Secret Coders

From graphic novel superstar Gene Luen Yang comes Secret Coders, a wildly entertaining new series that combines logic puzzles and basic coding instruction with a page-turning mystery plot! Follow Hopper and her friend Eni as they use their wits and their growing prowess with coding to solve the many mysteries of Stately Academy.

What is it

Secret Coders is a series (6 as of October 2018, and I think they are done) of graphic novels where kids have to fight bad guys using programming concepts.

This may sound dry, but the writing and drawing is compelling and the education value is high, but never at the expense of storytelling.

Who is it for

This is for kids who can understand abstract thinking. 7 may be too young, depending on the kid, 8 and up is probably right. A kid who has shown an interest in chess or writing code, is probably old enough and a good match.

What Kids Like

The kids like the fun, funny, exciting storytelling. The content is easily digestible and the experience of reading the books is similar to watching a cartoon on TV.

What Parents Like

I like that the educational aspect is deeper than many other STEM-focused books. These books cover topics such as binary trees, if/else statements, variables and other essential computer science concepts. But again, not in a way that takes away from the pleasure of reading.

The books are a great introduction to computer science, and there are really very few of those. Most CS intros for kids just start with a bunch of code without that initial hand-holding and explanation that many kids need, especially with such an abstract subject.

There is a website for the series: secret-coders.com with activities related to the books, and readers can download a simple coding language called Logo and try some of the code presented in the books.

In Secret Coders, Hooper, Eni, and Josh learn Logo, an ancient and nearly-forgotten programming language! You can learn Logo, too, by downloading and installing UCBLogo! UCBLogo is a Logo interpreter — a piece of software that allows your computer to understand the Logo language. You can download it for free here.

What the Critics Think

The box set and the 5th book in the series (Potions & Parameters) get 4.9 out of 5 stars on Amazon, which is very high.

GoodReads rates the books with an average a little over 4/5 The ratings on Amazon and GoodReads go up as the series progresses.

Common Sense Media gives the series 4/5

Winner of the Mathical Book Award in 2015.

(The Mathical book list is a great set of good books, organized by age.)

Concerns/Flaws

The illustrations are black-and-white (or really, black-and-white-and-green) and it’s possible that some kids, who are used to saturated colors in all their media, will be turned off by this. But that is a minor concern.

Who Made it

The books are written by Gene Luen Yang

From the Macmillan author bio

Gene Luen Yang writes, and sometimes draws, comic books and graphic novels. As the Library of Congress’ fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, he advocates for the importance of reading, especially reading diversely. American Born Chinese, his first graphic novel from First Second Books, was a National Book Award finalist, as well as the winner of the Printz Award and an Eisner Award. His two-volume graphic novel Boxers & Saints won the L.A. Times Book Prize and was a National Book Award Finalist. His other works include Secret Coders (with Mike Holmes), The Shadow Hero (with Sonny Liew), New Super-Man from DC Comics (with various artists), and the Avatar: The Last Airbender series from Dark Horse Comics (with Gurihiru). In 2016, he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. National Book Awards Finalist

And illustrated by Mike Holmes

Mike Holmes has drawn for the comics series Secret Coders, Bravest Warriors, Adventure Time, and the viral art project Mikenesses. His books include the True Story collection (2011), This American Drive (2009), and Shenanigans. He lives with a cat named Ella, who is his best buddy.

The books are published by First Second, an imprint of Macmillan, with many beautiful and interesting titles, including the ongoing Science Comics series.

History

The first book came out in 2015 and the others were published about every 6 months after that.

Secret Coders (Volume 1)
Gene Luen Yang is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and is a MacArthur Fellow, a recipient of what’s popularly known as the MacArthur “Genius” Grant. Welcome to Stately Academy, a school which is just crawling with mysteries to be solved! The founder of the school left many clues and puzzles to challenge his enterprising students. Using their wits and their growing prowess with coding, Hopper and her friend Eni are going to solve the mystery of Stately Academy no matter what it takes! From graphic novel superstar (and high school computer programming teacher) Gene Luen Yang comes a wildly entertaining new series that combines logic puzzles and basic programming instruction with a page-turning mystery plot!

Secret Coders 2: Paths & Portals
Hopper and Eni are back in the second volume of the exciting new computer-programming series by New York Times-bestselling author Gene Luen Yang.

