(July 21, 2015, St. Paul, Minn.) Video games can mimic real life. Just as a game’s missions can include moving from screen to screen, collecting things to increase life capacity, and leveling up to be more effective, people in real life move from day to day, collect resources to improve life, and gain knowledge to contribute to society. And just like video games, life can come with obstacles.
For Nate Allard, a 15-year-old from Chanhassen, Minn., obstacles don’t stand a chance at keeping him away from his life’s missions, including creating, designing, and building a video arcade game from scratch, a feat he accomplished despite some challenges.
When he was 3, Nate was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that falls on the autism spectrum. Autism often affects social interaction, the ability to communicate ideas and feelings, imagination, self-regulation, and the ability to establish relationships with others. Autism also can encourage focus or fascinations on specific subjects, creating focus and evolving deep passions for those subjects.
Shyla Allard, Nate’s mom, said “Nate’s area of high focus is gaming. Game development seems to be Nate’s social outlet.”
Nate’s interests in programming began when he was 2 and figured out how to change the screen saver on his family’s home computer. His natural knack for programming and electronics quickly became evident to his family. “It comes easy,” he said. “It’s like I already know how to do it.”
Nate’s parents helped him develop his gaming fascination by allowing him to participate in multiple after school programs. In first grade, he started learning a game development program called Game Maker, and attended after school classes with fifth graders. “Nate was so interested and could read at a fifth grade level – we knew he could take this class,” Allard said.
Nate continued with programming classes throughout elementary school, and he searched the Internet to self-teach and dissect game animation. He went on to take Scratch classes at the Science Museum of Minnesota where instructors quickly learned that he was too advanced for their curriculum. Allard then found an ID Tech Camp for Nate, and this summer he will take classes in the computer language C++ as well as Engineering and Programming. “He continues to grow and challenge himself,” Allard said.
Not only is Nate talented at video game creation, he also uses it as an artistic outlet. “Creating video games helps me express my creativity,” Nate said.
Since 2012, Nate had a vision of making an arcade machine out of Lost Glitch, a game he developed from countless pencil sketch concepts and then programmed using Game Maker 8 for Windows. He named the game based on what happened when he removed a game cartridge from an old gaming system – the game would “glitch out”.
“He had been wanting to make the arcade machine since he was in seventh grade,” Allard said. “I told him he should hold off until high school so the accomplishment could go on his resume.
The time was right in the summer of 2014, the summer before Nate’s freshman year at Chanhassen High School. A huge undertaking, the project required ordering parts, painting, carpentry, working with a graphic designer for the artwork, electrical wiring, grounding buttons, installing a monitor, wiring for sound and light, and detailed assembly of the actual arcade machine. Nate’s dad helped with painting and wiring. “Wiring the buttons was really hard,” Nate said.
Allard said, “Not only was this a technical challenge, but it also was a great lesson in collaboration and using social skills to work with others.”
By winter 2015, Nate realized his dream when Lost Glitch – Special Arcade Version was complete.
Allard’s video game includes a main character, “Neito”, whose mission is to eliminate enemies and collect points while eating a variety of foods, including fruit, hamburgers, French fries, to make it through 20 increasingly challenging game levels. Showing his respect for the influence of Japanese game designers, Nate chose the name “Neito” because it translates to “Nate” in Japanese.
“The main character is basically Nate,” Allard said. “The character wears a green T-shirt, a joker hat, and blue shorts – an outfit Nate used to wear a lot when he was younger.”
Allard notes that Lost Glitch is a happy, feel good-type of game that’s full of adventures. “It’s totally Nate’s personality,” she said. “A lot of other kids Nate’s age are into the more violent, destructive kinds of games – Nate just isn’t into that. He likes the positive, and his game reflects that.”
When Nate’s friends visit, they eagerly head for the Allard’s basement so they can give Lost Glitch a try. “My friends who have played the game call it ‘Nintendo hard’ because it’s very difficult to solve,” Nate said. “They’re shocked by the game – they can’t believe I made it.
“I’m so proud of him for accomplishing this huge project,” Allard said. “He worked many hours with minimal help, and it has been wonderful watching him use all of his gifts.” Allard said she hopes Nate’s story of persistence and positivity serve as hope and inspiration to others touched by autism.
Nate continues to build his gaming ideas and has his sights set on a new mission. “I want to be a game director so I can design and direct the creation of games,” he said. “For now though, I’m really satisfied to have finally accomplished one of my major life goals.”
Provided by Kelly Thomalla, Director of Marketing and Communication, Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM), with Shyla Allard’s permission.