited to a tool that introduces actual written code instead of sticking with a graphics-only system.
A History of Kodu Game Lab
Kodu Game Lab was originally released by Microsoft in 2009 on both Windows and the Xbox platforms. Over the years, it has caught the attention of educators who see the potential for kids to become creators and to learn more about game design, logic, and coding. There are dozens of written tutorials, videos, and lesson plans available around the web to get kids started and to help guide them through the process. Microsoft maintains a library of resources specifically for educators and there are plenty of others available for those who want to look. The software no longer seems to be available for Xbox, but Microsoft continues to update the software for Windows.
Getting Started with Kodu Game Lab
New users will need to download and install Kodu Game Lab from the Microsoft site. The software will run on Windows XP (updated), Windows Vista, Windows 8, Windows 8/8.1 (desktop mode), and Windows 10. Additional requirements can be found on the download page.
Once installed, kids will need to create a username and a 4-digit pin for their account. This username will appear on uploaded games, so choose it carefully. Kids may need a reminder to avoid using real names during registration. No email address is required.
From there, kids are free to explore the software and start creating. Most users will want to go to the “Load World” option, where they will find a range of tutorials. Kids should start at the beginning and work their way through because the tutorials build on one another.
Kodu Game Lab Programming Style
The overall approach to programming with Kodu is straightforward. Kids will add an object, such as a robot or a fish, customize the color, and then right-click on it to add a program. It is important to note that objects can’t be imported into Kodu, so kids are limited to what is already there. Each program has a series of commands that include a trigger [WHEN] and a resulting action [DO]. This language helps kids understand some basic programming logic in a manner that is clear and easy to follow. For example, when a purple button is pressed, have the robot say, “Hello.” Or, when the red fish sees a green apple, move toward it. Kids can then build on these. The red fish may eat the green apple, and a point might be added to the score counter. And when the score hits “10,” a win sequence might start.
Is Kodu Game Lab Right for Your Child?
There’s no doubt that a motivated kid could have a lot of fun coding with Kodu. There are enough commands and filters and objects to keep them engaged and entertained as they create game after game. But the key here is that they are already motivated. Whether it be from a personal passion to create something, or via some strong encouragement through school, kids are likely to need something to get them past the initial learning curve. And the learning curve isn’t the only hurdle; the poor graphics, inability to import graphics, and wonky interface will linger long after any initial confusion is gone.
Since the game is free and easy enough to install, however, it’s definitely worth a shot to see if it clicks for your kid. Just be prepared to browse through some of the available educational resources because most kids will need some sort of assistance to get things off the ground.