While computer gaming remains primarily male dominated, a new study has revealed that girls may be more skilled at making story-based computer games.

The research was conducted by the Informatics Department at the University of Sussex on secondary school students. They were asked to design and program their own computer game using a new visual programming language that shows pupils the computer programs they have written in plain English.

The study describes the design and evaluation of Flip, a bi- modal programming language that aims to help 11-15 year olds develop computational skills through creating their own 3D role-playing games. Flip has two main components: 1) a visual language (based on an interlocking blocks design common to many current visual languages), and 2) a dynamically updating natural language version of the script under creation.

This programming-language/natural-language pairing is a unique feature of Flip, designed to allow learners to draw upon their familiarity with natural language to “decode the code”. Flip aims to support young people in developing an understanding of computational concepts as well as the skills to use and communicate these concepts effectively.

Researchers Dr Kate Howland and Dr Judith Good revealed that girls wrote more-and more complex- scripts than did boys, and there was a trend for girls to show greater learning gains relative to the boys.

Dr Good stated: “Given that girls’ attainment in literacy is higher than boys across all stages of the primary and secondary school curriculum, it may be that explicitly tying programming to an activity that they tend to do well in leads to a commensurate gain in their programming skills.”

“In other words, if girls’ stories are typically more complex and well developed, then when creating stories in games, their stories will also require more sophisticated programs in order for their games to work.”

The young people, aged 12-13, spent eight weeks developing their own 3D, role-playing games, using software made available with the popular medieval fantasy game Neverwinter Nights 2, which is based on the popular Dungeons & Dragons franchise. By linking blocks together, a user can tell the game to print text, change elements of gameplay and start new missions when different events occur – like the slaying of a dragon.

An array of events in the game were used as triggers for the script – for instance, when a character is killed; or says something; or moves to a different part of the screen. Girls were found to use nearly twice any many triggers as boys. While boys stuck to the most basic trigger- when a character says something, girls used up to seven different triggers and created complex scripts with two or more parts and conditional clauses more successfully.

Underrepresentation of women in computing has been a pressing concern, with only 17% of CS graduates in UK being females in 2012. While the number of females taking up maths related subjects at school level has gone up. Not many girls have forayed into mainstream computer programming. Some attribute this to the portrayal of “nerdy boys” in media. However, with this new language, females can be motivated to explore programming by tapping into intuitive literary and narrative skills.

Read more here.

(Image credit: Lindsey Galloway)

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