An international consortium of humanitarian aid groups has announced the winners of a competition to develop educational apps for Syrian children displaced by that country’s brutal civil war.
The two winners are Feed the Monster and Antura & The Letters, games that are designed to help improve the literacy skills of the estimated 2.5 million Syrian children who are now without schools. The two titles were chosen as part of EduApp4Syria, a $1.7 million competition that was developed as a partnership between the Norwegian government with the All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development and partners such as USAID,World Vision and the Australian Government.
The competition, including the development process and judging, was overseen by Alf Inge Wang, a game developer and professor in the department of computer science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
“I’m passionate about finding new uses for games,” he said. “One of my goals is to find the sweet spot between learning and having fun.”
The two apps in this case, he said, were chosen because they came closest to that sweet spot.
Feed the Monster was developed as part of a joint venture of Apps Factory, the Center for Educational Technology, and the International Rescue Committee. The game gives kids monsters to collect and raise and teaches them Arabic reading and writing along the way.
Antura & The Letters was the result of a collaboration between the Cologne Game Lab, Video Games Without Borders, and a Lebanese game developer Wixel Studio. The game mixes animated characters, virtual worlds, and quizzes to improve literacy skills.
The competition was originally announced in September 2015. Wang said after he was recruited to run the competition, he spent time visiting refugee camps to understand what might be possible. He was surprised at the prevalence of smartphones among refugees. Despite leaving almost all other possessions behind when they fled, they often hung on to their smartphones or were able to get cheap or free ones at distribution centers at refugee camps.
“The most import thing in their lives was finding food, water, and some of housing,” Wang said. “But they also had their smartphones so they could keep in touch with their families and keep their pictures. So then we understood, OK, this could actually work.”
The competition received 78 applications at the start. Those went through various stages until the number was reduced to a handful of finalists. At each stage, the Norwegian government gave competitors money to continue development and testing. Wang said the developers engaged in extensive user testing with refugees to make sure the games were appealing to the kids.
The winners were announced this week at the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week Conference in order to spread the word to the various humanitarian groups attending. Wang said his group will also continue to seek partnerships with telecom companies to spread the word about the apps, as well as work with other refugee support groups.