Bored with just be­ing a player

Go­ing from gamer to coder the dream for this 12-year-old

Toronto Star - - BUSINESS - SUNNY FREE­MAN BUSI­NESS RE­PORTER

For 12-year-old gam­ing en­thu­si­ast Daniel Do­man­ski, group cod­ing camps were not enough to reach his goal of build­ing his own video game by the end of sum­mer.

He told his fa­ther that af­ter six years, he didn’t want to just play video games any­more, he wanted to build them.

“I thought that would be fun: I get to ac­tu­ally cre­ate my own rather than just sit­ting there play­ing them,” he said, adding he’s done other cod­ing camps but re­cently de­cided he wanted to get se­ri­ous about learn­ing how to pro­gram.

So, his dad, a car­di­ol­o­gist who also has a com­puter pro­gram­ming de­gree, found a one-on-one im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence at Real Pro­gram­ming 4 Kids.

“This is the real thing as op­posed to just play­ing at it,” Dr. Michael Do­man­ski said.

“They’re re­ally teach­ing him, they’re re­ally go­ing down a se­quence of cod­ing lan­guages that would take him from where he is — which is zero for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses — all the way to us­ing the stan­dard in the field which is this Unity pro­gram.”

At15 years old, Real Pro­gram­ming 4 Kids pre­dates the re­cent kids cod­ing craze. Com­pany pres­i­dent El­liot Bay orig­i­nally pitched it as ther­apy for kids’ video game ad­dic­tions, mar­ket­ing it as an op­por­tu­nity to learn what’s be­hind their favourite games.

Now, sec­ond-graders through to high school stu­dents are com­ing be­cause they want to pro­gram and the com­pany is grow­ing by 10 to 15 per cent ev­ery year.

The stu­dents are still about 90 per cent boys, but the per­cent­age of girls in the classes is in­creas­ing steadily, he added.

The classes are small at four kids max­i­mum. In­struc­tors teach ba­sic pro­gram­ming lan­guages — from Java to Unity 3D — by re­cre­at­ing clas­sic video games like Pac-Man or Mario.

Many of the stu­dents go on to com­plete com­puter sci­ence de­grees in uni­ver­sity and some alumni have gone on to work at Mi­crosoft and other tech and gam­ing com­pa­nies. Some have even cre­ated their own games.

Daniel Do­man­ski has only been at it for a few weeks and is still at the be­gin­ner level. It’s been more dif­fi­cult than he thought to re­mem­ber the nig­gling de­tails — but that hasn’t de­terred him from go­ing fur­ther.

When he gets home, he talks about cod­ing at the din­ner ta­ble and he even does cod­ing home­work be­cause he’s so ex­cited about it. His spelling is im­prov­ing as he learns to code be­cause if he gets a word wrong he’ll have a build er­ror and the de­bug­ging process will take longer.

While other kids run through sprin­klers, he will sit in a dark church room with his tu­tor, Daniel West, ev­ery af­ter­noon for six weeks this sum­mer to learn the ba­sics by work­ing on a project and learn­ing at his own pace.

It’s a lot of hours in front of the screen and it re­quires a lot of con­cen­tra­tion and me­moriza­tion, West said.

“I was wor­ried at first be­cause of­ten enough if there’s any prob­lem when it comes down to de­cod­ing video games it’s that a lot of the kids get re­ally dis­cour­aged when they find out how hard it is and you have to re-mo­ti­vate them and get their at­ten­tion.” Do­man­ski gets worn out, but doesn’t quit. When he can’t fig­ure some­thing out, he goes back to check his work to see what he did the pre­vi­ous time. It takes less and less time to come up with the so­lu­tion.

“I re­ally en­joy that drive even though it can be a wild ride to steer it some­times,” West said.

Do­man­ski is a fan of open-world games that al­low him to wander around in a world on his own. His favourite is Skyrim. He asks West re­peated ques­tions about how it was built and when and whether he’ll be able to de­sign some­thing like that.

But as his in­struc­tor ex­plains, that game took 90 pro­gram­mers and many years to build. So Do­man­ski is start­ing with learn­ing how to set up by de­cod­ing the game Mag­icka, an in­die game that is eas­ier to re­verse en­gi­neer.

Though Do­man­ski isn’t sure if he’s go­ing to be a game pro­gram­mer when he grows up, his dad is happy to pay the $635 per week be­cause he be­lieves his son is learn­ing an in­valu­able skill set that will per­me­ate all in­dus­tries for the next gen­er­a­tion.

“They have to be com­puter lit­er­ate,” he said.

“It’s the fu­ture.”

VINCE TALOTTA/TORONTO STAR

Daniel West, left, says his pupil Daniel Do­man­ski, 12, though still at the be­gin­ner level, is very mo­ti­vated to learn cod­ing.

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