Catrobat is a visual programming language for smartphones, tablets and mobile browsers. Pocket Code is an app that lets you play with that code, in a limited but accessible format.
The first line of Pocket Code’s Google Play page says “Update: now with intro and tutorials at http://catrob.at/i and https://pocketcode.org/tutorial”. This is important, because without a tutorial I really couldn’t figure out what was going on. When you initially open up the app there’s very little guidance of any sort. The ‘Continue (My First Program)' option takes you to what turns out to be a whack-a-mole game that you may or may not have ‘built’, but there’s no explanation of any of it, even to the point where you’re staring at the bobbing moles not knowing what to do with them. After gormlessly tapping my way through a few menus without much success, I gave up and let the online tutorial guide me through.
Pocket Code works on what it describes as a "LEGO-style" programming environment”. You assemble your coding out of pre-made ‘bricks’ that you link up and reorder to achieve what you’re after. They’re probably quite familiar to anyone with a bit of coding experience – scripts for moving an object, reacting to a player’s inputs, and so on – and, when you go through the steps of the tutorial, even the coding novices among us can start to get a hang of things. A nice touch is that you can quickly check out how your game is behaving every time you add a new brick of code, then go back into the editing screens to tweak it.
The app does keep trying to get me to install something called Pocket Paint which I disapprove of on principle – it’s almost certainly just a basic drawing program but still, I wish they’d either include that functionality with Pocket Code or let the app work with the drawing program of my choice. If they keep pushing particular apps at me it comes across as relentlessly self-promotional at best and nefariously virus-like at worst.
If you work your way through the tutorial on the website it does gradually give you an understanding of how the different pieces of code work and interact. I feel like if I played with this long enough I could probably make some fun little apps, maybe even a whack-a-mole game. The modular set-up makes it feel like your options are sort of limited, but realistically there are enough variables that you have a pretty wide range of outcomes available to you if you’re willing to put the effort in. In that way it’s again a bit like LEGO, I suppose.