By Steven Melendez3 minute Read

There are plenty of ways to learn to code: taking classes, studying books, and working through online tutorials.

Another option, created by the cloud-based communications company Twilio, is by playing a video game. Since 2013, the company has been releasing versions of a game it calls TwilioQuest, which it originally designed for demos at its developer conference. A role-playing game reminiscent of 16-bit classics from the Super Nintendo era—though the first version looked a bit more like the original Nintendo Entertainment System—it allows players to level up their skills at languages like Python and JavaScript and programming tools like the source code management system Git as they level up their characters.

“Being a fellow nerd who definitely did play a bunch of Chrono Trigger and other classics of the 16-bit era, the metaphor of a role-playing game where you could kind of level up at your own pace seemed like a useful thing to build upon for training,” says Kevin Whinnery, the game’s creator and head of the TwilioQuest team.

[Image: courtesy of Twilio]

Now Twilio is rolling out version 3.2 of the game, which is free for Windows, Mac, and Linux systems. The new version boasts improved graphics courtesy of pixel artist Kerrie Lake, as well as a new level where players can learn to use the application programming interfaces that let their code talk to cloud systems such as that offered by Twilio. That level, called The Arcane Academy of API Arts, takes some inspiration from fantasy magic schools in series like Harry Potter, The Magicians, and Earthsea, but the focus is naturally on writing code, not spells, to harness the power of existing online resources.

“Developers get to stand on the shoulders of giants now,” says Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson.

The new version of the game also includes tools to let players build their own downloadable extensions into the game, which the TwilioQuest creators envision will let people create their own levels to teach additional programming skills and possibly even other types of material. Extension creators can write JavaScript code to run on Node.JS that validates answers players provide to puzzles, and those could be used to teach anything from shell scripting to English punctuation. Twilio is already working with the media processing software company Cloudinary, which is developing extensions to teach people to use its video-processing APIs, Lawson says.

[Image: courtesy of Twilio]

“There are a lot of coders out there and a lot of people that are interested in coding,” says Arthur Tham, a game designer and recent college grad who works on TwilioQuest after working with Twilio as a student.

The game is used in some schools, from the middle school to university level, as a fun way to teach coding skills, and some students used it as a fun way to study while kept home during the pandemic. The company estimates that student sessions on TwilioQuest more than doubled during the past year.

But some active users are also working professionals looking to add new programming languages to their repertoires, occasionally leading to teasing from coworkers or pointed questions from bosses when they’re seemingly playing games in the office.

“One of our most active members is a guy who’s been writing C# code for years,” says Whinnery, who uses the game to practice JavaScript and Python.

TwilioQuest’s popularity is naturally beneficial for Twilio–which provides a platform for programmers to automate tasks like dispatching texts, emails, and phone calls– as developers familiarize themselves with using such systems. And the game’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek storyline captures the spirit of internet upstarts challenging incumbent players, while spreading through word of mouth and helping to woo up-and-coming developers like Tham.

[Image: courtesy of Twilio]

“The power of code is so potent, it has attracted the attention of those who seek to greedily expand and jealously defend their own power,” reads a plot summary on the Twilio site. “A shadowy organization, known only as the Legacy Systems, plans to exploit their hoarded wealth and privilege in a sinister plot to dominate the free people of The Cloud.”

But the company says the game—which ultimately is produced by a lean team of no more than six people—also furthers its mission of empowering developers.

“Our mission is to unlock the imagination of builders,” Lawson says.