In a move reminiscent of the BBC Micro that appeared in schools across the UK in the 1980s, the BBC will be giving every Year 7 pupil in the UK a programmable microcomputer. Yes, for free. Using the device - tentatively named the Micro-Bit - children of ages 11-12 will be able to learn the first steps of programming a computer, making a panel of LEDS light up in a sequence.
That sounds very basic, doesn't it? But it's actually great news for gaming. As the excellent film From Bedrooms to Billions recently documented, home programming on devices like the BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 was the first step on the career path for some of the industry's most famous figures, like David Braben (who just won a BAFTA fellowship), Jeff Minter and Geoff Crammond. And, while there are certainly lots of middleware solutions out there for people who want to make games without any programming knowledge, those platforms don't teach developers how the computer's code actually works. This does.
You only have to look back through gaming's history to see the miracles that can be performed when a programmer writes super-efficient code directly for the architecture of the hardware. Yuji Naka is a great example, programming the Mega Drive/Genesis directly to achieve Sonic the Hedgehog's super-smooth 60fps parallax scrolling. Similarly, Melbourne House's 22-car, 60fps Grand Prix Challenge on PS2 shows what you can do when you look a machine's capabilities and write code working around them. Heck, people with great coding knowledge have managed to get Doom on a ZX Spectrum. Great code often equates to great games. So getting children into programming now could see the next Miyamoto emerging (Tarquin Miyamoto, obviously) possibly as soon as the next console generation. Either that or an army of tiny Jeff Minters. Either way, the world would be a better place.
The actual specs and form of the machine are yet to be finalised, but the intention is for the device to be small enough to be wearable. The final version should be in children's hands from August this year, as part of the BBC's Make It Digital initiative, which is also seeing the production of a TV drama based on Grand Theft Auto among other things. Yes, it is a crazy world – that's very astute of you. Sadly, however, after the first million have been made and handed out, there won't be any more. If you get one, hang onto it (after coding it to within an inch of its life, of course). Could be worth something one day…