Can you learn your way to victory? A new immersive mobile gaming approach to STEM education for refugees.



Mobile gaming is a pervasive activity that crosses gender, cultures & countries. As such it is an excellent vehicle to deliver relevant & immersive educational content. Furthermore, due to their ubiquity, Smartphones are an ideal tool for reaching out to displaced youth across almost all types of refugee settings.


Through the use of an engaging, easily accessible mobile gaming platform, this project aims to address 2 core problems commonly faced by young refugees by:

  1. Increasing opportunities to learn: With pressure on children and their families to make a living, children and youth are often forced to sacrifice formal education in order to support the family.
  2. Increasing access to quality education materials and learning facilities: Learning facilities in many refugee camps are not optimal for children to learn. Also, children & youth may relocate more than once, which can have a large impact on educational access and continuity.


The core concept of the platform is to provide structured, immersive, interactive educational content through challenges that form part of a game narrative. This will take the form of an interactive role-playing game where learners navigate a multi-option storyline by solving problems based on elements of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).  

Motivating learning in difficult environments:

In order to motivate learning, learners gain rewards upon completing games, with higher rewards earned for completing more difficult challenges. Rewards represent levels of academic achievement in each of the four STEM components, which can translate into national (or globally) recognized education certificates. Games are split into chapters with each chapter representing a discrete learning component that furthers user knowledge.

Challenges can take many forms and might include:

  1. Videos, where learners must answer questions or recall images/information that they have seen
  2. First person games
  3. Puzzles
  4. Drawing challenges etc.

What are the key outcomes and impact of your solution?

By developing a globally accessible educational gaming platform, the team intends to achieve five core outcomes. The outcomes can be measured through either a short set of summary questions provided at the end of each game, or through user metrics gathered on the platform.

  1. Increased in access to educational content: Refugees are able to access a wider variety of quality education material than was previously possible.
  2. Sustained engagement with educational content: Through use of the mobile gaming platform as evidenced by the number of games played (and completed) by the learner, and the learners activity on the platform over a given period of time.
  3. Delivery of quality education material through gamification: As evidenced by reviews provided by learners through the mobile platform.
  4. An established user base of active refugee learners: The team has an ambitious target of at least 150,000 users within 12-months and a minimum of 500,000 within 2 years.
  5. Provide education that equips young adults for jobs in the 21st century: Learning challenges based around STEM have been chosen because STEM-based job growth has significantly outpaced non-STEM jobs over the past 10 years.

What actions do you propose to realize your stated goals?

Why mobile gaming?

It is well established that gamification of education content can have strong motivational effects for learners and increases learner engagement [1]. Roleplaying (story-based) games in particular have been shown to improve learning outcomes [2], [3], [4].

Developing gaming content around STEM

During the early (pilot) phase of the project the educational gaming platform will develop content based on a range of STEM-based educational content such as:



Once sufficient content is available, the educational gaming platform will be able to match (or modify) games to address national curriculums within host countries. Such ‘matching’ should be done in close collaboration with education ministries and other key stakeholders, including UNHCR.

Selecting what to learn and which game to play

Similar in concept to ‘Netflix’, refugees are able to access a range of educational games that represent a specific in-depth component of STEM, whilst also providing educational challenges relevant to other aspects of STEM. For example, a game with a primary science focus will also provide educational challenges that re-enforce key scientific concepts through technology, engineering and math-based exercises. Country specific content will also be developed/adapted in order to meet national/regional education requirements.

Learners are able to select games based on the games’ perceived level of difficulty in each of the four STEM components. Learners can also refer to previous user ratings and comments on the games playability and quality of educational content.  


Learning through gaming

The primary concept of this approach is to make learning an integral and immersive part of the gaming experience. As such, every scene has:

  1. A narrative that forms part of the storyline and which outlines a problem to be solved.
  2. 4 scenario challenges (options) to solve the problem (and progress the story narrative) based on a component of STEM.
  3. An outcome based on how the problem has been solved that leads to the next part of the story narrative.


As shown in Figure 3, each challenge has a corresponding level of difficulty for which the learner will gain a reward when successfully completed. The more difficult the level of difficulty selected, the greater the reward. The scores (rewards collected) for each challenge are then stored and a combined score given for each STEM component at the end of the game. Once completed, players can go back to previous chapters at any point to replay challenges and increase their rewards.

Gaining tangible rewards to motivate learning

In order to motive learning and address some of the financial burden education can place on refugee learners and their families, the team plans to partner with mobile operators to provide free airtime as a reward for competing challenges. By sponsoring learners to complete educational challenges, mobile operators are able to raise their profile and foster brand loyalty. Operators (and other corporate entities) will also be encouraged to offer work experience, apprentices or scholarships for learners that achieve certain levels of attainment as part of community-based competitions within refugee camps. This may encourage healthy competition amongst learners and a further motivation to engage with the mobile gaming platform.

