Twenty-three-year-old web developer Raj Sidhu says it was a tough decision to quit his job at one of the certifiably coolest companies in Manhattan—the inventors’ playground Quirky. But he was having so much fun creating a board game in his spare time that he decided he wants to work on “projects like this for the rest of my life.”
Sidhu, a 2013 graduate of New York University who calls himself a big kid, has a serious passion for play. Cartoons, comic books, and Pokemon captivate him as much now as they did in the '90s, he confesses. As a hobby, he rewrites the rules of card games like poker and gin rummy, adding fantasy elements or attack mechanics, for his friends.
Inspired in part by the company he left, Sidhu started Code Monkey Games to create “something meaningful.” While Quirky’s mission is to make invention accessible to everyone, Sidhu wants to make computer programming logic understandable through play. “Board games aren’t multibillion dollar companies, but I wanted to create the same impact,” Sidhu says.
His first game, Code Monkey Island, is designed for ages 8 and up. Each player leads a tribe of monkeys around an island, trying to beat the other tribes to a banana grove. Rule cards employ the control structures of programming logic: Conditional statements (If any monkey is on a vine, move 8 spaces); basic looping (For each monkey on a tree, move 3 spaces); Boolean logic (If a monkey is on a tree AND a rock, move 10 spaces); and assignment operations (Choose any type of tile and turn it into a boost! If any monkey lands on that tile, they immediately go forward 5 spaces).
In his Kickstarter campaign, Sidhu says he developed the game because learning how to program changed his life, and he wanted to present the coding concepts that stumped him for weeks in college in ways anyone of any age could understand. And the educational value of Code Monkey Island goes beyond that: “For kids growing up today, everything around them is based on these basic concepts. Being able to understand how your apps or your smart appliances work is as important as understanding how to calculate a tip or read a sign," he tells Yahoo Small Business.
Plus, he says, he so values the social experience of playing board games with his own friends and siblings that he “wanted to give families a way to spend time together, laugh and argue about the rules, and sit around their dining table without their phones or iPads.” Sidhu adds, “If anything is more valuable than learning coding, it’s spending time with your family.”
He does see the irony in using an old-school board game to teach computing concepts to high-tech kids. But his won’t be the first. Seattle tech inventor Dan Shapiro’s Robot Turtles, a board game that teaches programming fundamentals to preschoolers, became the most-backed board game in Kickstarter history when it exceeded its $25,000 goal to raise $630,000 from more than 13,000 backers in 2013. Shapiro sold out of 25,000 games before turning it over to an educational game publisher that will start selling Robot Turtles in Target this summer.
Sidhu, who sought $15,000 in funding to produce 1,000 games, says, “I wanted to teach slightly more concrete programmatic concepts to slightly older kids who could understand how this logic works.” Once Sidhu ships games to his 400 backers, he says, “That leaves me with 600 I can sell to turn a profit on, and use that money to create more games. I haven’t let myself think about the alternative—going back to a real job or something that doesn’t excite me as much.”
Perhaps the most fun has been market-testing his prototype at several New York City primary schools, Sidhu says. “I learned so much about how kids react to the game, how they interpret the rules, the logical leaps they make while figuring things out, and how they process strategy. Seeing kids have fun with this, forget I was in the room, argue about the rules, and help each other out was the most validating.”
He realizes now that creating media for kids is something he has wanted to do his entire life. “I’d been sidelining that passion just trying to do the normal things like have a good job, develop a valuable skillset, and pay off my student loans,” he says. “But working on games and goofy illustrations and narratives makes me feel very fulfilled.”