They say that one of the most effective ways of teaching someone a skill is to turn it into a game. Well, that’s just what a team at the University of California, San Diego have done with their CodeSpells video game – it teaches its players how to use the Java programming language.

CodeSpells was developed by a group of graduate students led by computer scientist William Griswold, and is intended for elementary to highschool-aged students. The idea was to develop a method of learning that could be structured by the student in a creative manner, that they would willingly spend hours doing.

Within the universe of the first-person game, the player is a wizard in a land inhabited by gnomes. Because the gnomes have lost their ability to use magic, the player helps them out by casting spells for them. Those spells are written in Java by the player, with some assistance from the game. Along with helping the gnomes, players can also earn merit badges by completing simple quests, that once again require the use of the Java spells.

The game has been tested on a group of 40 girls aged 10 to 12, who had no prior education in programming. The girls reportedly became quite engrossed in the game, and within an hour had gotten the hang of some basic components of Java, which they used to devise new ways of playing the game.

According to the university, “By the time players complete the game’s first level, they have learned the main components of the Java programming language, such as parameters, for if statements, for loops and while loops, among other skills.”

Griswold and his team plan on conducting some more field tests of the game in schools, but ultimately plan on making it freely available to any educators who wish to use it. Some of the gameplay can be seen in the video below.

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