Thoughts on Raspberry Pi and why we’re still missing the PlayStation Generation #NextGenSkills

If you were a teenager into gaming, what would be first on your Christmas list this year? PS 4? XBox One? PS Vita? iPad? Nexus? Or a Raspberry Pi? Thought so.

For me its a perennial problem with the Raspberry Pi. It’s just not desirable for its target market. The price apparently heralded its accessibility to the home and education, but in reality, you have to shell out a lump of cash before you get really start started, and for that kind of dough you are very close to the cost of a Vita or PS3/360/Nexus.

I always draw comparisons with the “golden age” of computer literacy, the early 80s – the period of time when I cut my teeth on an Acorn Electron. I was forced in a way (like many) to write games because the ones available for my machine were sub-standard, but this wasn’t true of all those kids who owned a BBC Micro, Commodore 64 or ZX Spectrum. They sold shed-loads of units through their appeal as an “educational” asset, but in reality the kids wanted them for the games. Their strength was that they didn’t have a single competitor that just played games. They all came bundled with programming manuals, a variant of accessible BASIC, and a plethora of magazines, books and TV programmes to support and encourage computer literacy.

This meant that you could spend an equal amount of time playing the best games available with a spot of tinkering with code – on the same machine. Crucially for the Pi, you can’t. When a Pi comes out to code, it has to go away in order to play on something else.

I know a single child in over 1500 at my own school that has a Pi. There may be more, but in our community these kids stick out like a sore thumb. When I attend events with the Pi, or see photos from Raspberry Jamborees or other Maker events (as much as I personally love them) via social media – it’s the parents, or hobbyist numbers that seem to be in the ascendency. At this year’s Play Expo, for example, the kids gravitated towards the games machines, rather than the range of Pi-esque kit that was on display.

What can be done to enthuse kids about programming and exploring the workings of technology? Its a tough question. I’ve often thought that a branded version of the Pi could work, and work well. Adding a PiBow makes it a “thing”, but the games that you can create with the unit are limited to the assets bundled with the software. Scratch for example has a range of very poor assets. Having a professional library (preferable from a well-known franchise) of pose-able assets and sound effects ready to animate and play potentially could make the Pi something that a Game or a Tesco may stock. We’re seeing the GameStick take to some shelves, and I’d wager Ouya too eventually. How cool would it be to see these units, as well as Vita/PS4/XBox One bundled with the capability of being open to coders in a sandbox environment? Bundled with Game Maker or Unity and that all important “how to” book and asset library for when you’ve exhausted the game playing for another night.

It’d be a bold move by Raspberry Pi, SONY or Microsoft to do it. But what a move.

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7 Comments

  1. In some ways I agree but I think it’s still a promising device. The Pi is not mainstream yet but it’s gaining momentum and the fact that you can program games like MineCraft using Python on it will help strengthen it’s ‘coolness’ factor. Its increasing in popularity all the time and more and more schools are introducing it into their computing curriculum. I think the Pi’s biggest strength is the ease at which you can use it for hardware projects because of its easily programmable general purpose input output pins – thats something other platforms do not offer.

    One project that does intrigue me however is Project Spark on the Xbox one – a fully customisable environment that allows you to create many different types of game. It comes with a whole range of great assets and people will be able to publish their games for others to play. From what I have seen you can get right down to adding programming logic to things and the best thing is you can get great looking results fast. It’s also going to be free to use. This I think could really entice a lot of kids to try making their own game and thus get them in to development when they are older.

  2. I have fond memories of the 80s and the Acorn Electron too. The thing then was that we were dropped into a prompt that we had to type something into as soon as you heard the BEEP and saw the Acorn Electron greeting.

    That meant turning to the manual. “What do I do?”. That’s where the magic was I think, you got a full manual that showed you BASIC _and_ Assembly language if you wanted.

    You could look up “How to load” but then you might be intrigued to look at the other commands and small listings, and then you might see you can define your own characters…. “Wow, a Space Invader with one line of code!”

