Robots and rocket launchers: Kuato Studios uses gaming to teach kids the basics of coding

Clashing robots, battle arenas set against industrial wastelands, promises of glory. At first glance, Kuato Studios’ new mobile game Hakitzu looks like any highly-produced iPad-based game a kid might play. But the company hopes it can do more than just keep kids entertained: its goal is to use sharp graphics, dramatic music and game mechanics to actually teach them how to code.
Launched Tuesday, Hakitzu is the first game from Kuato Studios, a London- and Palo Alto-based learning startup founded last year and backed by SRI International, the company behind Siri (s AAPL).
“We started to have a look at learning and education for the twenty-first century — what new techniques would we apply to learning, what technologies [could apply] to how kids are learning these days, “ said Frank Meehan, Kuato Studios’ founder and CEO, who formerly sat on the boards of SIRI and Spotify.
At the 25-person company, he added, he essentially “mashed up” artificial intelligence scientists, educators and game developers to produce games that have all punch of an Electronic Arts game, but the educational value of teacher-created lesson.
Hakitzu, which the company teased a bit last summer but didn’t release in its entirety until today, is meant to be the company’s showcase app, Meehan said, but future games will more deeply incorporate artificial intelligence.
Given the growing recognition that students’ skills are lagging in computer science, Kuato Studios decided to focus its first game on teaching kids to code. As a widely-circulated video released last month by emphasized, coding is a key tool for the digital age but one not enough students have mastered. Less than two percent of students study computer programming but programming jobs are growing at double the pace of other jobs, the nonprofit says.
Startups like Codecademy and Treehouse, as well as new startups Tynker and Hopscotch, which aim for a slightly younger audience, are similarly tackling the challenge of teaching programming to students.
But Hakitzu aims to provide a far more gamified experience. Players assemble and customize their robots in the Chop Shop, select their arena and then play against friends or others. The goal is to hack your opponent’s lit-up “terminal” on the opposite side of the arena. Here’s where the programming comes in: to manipulate their robots (or “Code Walkers”), they have to actually code in the commands, for example:
The game targets kids aged 11 to 16, but could likely appeal to an even wider audience. In tests in schools, Meehan said the game interested boys and girls fairly evenly (although, to me, the robo- and battle-centric graphics and language seem as if they’d be more interesting to boys).
On the engagement front, it’s easy to see how Hakitzu could capture and hold kids’ attention. But how effective is it in actually teaching them to code?  It could certainly help familiarize them with the basics of JavaScript, but typing in simple commands within the structure of a game is still a long way off from building a web site or programming an app.
Meehan said Hakitzu’s goal isn’t to impart deep coding skills, but to jumpstart their interest in the field — and it’s happy to point them to Codecademy and other sites with comprehensive programming lessons.
“We want them to get over the first hump of not knowing where to get started,” he said. “Further on down the track, what we want to do is push them off to other great coding companies.”