Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition extends to students as young as nine

Microsoft's annual Imagine Cup game design and software development competition will open up to students as young as nine-years old in 2013, the company announced today.

Now entering its 11th year, the Imagine Cup was previously open to university students. Students would form teams and create games and software with an aim to improve the world in some way. This year, the competition is being extended to high school and elementary school students with the debut of the Imagine Cup Kodu Challenge — a contest that allows young students to code and design games with the free Kodu toolkit.

Imagine Cup competition manager and developer on South Park: Let's Go Tower Defense Play, Full House Poker, and Kinect Sesame Street TV for the Xbox 360, John Scott Tynes told Polygon that there are many reasons why Microsoft wanted to include more students in the competition.

"I think when you're that young, your perception of the world is always overlaid with your imagination."

"Kids learn a lot from games — from making games, from playing games and from using games in the classroom," he said. "So when I joined Imagine Cup in August, one of the first things I did was talk to the Kodu folks about how we could take the Imagine Cup to a whole new audience that could really benefit from what we were doing with Kodu."

Tynes told Polygon that from what he's seen of regional Kodu competitions, students as young as nine have been able to accomplish more than most people would give them credit for. While the games created by the young students might not be as sophisticated as those of older students, they have embraced Kodu's easy-to-learn program to make games that are highly imaginative.

"I think when you're that young, your perception of the world is always overlaid with your imagination," Tynes said. "So in the same way a nine-year old kid in the backyard with a plastic figure of a dog and a paper cup can have an adventure that takes place entirely in space, I think that very young kids, when they interact with Kodu, are not just seeing what's on screen. I think they're seeing a larger world. They're actually experiencing and imagining a much richer set of characters and stories and ideas than you or I might see relative to the same screen."

Extending the Imagine Cup to a younger age group also serves to introduce students to science, technology, engineering and mathemtics-related (STEM) fields from an earlier age, which Tynes said will hopefully encourage more students — boys and girls — to get involved.

According to Tynes, studies have shown that part of the reason why students avoid STEM careers is due to a lack of confidence and a fear of failing. He hopes that by introducing young students to game design early, they will realize that learning is an iterative process — a process where it's OK to fail.

"The thing I like about Kodu and game creation is it's an iterative process," he says. "You do a small thing, you test it, it works or it doesn't work, you fix it, you do it again, you fix it, you do it again.

"What it means is you can fail and recover and continue very, very quickly and do so repeatedly. That's how you build mastery. When you're doing it in a fast iteration loop, you're unafraid to fail because you do it all the time. And that's fine. Failure is what teaches you what to do next."

"Failure is what teaches you what to do next."

The Imagine Cup Kodu Challenge will be open to students aged 9-18, with two age brackets (9-12 and 13-18). Kodu software is free to download on Windows-based PCs. The challenge runs from March 19 through May 17, 2013. Students will compete for the first-place prize of $3,000, second-place prize of $2,000 and third-place prize of $1,000.

For more information on the competition, visit the Imagine Cup website.

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