Secret Coders 3: Secrets & Sequences
The coders are back in the third volume of the exciting new computer-programming series by New York Times–bestselling author Gene Luen Yang.

Secret Coders 4: Robots & Repeats
Dr. One-Zero has added a new class to Stately Academy’s curriculum. But in “Advanced Chemistry,” they only teach one lesson: how to make Green Pop! While their classmates are manufacturing this dangerous soda, the Coders uncover a clue that may lead them to Hopper’s missing dad. Is it time to use Professor Bee’s most powerful weapon: the Turtle of Light?

Secret Coders 5: Potions & Parameters
Dr. One-Zero won’t stop until the whole town—no, the whole world—embraces the “true happiness” found in his poisonous potion, Green Pop. And now that he has the Turtle of Light, he’s virtually unstoppable. There’s one weapon that can defeat him: another Turtle of Light. Unfortunately, they can only be found in another dimension! To open a portal to this new world, Hopper, Eni, and Josh’s coding skills will be put to the test.

Secret Coders 6: Monsters & Modules
The Coders always knew their programming skills would take them far, but they never guessed they would take them to another dimension! Or to be accurate, one dimension less—to save humanity, Hopper, Eni, and Josh must travel to Flatland, a dangerous two-dimensional world ruled by polygons. If they can return home safely with a turtle of light, they might just stand a chance in their final showdown with Dr. One-Zero!

Where Can I Get it

Amazon and everywhere else

Adventuron

What is it

Adventuron is a free web-based coding environment for creating text-based games.

The games created in Adventuron are similar to the classic Infocom text-based games such as Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (My personal favorite from that era was “Infidel”)

Who is it for

The user needs to be able to read at a 3rd- or 4th-grade level to get much out of this. There is a fair bit of documentation, and the code itself requires accurate spelling.

Some adults will have fun with this as well.

What Kids Like

Kids always like making their own games, whether its coming up for new rules for ‘Tag’ or for a board game that’s missing half its pieces. Most programmers I know got their start and developed their initial interest in programming by making computer games. Unlike developing high-end console games, though, creating simple text-based adventures is easy enough that an entire (simple, but complete) game can be created in a few hours with Adventuron.

There are other game-making tools out there. PuzzleScript is one, that creates simple 8-bit style puzzle games. And MIT’s Scratch is another. As is Blocksworld

Choicescript is another interface for creating text-based games, but the coding for Choicescript is a bit more advanced and the games are more like interactive novels than text-based games.

What Parents Like

I like that this system teaches actual programming concepts. Most junior programming environments have a drag-and-drop interface, which is a fun and easy introduction to programming, but such an interface is limited in how much the child can do, and it doesn’t teach aspects of coding such as the importance of syntax.

In Adventuron, variable names have to be spelled correctly and a stray quotation mark, or missing semicolon can mess up everything – just like with real code.

I also like that the games created are not violent. The games require typing answers and so can not include the kind of violence seen in most computer games.

What the Critics Think

Adventuron came out in 2019 and there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of it yet.

A more thorough review and description of Adventuron is here

Concerns/Flaws

Some kids just won’t care for text-based games, so won’t have any interest in trying to create them. Modern games are so sophisticated compared to older ones and most kids I know are so used to sophisticated graphics that they just don’t have any interest in the 8-bit style.

The coding is potentially frustrating. Because the child writes actual code (mostly defining arrays and if-then conditionals) there is necessarily some debugging aspect. Introducing this kind of experience to a child before they are ready can backfire and they could end up thinking that writing code is just too hard for them. For a child with no coding experience, I would advise starting with Scratch or something similar and then graduating to Adventuron once they have a little mastery over writing code.

Who Made it/History

Adventuron Software Limited is based in the UK (Ireland, I believe) and has been developing the software since 2017

Where Can I Get it

Play some sample games:

The Beast of Torrack Moor (30th Anniversary)
Excalibur: Sword of Kings (TALP)
The Path
Hamurabi

Visit the creator website

And try out the “Classroom” where you can get started.

