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Sims lend a hand to budding programmers

An open-source programming environment for beginners, called Alice, gets a big boost from the company behind "The Sims," the world's best-selling PC game.
The Alice educational software uses virtual characters to introduce students to computer programming. At left, characters are shown as they appear in Alice 2.0. At right, the characters are shown as they will appear in Alice 3.0, after Electronic Arts' makeover.
The Alice educational software uses virtual characters to introduce students to computer programming. At left, characters are shown as they appear in Alice 2.0. At right, the characters are shown as they will appear in Alice 3.0, after Electronic Arts' / CMU / EA

It's ironic that even as the video-game generation is coming of age, the ranks of U.S. computer programmers who create those games — plus more practical software — are thinning out.

But what if you could make programming into a video game?

That's the basic idea behind Alice, a software program developed at Carnegie Mellon University to ease students into programming painlessly. Instead of meticulously typing in lines of commands, the users of Alice 2.0 users move animated characters around the screen to tell a story — kind of like playing "The Sims."

Now Electronic Arts Inc., the company that produces "The Sims," has struck a groundbreaking deal with CMU to make Alice 3.0 even cooler — in an effort to reverse the brain drain and particularly to get more girls interested in computer science.

"Getting the chance to use the characters and animations from 'The Sims' is like teaching at an art school and having Disney give you Mickey Mouse," CMU computer science professor Randy Pausch, director of the Alice Project, said in Friday's announcement of the collaboration.

Pausch told that Electronic Arts will underwrite development of the new, improved Alice over the next 18 to 24 months and give CMU free use of the 3-D models and animation data for "Sims" characters. "We're going from low-end amateur to state of the art," he said. "These are the characters and animations from the best-selling PC game in history."

Used at scores of schools
Not that Alice 2.0 is all that shabby. The object-oriented, Java-based programming environment is already being used at more than 60 colleges and universities as well as an estimated 100 high schools and middle schools to teach introductory computer courses. Two textbooks have been written based on Alice 2.0, and Pausch said "there'll be a dozen" once Version 3.0 comes out.

Alice was created to get around the frustrations that keeps many students from getting beyond the intro classes — and in the longer run, reverse a trend that has seen a 50 percent drop-off in the number of computer science majors over the past five years. Statistics also show a widening gap between male and female interest in computer science.

With Alice, students start out with a natural-language, drag-and-drop interface that puts colorful 3-D characters through their computer-generated paces. Instead of typing lines of Java code like this: public static void moveTo(Thing t, Map m, int tx, int ty ) {... you just move your mouse or type in commands like "rotate one left quarter turn." The idea is that Alice can lay a fun foundation for future computer courses.

"The new version that we're now beginning on will gradually morph into a more traditional Java programming environment," Pausch said. "So we're talking about the training wheels gradually dropping off."

Alice emphasizes a storytelling approach to building a program, rather than a shoot-'em-up approach. "We found that when we targeted Alice as a storytelling vehicle, girls were three times as likely to be engaged and motivated to write computer software, as opposed to just moving 3-D characters around," Pausch explained.

How the deal was done
That user-friendliness is what appealed to Electronic Arts, Pausch said. He and his colleagues at CMU have been working with Electronic Arts for years, and the company has agreed to hire 10 students from CMU's computer science program annually. A couple of years ago, Pausch spent a months-long sabbatical at Electronic Arts, and the executives there were particularly intrigued to hear of Alice's success with middle-school girls.

"EA comes to this with the goal of doing well by doing good," Bing Gordon, the company's chief creative officer, said in Friday's announcement. "Inspiring next-generation game-makers is a primary objective. Alice has already proven to be a powerful tool to engage all kids — most particularly girls. Our hope is to contribute in a way that further accelerates its success."

The terms of the deal call for EA to contribute its intellectual property for free use in the Alice program, which is distributed freely by CMU. "The way this license works is, if somebody picks up the open-source Alice and the 'Sims' data, they can't do anything with that that isn't noncommercial educational use," Pausch explained.

That means Electronic Arts won't be offering a souped-up commercial version of the program — and Pausch acknowledged the deal also means neither he nor CMU will profit from Alice 3.0. "Put the handcuffs on me," he said jokingly.

"We all want kids, particularly middle-school girls, to have a better path toward computer science," Pausch said, "so it really is this pure play in terms of, for lack of a better word, nobility."