Tim Young has set up a business developing educational video games. (Photo: supplied).

Harnessing the power of gaming for good: Attitude Awards nominee Tim Young

Kids will spend hours playing video games anyway so you may as well hook them into an online adventure that teaches them something, an Attitude Awards nominee says. 

Tim Young says technology makes him “superhuman”.

The founder of social enterprise Education These Days walks the talk when it comes to using tech to improve people’s lives. As a person with tetraplegia, he relies on digital tools to pursue his goals, and as an entrepreneur he is giving back by educating the next generation via gaming.

Tim fractured his vertebrae during a snowboarding accident in 2009, losing feeling in 84 percent of his body. Since then he has completed a Masters of Science and a postgraduate qualification in educational psychology, taught himself programming, set up a business, and released his first educational video game, Rocket Island.

Young is a finalist in the Entrepreneur category at this year’s Attitude Awards. The Spinoff caught up with him ahead of the awards ceremony.

Are you an educational psychologist?

I’m not a registered educational psychologist. I studied educational psychology, but decided to follow the technology side of things partly because it suits my lifestyle with my injury – being able to work from home, having that flexibility, and not having to travel so often – and also for the fact that you can reach more kids and have a bigger impact.

What’s the scene like in educational games, is it quite competitive? 

I don’t think so, personally. I wasn’t planning on making an educational video game. I’ve always had a really heavy interest in science and tech stuff anyway, and when I did my thesis I saw a glaring gap in the market. There was lots of literature about how to make a good educational video game, but there’s nothing out there that’s good, really. I did a bit more research, there’s Games for Change which is an international organisation, and they’re all about educational games and there’s more good ones coming through. But if they’ve got good graphics they’re usually really limited in game play, they’ve got a few tasks, maybe an hour or two of game play. Or if they’ve got lots of game play it’s boring and not very interactive. Rocket Island has got nearly 35,000 words in it and it’s all 3D so I think it’s probably the only game out there at the moment with good graphics and extensive game play.

Tell us about Rocket Island.

It’s a 3D open world environment, kind of like Grand Theft Auto but a lot less violent. Players work with community members to collect resources to send a rocket into space – you work with the farmer to collect food, then you work with the restaurant person to cook it for the astronauts, or you can work with the builder and learn about mathematical thinking skills as you prepare the launch pad.

The main themes of the game are community participation and sustainability, so there’s a heavy science theme and a lot of renewable energy-type learning.

I kind of wrote the idea for the sequel before this one, which is set in space. But I decided to do this one first because I just taught myself programming on YouTube and it was a lot simpler having an earth-based game than a space-based game for my first game.

So the second game will be about what players do once they’ve reached space?

That will involve more advanced maths and more abstract problem solving-type skills, but this is just more basic skills. There’s a bit of rocket science in there but it’s high school level rather than beyond that.

Where is it available?

It’s on Steam which is like the PC version of Google Play Store for PC games. That’s really popular, it’s where all the kids buy Fortnight or whatever they play. That’s available on Windows and Mac. I have a programmer who I outsource some of the trickier things to every now and again, so he’s helping me release it on Android and Chromebook at the moment.

You pay to buy the game? 

Yeah, you can buy it on Steam and I think it’s about $6, or otherwise I’m working directly with schools to provide it to all their students of a certain age doing certain subjects, so it’s cheaper for them, it’s about $4 a student. And they also then get 120 lesson plans that I’ve adapted based on the New Zealand curriculum.

Tim Young plans to seek investment for his educational gaming venture, Education These Days. (Photo: Supplied).

Is your aim to turn this into a serious business?

Yeah absolutely. It is more social entrepreneurship, I do want to make money but more to facilitate the growth of the project and to spread it as far as I can. So I’ll be giving it away free to developing countries and low decile schools. So far I’ve got three schools which have registered their interest in ordering 1000 units each so if I can do one of them every two weeks, which I think is quite a conservative estimate, I can make $2000 a week. That’s a start. But as soon as I can afford to hire sales people in different areas I think it can grow exponentially.

One of the things about educational games is that you have to keep them updated, otherwise kids get bored. Is that a challenge for you? 

I want to be making sequels anyway so I’d like to be up with new technology, and do more in augmented reality and virtual reality. I’ll probably release this game in virtual reality in the future.

I think that’s true if you’ve got five hours of game play or something – once you’ve done the five hours then it’s over. But with the 120 lesson plans that I’ve developed that’s potentially 120 hours of learning, and not all of that is purely game playing. My lesson plans will say, ‘go to this part of the island and speak to this person’, and ‘go collect this information from this point’. And then I’ll suggest they discuss with other class members or go online and do more self-directed learning. That’s the main way I’m able to expand and update. But I will continue to update it.

