Microcosmographia by William Van Hecke

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Somewhere around age 7, I’m still trying to nail down exactly when, I started programming. Not because I’m super smart, but because I was so lucky as to have a Mac Plus in the house. By watching my brother Joe make little games in BASIC, and examining his code, I learned enough to make something of my own. (I still remember realizing that it made more sense to name variables according to what they represented, rather than just choosing random words — in my first game ever, the variable that recorded whether you picked up the knife in your bedroom was called “mustache”.)

When I was 9, my cousins Tim and Steve and I discovered HyperCard. It opened the floodgates of our imaginations. Cybermission, Cave Quest, Tim’s World, Star Quest, Lymbo, Syquell, Johnny Boy’s Really Fun Adventure Parts I-III — we could make any game we could imagine, just as easily as drawing up proto-RPGs in our trusty spiral notebooks. They were a big enough deal that we mailed floppy disks to each other between summer visits. I truly believe our successes as adults are thanks to the logical thinking, storytelling, design sense, and ethic of meticulousness we built up in creating those games.

How can children nowadays can get similarly creative? It’s thrilling to see my nephews filling up notebooks and sheets of posterboard with games, stories, and drawings, just like we did. But I am worried about how appealing and approachable it is for them to learn to code. A 7-year-old can’t just hop into Python or JavaScript and start creating. It’s no longer as straightforward as flipping the power switch, putting in the MS BASIC disk, and typing stuff in to see what works. Nor just double-clicking HyperCard, starting to draw, and seeing what kind of interactive world you come up with. Modern computers offer sophisticated and powerful tools, constant connection, and limitless access to information. But they don’t have the blank-canvas, excellence-inspiring, quiet creative invitation of MacPaint, Word 5, HyperCard, or World Builder.

But, iPad.

At the last Apple shareholders meeting, someone asked about a simple iPad programming language. Steve said, “Something like HyperCard on the iPad? Yes, but someone would have to create it.” I’ve been thinking about that almost every day since I read it. iPad, in its single-taskingness, its administrative-debrislessness, its necessarily simplified interface, could be just the thing that introduces today’s kids to how to make computers do fantastic things.