Choose Your Path

Anthony speaks with a young programmer to see what got him into the field, and to perhaps learn some lessons that other parents of young children can instill in their kids.

You are a guard working at a prison located deep in the desert. No signs of civilization are in sight. You hear a gunshot coming from the control room and the power goes out. You’re scared, but armed to the teeth. What do you do: run away, enter the control room or find backup?

This is the opening sequence of one adventure inside a new app called Eternal Story. Available via Apple’s App Store, the choose-your-own-adventure game was developed by Aidan Thomson, who is in the seventh grade and was first introduced to programming by his father, Seth Thomson, chief information officer for DRW.

Using the Unity engine and C# programming language, Aidan wrote out and coded a set of sub-stories for genres pertaining to action/adventure, historical fiction, fantasy, horror and realistic fiction. Each decision—say, to run or fight—leads to a new scenario that requires the user to make more decisions, which could lead to glorious victory or an untimely demise. While on its face it seems simple enough, there was a lot of writing, coding and trial-and-error involved in the process. “I started about a year-and-a-half ago,” says Aidan. “When I was younger I thought that making an app and having it on the App Store would be so cool. I knew a bunch about Unity and I saw that you could make an app with it, so I decided to make a text-based game because Unity is known for its UI.”

Full of youthful modesty, Aidan says the story ideas and writing came “kind of easy” for him as he read a lot of adventure stories. Along the way he also had help from his friend Harper Jamison, who wrote the action/adventure game Zombies. For his next act, Aidan hopes to enlist more of his friends to help with the time-consuming process of writing.

Aidan’s first foray into coding came through Scratch, a visual language and online community that offers tutoring support. He would also play the video game Minecraft with his dad, who found a course that showed Aidan how to build his own Minecraft modifications. As for Eternal Story, he’s continuously updating it and fixing bugs, the bane of every programmer’s existence. He’s also working to improve his toolkit by taking a course in Unreal, a game engine developed by Epic Games, with C++.

  • READ: He found fame as the mind behind C++, one of the most popular programming languages ever created. But today, Bjarne Stroustrup is a managing director at Morgan Stanley where he works to create more efficient and secure technology infrastructures. Click here.

“I really like the logic and the math of coding,” Aidan says. “You can create this huge sequence and it’s an equation and you press play and it all works perfectly. It’s so complicated but you understand every little bit about it.”

While Aidan is young, he’s already well on his own path when it comes to programming and robotics. Even though there aren’t any programming-specific classes at his school, he’s taking online classes through Udemy.com, extra credit classes at Northwestern University and is a member of the First Lego League, which each season offers a challenge to be completed by kids ages nine to 16, depending on where they live. Through it, they build their own robots and program them to complete different challenges, and Aidan is one of the main programmers on his team, of which his dad is a coach.

This year’s challenge is “Into Orbit,” which involves the teams doing research on the impacts of long-term space travel. And it’s not just the kids who are learning. Even the elder Thomson is learning things he’s been able to take with him back to DRW.

Seth Thomson
Aidan Thomson (left) and Seth Thomson

“I’ve learned how to better guide people through watching where he needed to work on his own, and where I could inject myself and it would be helpful,” says Seth. “At first I was very involved when he started with Scratch. I went through the first chapter of the book with him, and then he went on his own. After that, I’ve been less involved and checking in periodically or when he asks me for help, but also to encourage him to seek help on his own and find resources so he can learn to stand on his own. All of that has helped me in coaching some of my employees.”

On the cover of the December issue of Waters is the inventor of the ubiquitous C++ programming language, Bjarne Stroustrup. While Aidan Thomson has a long way to go before creating something as widely used as what Stroustrup invented, that process has to start somewhere. Aidan’s Eternal Story is only just beginning.

  • READThe jobs of tomorrow will require computer skills and, to a growing extent, the ability to code. What happens if a generation of kids is left behind? Click here
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