How long has it taken you to get to this stage with the game?

About three years. I finished my studies at the start of 2016 but I had started working on the game design and programming while I was still studying. I did a Kickstarter campaign, and once I had that go through I really knew I could keep going for a while. I raised $15,000. I bought my first house in 2014, so there was a bit of capital gain there. I bought a new house with my fiancée in Ngaruawahia, it was actually a nicer house but cheaper than my old house in Hamilton, so I had a bit of money from that.

Are you seeking investment?

I am now. I’m just finishing the lesson plan and releasing it on Chromebook and Android. I just wanted to get all the features there before I really pushed it to investors, and now that I’m in the last term of school I’ve been emailing a lot of schools and starting to register interest for next year. That way I’ll have more negotiating power with any investors when the time comes.

Have you had much assistance in the way of business mentors or going through a business incubator?

I’ve been involved with the Waikato Innovation Park and the business mentors through there. They helped me get a $2000 Getting Started grant, and put me in touch with a lot of other ed-tech businesses which has been really cool to get to know them. They’ve involved me in lots of networking opportunities. I helped co-found the Young Innovation Challenge recently in the Waikato as well. I met a guy through that who’s also on the board of Soda Inc. I’ve also met another one of their contacts. So I’m considering a few different things, I think I’m starting to get a bit more of a strategy around what equity I’m willing to give up for what different opportunity, now that I’m starting to do investing.

What does your injury mean in terms of your day-to-day life? 

I’m a tetraplegic, I don’t have any use of my hands. It takes a lot longer to do everything, just typing on the keyboard takes a long time. I have voice recognition software on my computer but it’s not very easy to use on all my other devices so I kind of get used to not using it and being a bit slow. I generally need a carer to assist me when I’m travelling anywhere that’s not just nearby, so I have to plan things around when I have carers available. Generally I just have to be quite careful, have a bit of a game plan in case I need to go to the toilet or something like that. It makes me less productive in general and slightly more worried when I go to a business meeting. I just have to work harder, I guess.

I always did want to do something good in the world, but I think being confronted with your own mortality at a young age increases motivation to give something back.

How do you type?

I can’t move my fingers individually, but I can kind of stretch my thumb out over my phone and type with my thumb. My thumb doesn’t really work but my whole arm moves to separate my thumb. I’ve kind of figured out ways to use touch screen technology with my knuckles and everything. Then over the years I’ve learned to tap with my knuckles on my laptop keyboard as well.

You’ve launched a business that anyone would be proud of, and you’ve done this despite many disadvantages, so how does it make you feel to be recognised by the Attitude Awards in particular?

It’s really cool. To be honest I did it to get a bit more publicity, but now that it’s actually happened it’s a real honour. When I first had my accident I met with a few other tetraplegics who had my same level of injury who had a job, and were able to use a cellphone and be fairly independent throughout the day, and that was always super-impressive and helped me envision where my life could be. It would have been a lot harder to do that without having those people early on that I had seen. I think it’s really cool to try and pass that forward.

One of the subjects you’re interested in is online versus face-to-face learning – what’s your view about what technology is doing to our kids?

I think it’s all about balance, and trying to figure out where that balance is. I don’t think the medium is inherently evil, I think if it’s TV or novels or whatever you’re doing in life, if you’re doing too much of one thing it’s going to be detrimental to other parts of your life. But I think it is the most interactive and most immersive medium. So with all the extra stimulation these days and the difficulties in keeping students’ attention, I think you really need to be competing on the most immersive technology. Kids are going to spend so much time playing video games anyway because of how fun and immersive they are, so you really need to be competing within that space for their attention.

And technology must help you as someone who has an injury – life must be a bit different today than it would have been say 50 years ago.

Yeah, absolutely – 30 or 40 years ago I think a tetraplegic had a few years’ of life expectancy. And beyond keeping people alive, to be able to thrive and have a meaningful and fulfilling life, technology has been absolutely crucial. I think the first iPhone came out around the year of my accident, and that was just absolutely perfect, because it meant I could go to class and I wouldn’t need a reader/writer. While I still might have been able to achieve what I have without as much technology, I think I would be much less productive. Without computers I am subhuman, to a point, and with computers I’m superhuman. So it’s like night and day, the difference.

The Attitude Awards will be announced at a ceremony in Auckland on November 28, and broadcast in an hour-long special on TVNZ1.


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