Example of game layout

Figure 4 provides an example layout for the role-playing game tailored to smartphones.


Recording educational progress and sharing achievements

As depicted in Figure 5, learners simply have to create a user account to begin accessing games and their educational content. Once an account is created, the learner is able to set their desired proficiency (between ‘novice’ and ‘expert’) in science, technology, engineering and math by setting attainment goals using a visual slider. Educational attainment goals can be changed at any time from within the user dashboard.

In addition to setting attainment goals, the dashboard displays current attainment scores for each STEM component based on the games completed by the learner so far. Attainment scores are based on the rewards collected during each game. An average of the rewards collected for each component is also displayed based on overall game performance.

If the learner so chooses, the dashboard can be made public to the wider online community so that members can view the educational achievements currently attained. Amongst other benefits, achievement sharing can be used to:

  1. Inform prospective employers of the learner's abilities in core skills (STEM)
  2. Translate attainment scores into recognized certificates of education with affiliated academic institutions
  3. Support learners in the bid towards accessing more formal education through collages and universities
  4. Make members of the local refugee and host community aware of the learners skills to support the community and business opportunities
  5. Inform NGOs operating in the area of the valuable human resource available for local initiatives. 

With support from institutions such as the University of Oxford (UK) and Georgetown University (USA) the designers hope that rewards collected through learning challenges can be translated into recognized academic or skills-based qualifications.


Contributing to content

Once the platform is created a simple API (application interface) will be provided to individuals and organizations that wish to develop STEM-based educational material. A web-based storyboarding tool will also provided to promote conceptualization of game designs. With these tools developers will have the opportunity to:

  1. Design/develop educational challenges that can be integrated into role-playing games
  2. Design role-playing game outlines (narrative, artwork etc.) that can be mapped directly onto the gaming platform via the API.


These contributions will comprise a library of education and gaming content for learners to access using the home screen concept shown in Figure 6. 



In order to ensure that the games run optimally, the front end of the application will be developed as a native application running on Android and iOS. The app will link to game/education content available online which can be streamed, or downloaded as determined by the user. User game achievements (the dashboard in Figure 5) will be stored both online and on the mobile device.

The API provided to developers will support the creation of education challenges as well as the integration of complete game narratives following the solution tree approach outlined in Figure 3. The web tools will support the creation of game narratives to which education challenges can be added by third parties.


Adapting content for target users

The target age group of the SOLVE initiative is wide (6-24). In order to ensure each group is systematically addressed and that the platform has the best chance of adoption in the short term, we will initially start at the upper age level (16 to 24 year olds) and move to progressively to lower age groups. Why:

  1. Older youth are more likely to possess or have access to a smartphone
  2. Older youth are more likely to have social media accounts to aid with awareness raising and user feedback on game/educational content
  3. Educational game rewards / achievements are more likely to have direct relevance to youth as they look to further their education or access the job market


Distributing content

The educational gaming platform will be available for free from the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store. Educational game content will be stored online and synchronized with the app to ensure that latest games are available. Depending on data bandwidth, the learner will have the option to stream the game or download it onto their smartphone.

Several approaches will be taken to raise awareness:

QR Codes for app download: The platform can be advertised on notice boards in local migration centers, education centers and other public facilities for download. By providing QR codes on the notice, learners can download the app automatically simply by scanning the code with their smartphone

  1. SMS push: To parents and young adults within refugee camps. The text will contain a description of the educational gaming platform and a link to the app
  2. Word of mouth/text: Learners who have downloaded the app will be encouraged to tell their friends and post their achievements on social media. The app will therefore facilitate direct posting to Facebook and other social media sites when learners complete individual challenges or full games
  3. Collaboration: With humanitarian actors such as UNHCR, the IOM and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) working in close contact with young refugees and their families. Such organizations might provide centers and even smartphones where young refugees can gain access to mobile phones to play games and learn from key elements of STEM.


Overcoming cultural challenges

Mobile gaming is a pervasive activity that crosses gender, cultures and countries. As such it is an excellent vehicle to deliver relevant and immersive educational content. However, not all storyboard concepts may be considered suitable across all ages, or within specific regional or cultural contexts. Region and age locking of content may therefore be required to ensure gaming content remains suitable to target learning audiences. The UNHCR, the education ministries of host countries, NGOs and private enterprises can all be consulted to ensure content is relevant and suitable for refugees – both for their cultural context and the context of the host country.

