Free opensource videogames with social impact

Francesco Cavallari, founder of Video Games Without Borders show us how gamification is able to change the lives of hundreds of people. Specifically, the Foundation has developed Antura and the Letters, a video game designed to teach Syrian children out of school to read in Arabic, which seeks to become an open source in all different languages. He tells us his own trajectory.

Video Games Without Borders is a non-profit organization and a global community of people who believe in the potential of digital games to change the world for the better; that’s why we develop social impact video games aiming to help to achieve each and every one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. We are convinced that there are three main ways in which video games can help:

  • Directly improving players’ quality of life.
  • Raising funds to finance other NGOs work.
  • Raising awareness on special importance issues.

Our online community is composed of more than 220 people (from 28 different countries) with very diverse profiles: programmers and designers, teachers and students, psychologists and translators, etc.

Our community’s doors are open to anyone who wants to help through digital games or who simply is curious to know more about the subject. Members participate voluntarily in the definition of projects and, once the necessary funding is found, they can be part of the development team and charge for their work. In other words, we apply collaborative economy to the development of video games with social impact.

Our project Antura and the Letters is a video game for mobile devices developed with the aim to teach the 2.5 million Syrian children (between 5 and 10 years old) who are out of school because of the conflict, to read in Arabic, taking advantage of the fact that the vast majority of Syrian families have a Smartphone.

It can be used as an educational complement with school children or it can be used with total autonomy by children who do not have access to formal education.

Learning to read has never been so much fun!

Learning becomes an adventure with Antura, the lovely dog. The player will have to cross 6 worlds full of colors and gifts. Each world includes 15 didactic units, each one with a specific pedagogical objective that is achieved thanks to a series of mini-games and concludes with a final test to reinforce the learning. The Antura dog is the main element that motivates the player to continue advancing and is his companion on this journey.

The gifts that are collected in the different worlds allow you to customize Antura, so that each player has a unique dog and easily recognizable, creating an emotional link with the game.

Pedagogical method

Learning is based on Stealth Learning, a method that allows children to focus on play and the challenges it poses, without really having to make an effort to learn or memorize concepts. The game introduces new concepts without any theoretical explanation, it simply challenges and guides the player through the first steps so that he can then move forward on his own, creating his own mental model of knowledge. In addition, each time the player interacts with a letter or a word, the game pronounces it the correct way, reinforcing learning. The game follows a logical progression that allows children to learn to read Arabic from scratch thanks to the following macro-steps:

  • Discover and recognize letters by name.
  • To discover and recognize the different forms of each letter (in Arabic a same letter has 4 different forms according to its position in the word) and its sound according to the accent that it carries (in Arabic the main accents represent short vowels).
  • Construct and read words formed by the letters that have already been learned.

This process is repeated in each of the 6 worlds, as each world introduces some new letters according to a difficulty curve designed to help the child build a mental model that allows him/her to learn autonomously. In this way, children can read words at the end of the first world, even if they only know a few letters. In each world, more letters will be added so that more and more words can be formed and read.

The player can review at any time his personal dictionary that includes all the letters and marks the elements already learned. Each letter can be consulted with all its forms and variations, as well as listen to the correct pronunciation of each element. The same system is applied to words: each word can be consulted and listened to, as well as seeing the letters that compose it and, when possible, a drawing that represents it.

Once the game is completed you will have learned all the Arabic letters (with all their forms and variations, which are more than 100) and over 400 words.

Antura and the Letters has been chosen as the winner of the international EduApp4Syria contest, organized by the Norwegian government with several international allies, and is available for free download on AppStore and Google Play since March 2017.

During summer 2017, an independent impact measurement was made in the Azraq refugee camp (Jordan) with 300 children playing Antura and the Letters and 300 other children as a control group. In March 2018, within the framework of the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week in Paris, impact assessment reports have been published approving an important improvement in reading comprehension and psychosocial well-being of children.

The reading comprehension part has been measured with a subset of the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA). As it can be clearly seen in the diagram, the control group started with an Oral Reading Fluency (ORF) level almost twice higher than the initial level of the group that played Antura and the Letters. In just two months (27 hours of play) the Antura group almost reached the control group’s level, which in turn has remained practically stable.

Regarding psychosocial well-being, Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) has been used. The Antura and the Letters group started with a score clearly lower than the control group, but in this case the control group has worsened while the Antura and the Letters group has improved a lot, until reaching a score higher than the control group!

In February 2018, a new version of the game has been released with several improvements thanks to the learnings resulting from that trial in the field, especially in the difficulty curve and in the player’s motivation, so we are very convinced that the impact of the game will now be even greater.

On the other hand, the game’s quality is receiving very positive feedback with over 70,000 downloads and an average rating of 4.7 stars in Google Play! It has also received the Titanium Award for Best Serious Game of the Year at the Fun & Serious Games Festival in Bilbao and a double nomination as the Most Significant Impact and Best Learning Game at the Games for Change Awards in New York City, the social impact video games “Oscars”.

We have developed Antura and the Letters together with 2 international allies: Cologne Game Lab / TH Köln (German public university) and Wixel Studios (Lebanese development studio) … and this has allowed us to demonstrate the effectiveness of our innovative way to organize production. The development team, mainly composed by members of our community, has been specifically recruited for this project and allowing to scale the team’s size up very quickly according to needs: in the end, about 60 people from various countries around the Mediterranean collaborated on the project.

Next steps

At the moment, the game is only available to learn to read in Arabic, but Antura and the Letters is designed as an Open Source literacy tool that can be adapted to any language, so we want to scale its impact to other regions of the world (Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, etc.), either as a school support for school children or as an emergency solution in the humanitarian crises context. In addition, the game can be adapted to learn foreign languages, both in the context of formal/semi-formal education and for of migrants’ inclusion in their host countries.

The Arabic version has allowed us to lay strong foundations for learning and experiment with various distribution channels: all this allows us to be very optimistic about the cost and impact of future versions. Thanks to the constant growth of Smartphones in developing countries and among vulnerable groups (for example, UNESCO estimates that the number of Smartphones in Africa will triple between 2015 and 2020, from 226 million to 720 million), we are convinced that we can offer basic literacy for only 1€ per child! Our goal is to help 1 million children over the next 4 years, by adapting the game to several languages: to achieve this we are looking for international partners, especially for the financing and distribution of the different game.

Everyone is invited to join our community and to help us achieve this ambitious goal… We are waiting for you!

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