    Today these things are missing, you don’t get a manual with a computer other than “How to plug in your Computer”… and that’s it.

    The Pi is a great little machine and I have one but, honestly? I rarely use it, but mainly because I have my PC already and I have Windows or Linux and everything I need is there.

    Unfortunately people have to go out of their way to see a prompt in the way we used to and you have to learn programming you have to actively decide that you are going to do that without the push we had from that command line prompt.

    Also, each computer had it’s own associated magazine and those usually had program listings, so after the manual you had full examples to look at and learn from, these days you have to seek them out on the web and be aware of what you are looking for in advance.

    If the Pi was a computer you could see in a shop, with a case, with a keyboard etc., just like the 80’s and it came with the manual and everything else and you could see it running Minecraft with a salesman there to demonstrate it to you, it might appeal more to the Playstation era.

    Sadly, they have really missed out. But, we were there, we had the best times in computing 😉

  3. I also agree to an extent. To me, the Pi is more about adults and hobbyists tinkering with something you can plug an array of input and output devices into. In some ways it’s a (marginally) cheaper Lego NXT. Or perhaps a more accessible Arduino. But I never felt the hook was its low price. The “golden age” pined for cannot really return, because, as you point out, our computers in the 80s turned on and blinked at us, waiting to be programmed or to have 5-odd minutes of squealing data tape-fed into them.

    For me, the “death-knell” for a career as a programmer was the arrival of the Amiga. It did stuff when it was turned on. It had amazing games. It could do decent sound sampling and fantastic graphics. But creating such software myself seemed inaccessible. I’d written a sampler on the Spectrum (it was a bit poor but I was proud of it) and written a graphics program too (it was also poor but mine) but the Amiga was a complex beast. So why spend time rolling my own, when such good stuff was available straight away.

    I personally feel that the “ideal” device for kids/classroom is some form of break-out add-on for Android phones. Something with digital and analog I/O. Let’s face it, a £100 Android phone has a touch screen, decent processor, on-board storage, sound, GPU, accelerometer, WIFI, GPRS, GPS, camera, rechargeable battery etc. A Pi with all this (I know it has some built-in) becomes (A) a mess of wires and (B) expensive. In fact this add-on sounds like an ideal Kickstarter project! Coupled with the relevance of, say, App Inventor, the motivation might come back.

    1. This is a complete off-shoot here, and I apologise to Mark – but Robman84 – would you mind getting in touch with me about this software that your wrote for the Spectrum?

      I help out with World of Spectrum, and I want to see if we have you and your programs listed on there.

      I don’t want to put my email address here, but if you could send me a quick email via the “Send us an email” link on my website, I’d be grateful.

      Cheers,
      Gerard Sweeney

      1. Hi Gerard. WoS is a great site I’ve visited many times. My stuff was just written for me as a hobby, so it won’t be on WoS I’m afraid.

  4. Hello, sorry for this plug – well it is not so much a plug as we are very much in line with the context of this thread.

    We had the same thoughts and ideas a couple of years ago – and actually did something about it!

    The FUZE Powered by Raspberry Pi is a Pi encased in a sturdy metal case, with all the trimmings supplied, including FUZE BASIC and with full access to a protected input output board. The best part though is FUZE BASIC as it is just so easy to program. The FUZE is supplied with Project Cards to provide as easy introduction as possible.

    And, it is made in Britain (the case in High Wycombe, Circuitry in Norfolk, packaging in Aylesbury) although the Keyboard and a few electronic components do come from China. The final product is assembled at our offices.

    It has been a true labour of love (for programming and the computers of the 80’s.)

    We are a small UK company based just outside Oxford.

    The product, well actually there are a few variations, is called The FUZE powered by Raspberry Pi, and it is fully approved by the RPi Foundation.

    Once again, yes this is a shameless plug but it is 100% relevant to the topic.

    Anyway, look us up – i’m sure it will bring a smile to many!

    Sincere regards

    Jon Silvera
    teamFUZE / fuze.co.uk

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