Software Development

Don’t be a NAMCO

I noticed a disappointing post via Slashdot the other day; apparently Namco has decided to force MIT to remove a PacMan clone made in Scratch. At face value, that probably doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but that’s probably because you’ve never heard of Scratch. Allow me to explain.

Scratch is the future of programming education.

I’ve been teaching kids to program using Scratch for years (through OCRI). The reason we often choose Scratch is that it was made by MIT with the express goal of introducing students to programming and programming concepts (check out the About Scratch page if you’d like to learn more). The idea is that students who have never programmed before can create real, working software applications and share them online for other students to gain inspiration and learn from.

This is very similar to how real software development works. These students pour their heart and soul into creating something they care about, and proudly share it with a community that reacts to their ideas — adding features, remixing concepts, pushing the boundaries of what can and can’t be done. This is exactly how the web works. This is how kids learn.

Of course, if you’re Namco, that’s less important than preserving the copyright of a game that is older than almost everyone that uses Scratch (myself included).

Why is a Pac-Man clone important?

Several reasons:

First and foremost, it’s something kids recognize and can relate to. The tutorials for Scratch make some pretty bland applications, so to really push them to create something incredible, it’s important to show the students something they find impressive. The go-to applications for this are game remakes like Pac-Man and Tetris. Why? Because these games are instantly recognizable, and get students hooked on the idea of Scratch. They realize that with a bit of hard work, they can make something really cool.

Second, game remakes help the creative process. When you start with a blank slate, the idea of making something fun or interesting can be very daunting. Where do you even begin? For students, this can lead to frustration. Encouraging them to draw from other things they like helps narrow their focus without robbing them of choice. They can make something that they want to make, focus on solving the programming problems for that specific game, and make whatever creative changes they see fit along the way.

Finally, polished games are extremely difficult to write in Scratch (even something as basic as Pac-Man). These examples always contain interesting techniques and approaches to problem solving that show some really neat aspects of Scratch that I’ve never seen done any other way.

What does NAMCO get out of this?

You tell me. Do they really think people were lining up to play a Scratch version of Pac-Man? Are any of these (likely non-existent) people going to go out and buy a copy of Pac-Man from Namco now that the Scratch version has been removed? Other than ruining something that means almost-nothing to them and a whole hell of a lot to people like me, what exactly does Namco expect to accomplish?

What if they took the opposite approach. What if they decided that, copyright be damned, it’s awesome that 30 years later people still find the original Pac-Man fun. What if instead of being appalled, they were honoured that someone chose to learn to program by reproducing one of their games. Can you imagine a world where rights holders and every-day people with no intention of ripping anyone off worked together to promote culture and innovation? Because that’s not what I see here. I see a company that has its priorities so ass-backwards that it’s targeting a platform whose sole purpose is to help children learn.

Don’t they have better things to do?