Addressing some key questions

Having run the concept past a range of friends and colleagues, some of the key questions raised include:

  1. Do STEM achievements translate into recognizable qualifications? ¨This is the eventual aim, yes, and will be done in close collaboration with relevant stakeholders in host countries.
  2. Do we know the type of mobile devices refugees are using? ¨Although not all refugees own a smartphone, many have access to devices from friends and family members. The significance of smartphones to refugees, and the devices extensive use, is highlighted in a number of papers and online articles [5], [6], [7].
  3. Do we know what types of data access refugees will have and what are the typical data speeds over mobile/Wfi? Many refugee camps provide free Wifi access. Furthermore mobile operators in many refugee host countries provide pay-as-you-go data at relatively affordable cost. For example, Safaricom in Kenya provides 500mb of mobile data (using scratch-cards) for $5USD and which use 3G and 4G networks. 500mb would be sufficient to download School in an app and at least 5 educational games on the platform
  4. Who will be developing the educational content? The School in an app team, will develop the first 10 to 15 games and associated educational content. The team then intends to develop further content through partnerships with NGOs, UNICEF, universities, the private sector and the international donor community. The aim is for these organizations, and others, to build their own content in order to achieve their own educational objectives
  5. Who will be setting educational objectives? ¨Educational objectives will initially be set by education experts working with the School in an app team. However, the teams plans to work with academic institutions, NGOs and education authorities to ensure content aligns with national educational objectives.

Who will take these actions?

To ensure the educational game platform is designed efficiently, has relevant content and serves the needs of users, key actors will devote time through different phases of the project.

Core team:

  1. Dr Ben Hounsell: Technical producer and implementation researcher – Researcher and technology entrepreneur developing innovative solutions to complex problems for over 15 years
  2. Dr Nassim Majidi: Refugee and migration re-integration expert – Researcher with hands-on experience of refugee and camp environments across Africa and South East Asia
  3. Gobal Tinker: Educational games designer and producer - NY / LA based studio, producing STEM-based children's animated video series, games, apps, books.


Supportive Actors:

  1. UNHCR, IOM, NRC Save the Children: For support in accessing refugee camps and providing localized, contextual knowledge
  2.  Local and regional education authorities: For ensuring the STEM-based content developed in the games is in line with government education objectives
  3. Local businesses and civil society organizations (CSOs): To under understand how the game platform and community sharing of educational achievements can be of benefit to local communities
  4. Refugees themselves: To gain valuable insight and feedback into the value of education content developed and the playability of the games produced.


PHASE 1: Design/planning

The design and planning stage will be critical to the success of the educational game platform. All core team members will be involved in this phase. Furthermore, the Samuel Hall will use resources it has obtained from a recent innovation grant to access refugee camps directly and gather feedback from young refugees on game concepts and the platform in general.

PHASE 2: Implementation

Global Tinker and Ben Hounsell will be most closely involved in the implementation of the platform. These core team members will develop the beta version of the platform for early distribution and test.

PHASE 3: Distribution, adoption and adaptation

Supportive actors will be critical to achieving widespread adoption of the platform using the awareness raising activities described earlier.

PHASE 4: Feedback, adjustment and expansion

In addition to garnering feedback on educational games using the apps built-in rating system, the team will use focus group discussions to speak directly to young refugees who have used the platform. Samuel Hall has longstanding relationships with organizations such as the IOM, NRC, Refunite, UNICEF and others that the team will use to gain access to refugees to get more detailed user feedback. Furthermore, our team will conduct key informant interviews with local businesses and local/regional education authorities to better understand how the platform can meet education and employment needs.

Target geography

The Samuel Hall Innovation team has ambitions to deploy the education gaming platform on a global scale. To achieve this the team will use its regional contacts and local knowledge to deploy the education gaming platform in multiple regions over three stages. These regions were selected as the team has experience working in these countries, which are a major source, sink or point of transit for refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs)[8].  Furthermore, the provision of education within these settlements is also known to be weak [9, 10, 11, 12].

Stage 1: Will Focus on four categories of refugee settlements within Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

  1. Refugee camps: Such as Dadaab in Kenya and Adi Harush in Ethiopia
  2. Urban refugee settings: Such as Eastleigh in Nairobi, Kenya and Shire in Ethiopia
  3. IDP Settlements: such as Dollow in South Central Zone Somalia
  4. Transit settlements such Nakivale in Uganda


Stage 2: Will target IDP settlements in Afghanistan primarily those located in Kabul, but also including, Herat, Jalalabad

Stage 3: Once Stages 1 and 2 are successfully running, the team will look to deploy the platform to other refugee settings across the world. These locations will be determined in collaboration with partners such as UNICEF and UNHCR.

What do you expect are the costs associated with piloting and implementing the solution, and what is your business model?

