YouthSpark Star

Kodu Kup

These Welsh teens created a game
that won the United Kingdom
Kodu Kup.

The Tween Queens of Kodu Kup

In the future, a spaceship crashes. The crew dies. Captain K maneuvers through a Martian dream world running from the monster Regret while saving the spirits and memories of his lost crew.

Welcome to The Dark Side of Mars, a virtual first-person role-playing game that is the product of the imaginations of three 14-year-old girls from Afon Tâf High School in South Wales.

At the United Kingdom Kodu Kup , Holly Bridges, Shauna Coates, and Kayleigh Bennett anxiously waited for their turn to present. They had 15 minutes to demonstrate their game for the chance to win an Xbox 360 console with Kinect and a trip to Lionhead Studios, an award-winning British game developer that produces the popular game Fable.

The Kodu Kup competition drew more than 500 students between the ages of 7 and 14, challenging them to code and create a game from scratch using the visual programming language Microsoft Kodu. Eleven teams reached the finals—including Holly, Shauna, and Kayleigh.

To create their game, each girl took on a different role: lead programmer, narrative lead, design lead. They communicated as a team to create their game and were delighted when a veteran coding judge jumped up in genuine surprise when a monster stepped into the onscreen beam of a flashlight as he played.

Jeremy realized his interest in programming through his love of video games. “I want to be a software engineer. I've always liked to create stuff, that's why I want to make games.”

Shauna Coates, Kayleigh Bennett, and Holly Bridges, the winning team from Afon Tâf High School in South Wales, hold up their awards at the United Kingdom’s 2013 Kodu Kup.

When it was announced that their team won, they screamed in delight. Shauna jumped up and down. Kayleigh momentarily forgot her name.

Kodu Kup is a component of the Microsoft Get On program, an initiative that aims to help young people in the United Kingdom get inspired, get skilled, and get jobs over three years. It is part of the global Microsoft YouthSpark initiative, which was launched to encourage young people to imagine and realize their full potential. Since its launch, YouthSpark has lifted up more than 300 million youth, and it now aims to spread computer science education across the globe.

Holly, Shauna, and Kayleigh participated in a school club that taught Kodu. They built The Dark Side of Mars in about one month. Friends and gamers for many years, the students transferred their enjoyment of horror movies and games to inspire dramatic effect in their creation.

The three teens attend school in a small Welsh village situated along an idyllic river in the Merthyr Tydfil region. The area, historically known for supplying iron, steel, and coal, now has an unemployment rate that exceeds that of both Wales and Great Britain. The region’s socioeconomic issues are partially due to twentieth-century economic restructuring, and the area faces economic inactivity, lack of high-quality jobs, and low levels of educational achievement.

The many levels of the team’s game, The Dark Side of Mars. In the top right level, the player has entered a factory polluted planet. The water has been contaminated and the player has to save the fish.

The many levels of the team’s game, The Dark Side of Mars. In the top right level, the player has entered a factory-polluted planet. The water has been contaminated and the player has to save the fish.

There is little funding for their Welsh school, so most technology is second-hand or dated, and free programs like Microsoft Kodu play an important role. The three friends joined the Kodu club after noticing a flyer in the school’s corridor. Their imagination and dedication helped them use and develop their skills to win the national competition.

Experiences such as Kodu Kup expose youth to imaginative education and skill building in a struggling region and allow for other types of exploration. “For us, because we are in a very small community, it gives people an opportunity to look at a wider world,” said Richard Thomas, the computer science teacher who initially launched the school’s Kodu club.

Part of the wider world includes experiences in the multi-billion-dollar gaming industry. Creative director Gary Carr of Lionhead Studios was a judge at the event. Working in the industry for 28 years, Carr has witnessed many changes, including a greater presence of women as both gamers and developers.

“Stereotypes are breaking down,” said Carr. “Many games appeal to both boys and girls. Games bridge both gender and age differences. This generation of parents are playing video games with their children, in order to share a common interest and language.”

Kodu Kup UK judges enjoy presentations from aspiring game developers as young as 7 years old.

Kodu Kup UK judges enjoy presentations from aspiring game developers as young as 7 years old.

The Kodu Kup stimulates excitement about computer literacy, problem solving, and thinking creatively to challenge children’s imaginations. The process covered many elements of the gaming industry, and Carr was impressed with the youth's presentations that analyzed market breakdowns, research in target age groups, and how to promote products, even possible movie rights.

“It was real business acumen,” said Carr. “They weren’t just writing cool games; they were working out how to get them to market.”

The girls’ focus was not just on winning. While creating the game, each of them gained something more valuable in the process. Their experiences together revealed a meaningful lesson that will likely follow them into their futures, whether it be Holly’s desire to pursue game development, Kayleigh’s plan to continue design, or Shauna’s attraction to gaming as a hobby.

“We learned about confidence,” said Shauna, “and that without it you might not get very far.”

Holly and Shauna attend a press conference during their trip to California for We Day.

As guests of Microsoft, YouthSpark Stars Holly and Shauna traveled from Wales to California for We Day and joined thousands of other young people for an inspirational day filled with celebrities, music, and speakers. Their star status allowed them backstage access, where they met Martin Luther King III, Martin Sheen, and Seth Rogen. They returned home even more determined to advance their programming skills. The girls, now in 10th grade, continue to work on their Dark Side of Mars game and are creating a new game idea for the upcoming BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Game Awards. The girls plan to pursue careers in game design after high school and want to inspire and mentor other young girls interested in programming.

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