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Startups Aim to Make Coding Fun

The companies use video-game tricks to make people forget that they’re learning.
March 19, 2012

For Jacob Arriola, a business development manager for a Spanish media company in Los Angeles, learning to program wasn’t a necessity. But figuring it might help with his job, he started using an online code-tutorial service called Treehouse in January.

Code racer: A game created by Treehouse has players race to complete coding tasks.

After three months with the paid service, he’s earned several dozen badges for completing programming quizzes and challenges, and watching coding-related video lessons. More importantly, he’s built his own website from scratch and made some simple changes to websites that his company runs. “I’m able to do it myself, which is pretty cool,” he says.

Arriola is one of a growing number of non-techies turning to Web-based sites to learn how to code, either for fun or in hopes of advancing their job prospects. And while the basic concept isn’t new, the execution is. The addition of video-game elements like badges and points is helping startups such as Treehouse take off.

Perhaps the most well-known of these companies is Codecademy, a New York-based startup with hundreds of thousands of subscribers to its free weekly JavaScript programming lessons through its Code Year program. Codecademy incorporates several gaming principles to keep users motivated: Users get points and badges for completing lessons and projects, such as building a simple blackjack or dice game.

Cofounder Zach Sims says the site was created to solve two problems: The frustrations (which he himself encountered) that can accompany learning to program, and the challenges of educating many people at once. Codecademy encourages users to help one another to resolve problems by visiting the site’s forum.

Codecademy rolled out this past August. Over 200,000 people used the site within its first three days. It had another growth spurt early this year with the introduction of Code Year, which sends its now 400,000 users a weekly e-mail outlining a new programming concept they can learn on the site.

Over a million people have signed up for Codecademy so far, and their efforts have started to bear fruit, such as an app a teacher built that allows students to digitally convert DNA into RNA.

Though the gaming elements built into Codecademy’s lessons are simple, Sims believes they are key to attracting users and keeping them motivated.

Orlando, Florida-based Treehouse plans to take the idea of gamification even further. Treehouse—which charges a monthly fee for online lessons in Web design, Web development, and development of apps for Apple’s iOS operating system—also offers badges that users earn by learning coding principles. But it also recently rolled out a free, simple game called Code/Racer that truly makes programming into a game, and it hopes to incorporate other gamelike elements into the learning process.

With Code/Racer, two players race to complete small website coding tasks in short bursts of time—creating a header on a webpage that says “Frogarri 5000” and adding an image of a cartoon-like race car, for example—while zippy music plays in the background. Code/Racer is more like a proof of concept than a full-fledged game right now, and it’s confusing if you’re not familiar with some basic HTML. But playing it does make learning fast-paced and fun, and you can see how it might make it easier to pick up a topic like programming.

Treehouse founder and CEO Ryan Carson believes that making the process of learning to program more gamelike is “tremendously powerful” because it makes learning addictive—something he says he’s heard from customers. “Obviously that would be terrible if we were selling tobacco, but we’re not,” he says. “We’re selling making yourself better.”

And people are buying into it. So far, the site has 8,000 paid users, most of whom it picked up since rebranding under the Treehouse name in November (before that, it was operating as a companion to a site Carson runs for Web designers and developers called Think Vitamin). Treehouse charges a monthly fee of $25 or $49, depending on the desired detail of instruction (for students, it costs $9 per month).

Carson doesn’t think avid subscribers will have to pay much to learn to code, though. He expects that in about six months, a user could get enough training to build a simple Web application, and after a year, he says, a user could get an entry-level coding job. “And you could do that the whole time living out of Pueblo, Colorado,” he says.

It’s still too early to tell if this will happen, though—Treehouse is still working on its curriculum, so it won’t be finished creating the most advanced lessons until September.

Gabe Zichermann, who runs an annual conference called the Gamification Summit—focused on adding gamelike functionality to all sorts of activities, in order to increase engagement— says that while these startups don’t include typical video-game tropes like throwing bombs or killing Orcs, they are creating a positive experience that takes users’ minds off the fact that they’re learning something new and difficult. “They’re unpacking that and making it significantly more engaging,” he says.

Codecademy and Treehouse can be useful to those who already know how to code, too. Amanda Rae Arseneau, a programming student in Toronto, signed up for Code Year in January and has been following along faithfully each week.

Arseneau, 32, says the program is helping her learn new skills and refresh old ones. And unlike with her three-year-long vocational school program, she says, completing a Code School lesson gives a sense of immediate gratification, and game-related tasks like building a blackjack game are fun.

“It’s much more engaging than a textbook,” she says.

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