Puzzlescript

What is it

PuzzleScript is an open-source HTML5 puzzle game engine. Open-source here means that it is completely free and all code is visible to anyone who wants to learn from it. HTML5 is what we used to call DHTML back in the day, and essentially means it’s made with JavaScript, and runs in a web browser. Puzzle game, meaning that the games produced are of the logical variety, as opposed to the action kind. And game engine means that the PuzzleScript libraries include all the logic you need to make a game. You don’t need to do any base-level coding, just design the levels and configure the libraries.

Visit the PuzzleScript site for more

Puzzlescript is JavaScript-based game engine that is very easy to use and is a great way to introduce people to programming. Just about everyone I know who is paid to write code got their start because they were motivated to create games.

Puzzlescript games are very blocky and retro-looking, which may not appeal to kids used to the cinematic look of modern video games, but that is part of the price of having such a simple engine.


[typical puzzlescipt game screenshot]

Many of the games are good, however. Most are of the “sokoban” push-the-blocks around type.

Some examples are “Flying Kick” by Aaron Steed and “Boxes and Balloons” by Ben Reilly and many others can be found in the official gallery

Some games include the concept of bullets but most do not and none could be described as violent. The nature of the engine means games end up being logical puzzles.

Puzzlescript code looks like this:

[Enemy | Wreck] -> restart

[ > Player ] [ Ship ] -> [ > Player ] [ > Ship ]

[ >  Ship | Iceberg ] -> [  >  Ship | > Iceberg  ] Sfx1
[ Enemy | ... | Ship ] -> [ > Enemy | ... | Ship ]

So, rather than lots of intimidating jargon, the code uses names and simple punctuation to set the rules.

Puzzlescript is completely free, and creator Stephen Lavelle deserves a lot of credit for opening his creation to the world. Even better, games made with Puzzlescript have the code immediately available, so if you want to see how something is done, just look at the code someone else wrote. For example, all the code used in the Flying Kick game mentioned above is here, open in the code editor no less, so you could start modifying that game.

Any good instructional system has to reward curiosity, and the Puzzlescript engine does that very well.

Main Puzzlescript site
How to make a Puzzlescript game

Who is it for

Most of the games I’ve seen written in PuzzleScript have been made by young adults, but the interface is simple enough that adolescents could learn it.

What Kids Like

Kids like making things they enjoy. They see a funny video, they want to make a funny video. They see a cool stop-motion animation, they want to make a cool stop-motion animation. They see a computer game they like, they want to make a computer game they like.

PuzzleScript is simple enough that a kid can make something playable very quickly, and since every game made in PuzzleScript has its source available (click ‘hack this game’ below the game) they can easily learn how others have achieved the mechanics of their games.

Also, becasue HTML5 runs pretty much anywhere, publishing your game and sharing with others is very easy.

What Parents Like

JavaScript is a great way to introduce kids to the concepts in programming, and PuzzleScript makes this much easier by skipping over the more boring and frustrating aspects of coding, thus keeping kids’ attention a bit longer – long enough to stay motivated and actually build something.

What the Critics Think

I have not seen any reviews of PuzzleScript. Because it is free, there are no advertising dollars that would lead to reviews.

Itch.io has lots of PuzzleScript games which is a sign that developers at least are taking it seriously.

Concerns/Flaws

If you look at examples of PuzzleScript games, you will see that they all have the same low-resolution look that may remind you of old Atari games. Kids today are used to photo-realistic graphics and the retro, old-school appearance of PuzzleScript may be a turn-off to some kids.

Who Made it

PuzzleScript is the work of Stephen Lavelle, who goes by the handle increpare. He is a prolific developer with many experimental projects on his site.

History

PuzzleScript began in 2013 and has been regularly updated since then. New games written in PuzzleScript are released all the time – every week if not every day

Where Can I Get it

Visit the PuzzleScript site for examples and full documentation. The coding interface is right in the browser window so nothing needs to be installed.

There is a Google Group where users compare notes, troubleshoot code, and share games they’ve made.

And there are books that can help walk your child through the process.

If you just want to play the games, the official archive has plenty to choose from, although it is not at all an exhaustive list.

Some of my favorites are

Cratopia
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7114130

Heroes of Sokoban I, by Jonah Ostroff
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6860122

Heroes of Sokoban II: Monsters
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=6910207

and Heroes of Sokoban III: The Bard and the Druid
https://www.puzzlescript.net/play.html?p=7072276