For autistic gamers, the old school rules

I am your father's videogames: Game On owner Tristan Whitworth, not really a dark-side kind of guy.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

In a world ruled by Nathan Drake and Master Chief, a passionate video gamer has taken the entrepreneurial plunge with the Mario brothers and an old-school hedgehog.

As digital art and functionality have leapt forward, so have videogames, with cinema-quality graphics, deep storylines and a multitude of complex controls. But some longtime players would suggest the gaming industry has lost its way: The characters of the popular “Uncharted” and “Halo” series – including Messrs. Drake and Chief, respectively – look and play great, but there’s not a Pac-Man among them.

If the industry has lost its heart, Tristan Whitworth has found it.

Looks familiar: Old-school games find new life at Game On.

Looks familiar: Old-school games find new life at Miller Place shop Game On.

Whitworth officially incorporated Game On Video Games Inc. in May, after launching his retro-themed mom-and-pop shop in 2014. Game On debuted in a small Miller Place space with a fishy past – the original location of both Brian’s Tropical Aquarium & Pets, now a Rocky Point staple, and Miller Place Bait and Tackle – and has since relocated to an 11,000-square-foot storefront on Miller Place’s main drag.

For retro-gamers, it’s a beauty hook. The shop deals almost exclusively in yesteryear, billing itself “Long Island’s premier destination” for buying, selling and trading vintage vids and time-tested toys. Most of its floorplan is dedicated to display space, where older visitors can recapture their youth – yes, those are original “Star Wars” spaceships by defunct Kenner Products – and younger ones can tour the history of home videogames.

For Whitworth, it’s personal.

The solopreneur, who earned a bachelor’s of science in psychology from Hofstra University, was studying graduate-level physical therapy at Stony Brook University when reality checked in.

Whitworth, who lost a brother to suicide in 2000, always had “a passion” for older games, based on their relative simplicity – the controls of the classic Atari 2600 system featured a joystick and one red button – and fond family memories.

“I like the history of the games,” he told Innovate LI. “And I like how they make me remember my family and the times we spent together.”

Those feelings came on strong while he was at SBU, when he finally realized his brother’s passing had pushed him in a direction he didn’t necessarily want to go.

“It kind of put me in a certain mind, way too much,” he said. “Go to school. Stay focused. Stay on track.”

But there were always the games Whitworth had played throughout the 90s with his family, and “I finally admitted to myself that this is what I was meant to do.”

Page one of his business plan involved inventory. Game On deals only with genuine antiques, and the aspiring dealer burned many weekends visiting yard sales and chasing leads from the “I buy video games” ads he ran in several publications.

Like a glove: Solopreneur Tristan Whitworth found his true calling in retr-gaming.

Like a glove: Solopreneur Whitworth found his true calling in retro-gaming.

Whitworth estimates he sunk about $10,000 into the venture, including purchasing vintage merchandise, visiting distant collectors and, once he’d built enough stock, opening that first store.

Game On’s inventory stretches from those classic Atari 2600s – the granddaddy of home gaming, generally credited with mainstreaming microprocessor-based consoles and read-only memory game cartridges – to the 16-bit era of the mid-1990s, championed by Sonic, Sega’s speedy, flag-bearing hedgehog.

The shop’s staff has become adept at repairing older systems, according to Whitworth, who admits to not being an electronics wizard and credits his shop’s backroom workshop to instructional YouTube videos, a thriving online retro-gaming community and some fairly specific job qualifications.

“A lot of the staff do this as hobbies,” Whitworth noted. “They love to take video games apart and clean them.

“When we don’t know something, we go on YouTube and troubleshoot as we go,” he added. “We kind of learned together.”

Game On has found an audience among families who are comfortable in the welcoming space, where playing with the merchandise is encouraged and sales are a virtual afterthought.

“We wanted to make it a cozy place,” Whitworth said. “This isn’t Target, where you come in and buy a game and leave. You can just come in and play.”

One family in particular set Whitworth on another heartfelt path. A mother came in with her autistic 13-year-old son, who lit immediately to the old-school games. Soon the mother was crying – her son “was never this happy,” Whitworth said – and she and the shop owner were discussing a retro game night for kids on the autism spectrum.

Spectrum kids were already gravitating to Game On – “They come in more than anyone,” Whitworth noted – so the entrepreneur invited some “select customers” to a trial run.

Participants immediately started asking about inviting other families, and quickly the Miller Place store couldn’t contain the crowd.

Whitworth made some calls, and Game On now sponsors monthly game nights at the North Shore United Methodist Church in Wading River. About 30 people attended November’s event, including a range of young gamers – adolescents to teens – representing various points along the spectrum.

Game Cubes and Sega Genesis consoles lit screens, while Whitworth bounced from table to table, sitting in for rounds of Connect Four and Uno. Gaming’s the thing at the monthly meetups, but socialization – a tough nut to crack for families dealing with autism – is the rub.

“When they come by themselves and play in the store, they don’t socialize well,” Whitworth noted. “But [at game night], they play together and see that they love the same things as other kids. They’re really learning to socialize.”

That’s a benefit not only to the kids, he added, but to parents who often “don’t have any support dealing with autism.”

“They think their kid is strange and wish he’d just like sports,” Whitworth said. “But here, they meet other parents with kids who enjoy the same things.”

The game nights don’t necessarily help his business, but “that’s fine,” according to Whitworth, who said the events motivate his employees and give him a new thrill every time he sees participants connect over a Gameboy – the same thrill he gets when older customers come into Game On and recognize a part of their childhood.

“Running a business is stressful, but you really can’t complain,” he said. “I get to collect and play video games, and the reaction of people when they come in and see a Teddy Ruxpin or a Castle Grayskull never gets old.

“I’ve even had moms come in and buy Ataris just so they can have the experience of playing with their kid,” Whitworth added. “That’s great.”

Game On

What’s It? Retro videogame store with a heart

Brought To You By: Tristan Whitworth, entrepreneurial (and socially conscious) gamer

All In: $10,000, self-invested by Whitworth, mostly to build inventory and rent space

Status: Player 1 ready


2 Comments on "For autistic gamers, the old school rules"

  1. Great piece. Video gaming has become repetitive and those of us who love video games yearn for the days of the classics.

    As usual, great job, Greg.

  2. Hey Tristan,

    Didn’t see mention of Mattel’s Intellivision, one of the main trunks of the video game tree. Invented and some chips produced on Long Island.

    But does bring back memories when we actually moved pixels around and tuned chips to make sounds.

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