In a world during and after Covid-19/Coronavirus, programmers are needed now, more than ever. As incredulous as it sounds, gaming can help with developing the skills and techniques to do so. Games, such as Mojang’s Minecraft are used in schools to teach programming skills to young children/adults.

In this game (the “education” edition in particular), young programmers will pick up useful techniques and understand various programming concepts to solve problems, which they can therefore translate to real-world problems.

Understanding the elemental concepts of programming is covered extensively in the tutorials found within this game, namely in the “Hour of Code” series.

In the first part of the “Hour of Code: Ai for good” tutorial, the player is introduced to the basics of the point-and-click programming language (‘Blocks’.) This just simply involves clicking and dragging a block to a set destination (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Simple Beginnings

After this is done, the player is introduced to the ‘agent’ (an NPC) that the player can control using certain commands.

Subsequent steps including a brief introduction to a basic concept of AI (Artificial Intelligence), in which the player has to train the agent to spot flammable material to prevent a brushfire. After which, the agent is tested to see if it has learnt correctly by being confronted by examples of flammable material (see Figure 2.)

Figure 2. In-game screenshot of educating the AI in flammable materials.

By extension a much more sophisticated AI would be used to analyse 2D/3D images of a chest X-ray/MRI to find anomalies [1].

Figure 3 shows a house constructed using ‘while’ and ‘for’ loops with the agent at the front door. This code can be written using the point-and-click ‘block’ programming tool, Python or JavaScript in the in-game editor (Code Builder):

Figure 3. In-game screenshot of “Loop House”. A house that was created using code in Minecraft.

It is therefore easier for people who have never done programming before to understand the steps that they would need to use to solve a problem. The ability to view the code as blocks and then see the corresponding JavaScript/Python code in the in-game editor. This is a far easier introduction to the world of programming than if they had just looked at a wall of code.

In addition to the point above, having what (to some), may be a daunting concept (i.e. programming) being tackled using a game that is already in the public consciousness would make the whole concept far more appealing for people of a myriad of ages and capabilities [3].

The current (at time of writing) situation caused by Covid-19 has meant that millions of people are unfortunately unemployed, with money being a considerable hurdle for most. It is therefore worth considering a combination of utilising the new skills developed using Minecraft et al and repurposing old technology to solve a problem. In a blog post, the author rote about how an old Xbox 360 Kinect can be used to do 3D scanning [4].

This game is platform independent, which means that it is available on multiple platforms including PCs (multiple Oss), Apple devices, and games consoles. It is therefore not necessarily expensive. While it is acknowledged that it is possible to spend a lot of money on Minecraft games, it can be acquired for very little outlay (if any.) For example, a (reduced version) is included in the Raspbian OS for the Raspberry Pi. It will even run non devices as old/primitive as the Raspberry Pi B+, which will not cost much to acquire.

Glossary

Covid-19/COVID-19

This is a highly infectious form of Coronavirus that was the cause of a world-wide epidemic in late 2019/2020.

NPC                 Non-Player Character

A7 entity in a game that serves a role but does not interact with the player, unless interacted with.

AI                     Artificial Intelligence

A program or collection of programs that are able to formulate solutions to problems without being given any instructions on how to do so.

OS                    Operating System

Essentially, software that interacts with the computer’s hardware. Popular Operating Systems include Microsoft Windows, Linux, and Apple OSX.

References

[1]        The use of imaging and AI to diagnose and monitor Coronavirus, Dr James Cugley, 5th June 2020, [online], Available from: https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/engineering/the-use-of-imaging-and-ai-to-diagnose-and-monitor-coronavirus/, Accessed 26th June 2020

[2]        Innovative Manufacturing Technologies and COVID1, Dr Salman Saeidlou, 26th June 2020, [online], Available from: 9https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/engineering/innovative-manufacturing-technologies-and-covid-19/, Accessed 26th “June 2020

[3]        How Minecraft impacts classrooms, Mojang 2020, (unknown date), [online], Available from: https://education.minecraft.net/impact/#:~:text=A%202017%20study%20of%20elementary,solving%2C%20and%20computational%20thinking%20skills.&text=of%20teachers%20surveyed%20cited%20problem,their%20students%20learn%20from%20Minecraft, Accessed 29th June 2020

[4]        Cheap(ish) Scanning at Home using a Microsoft Kinect, Christopher Pitt, 26th October 2016, [online], Available from: https://computingcccu.wordpress.com/2016/10/26/cheapish-scanning-at-home-using-a-microsoft-kinect/, Accessed 29th June 2020