Estimated budget

Concept and piloting phase (6 months)

Estimated budget: $150,000 USD

Implementation / deployment phase (18 - months)

Estimated budget: $500,000 USD

Continuous evaluation

Estimated budget: $50,000 USD / year

Recurring costs set aside to perform bi-yearly evaluations of platform in terms of uploaded game content user reviews and field-based evaluations with young refugees and other stakeholders.

Business model and achieving sustainability

A hybrid business model will be employed for the platform to ensure refugees are able to access educational content at no cost whilst ensuring long-term sustainability.

To do this the education gaming platform will be available to all (non-refugees included). Many of the games will be downloadable for free (at least 50%), whilst others will require payment. The pricing of educational games will be determined by third-party developers, but we will take a commission of around 30%. Pay-for content will be accessible for free to refugees in camp via promotional codes distributed using the awareness raising approaches outlined earlier. Pay-for content will incentivize developers to create high-quality education materials that reward positive user ratings from within the community. Furthermore, organizations will be able to sponsor/promote their games (for a fee) on the platform such that learners will view sponsored games as recommended/suggested content.

Funding strategy

The team will apply various approaches to securing the funding needed to develop the prototype platform and ensure the management costs of the project are covered for the next 2 – 3 years:

  1. Grant funding:  The team will apply for early stage funding from recognized grant funders. These include (but will not be limited to) the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, the Global Innovation Fund and the MasterCard Foundation.  Many of these funds support innovations from the concept phase to implementation and rollout
  2. Crowdfunding: Using sites such as Razoo, Indiegogo and others. A suitability assessment will be conducted to determine which sites will offer the best chance of success for the platform
  3. Equity investment: Many of the core team are themselves entrepreneurs and have successfully raised funds from private investors. These networks are available for the project if necessary.


The solution will be developed and rolled-out in 3 phases:

PHASE 1: Concept and prototyping

Will include storyboarding around 5 games with screen mockups used to solicit feedback from users. These interviews will be conducted with education experts as well as young refugees in camps and in urban setting to gather feedback on game play and game content and the suitability of education materials to achieve their education and/or career goals.

The team will then translate storyboards into fully playable games – initially on Android – that are ready for beta testing with users. Up to 100 testers will be selected from different settings (urban, camp, transit) using the Stage 1 target geographies described earlier.

Once beta tested, the team will continue a cycle of development (improvement) and test based on user feedback as the education gaming platform is rolled out, firstly within Kenya with at least 1,000 earners. Feedback received for this phase of deployment will be used to strengthen the platform for wider regional deployment in East Africa. Lessons learned will be used to rapidly deploy an iOS version.

PHASE 2: Regionalized deployment

Deployment in Ethiopia, Uganda and Somalia will be rolled-out sequentially to reduce overheads over a period of 6-months to manage game content and adapt to national contexts.

PHASE 3: Global deployment

Deployment will begin in Afghanistan. Games developed for this region will be modified to meet cultural and linguistic contexts. Once successful deployed the team will deploy the platform globally using national-level partners to ensure educational needs are aligned. It is likely that the platform will be region-locked during Phases 1 & 2 to ensure content is suitable to the target demographic. However, with the commencement of Phase 3, the team aims to have the platform available to all refugees that may wish to access it within two years, regardless of their location. 

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[1] Schmitz, B., Klemke, R. and Specht, M. (2012) ‘Effects of mobile gaming patterns on learning

outcomes: a literature review’,  Proceedings of Int. J. Technology Enhanced Learning, Vol. 4, Nos. 5/6, pp. 345–357

[2] Carrigy, T., Naliuka, K., Paterson, N. and Haahr, M. (2010) ‘Design and evaluation of player experience of a location-based mobile game’, Proceedings of NordiCHI, Reykjavik, Iceland, ACM Press, pp.92–101.

[3] Costabile, M.F., De Angeli, A., Lanzilotti, R., Ardito, C., Buono, P. and Pederson, T. (2008) ‘Explore! Possibilities and challenges of mobile learning’, Proceeding of the 26th Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM Press, pp.145–154.

[4] Wijers, M., Jonker, V. and Drijvers, P. (2010) ‘MobileMath: exploring mathematics outside the classroom’, ZDM, Vol. 42, No. 7, pp.789–799.

[5] Kozlowska, H. (2015, September 14). 'The most crucial item that migrants and refugees carry is a smartphone', Last viewed January 20, 2017

[6] O'Malley, J. (2105, September 17) 'Surprised that Syrian refugees have a smartphone?', Last viewed January 20, 2017

[7]  Gillespie.M., Lawrence.A., Cheesman.M., Faith.B., Iliadou.E., Issa.A., Osseiran.S., Skleparis.D., (2016) ‘Mapping refugee media journeys smartphones and social media networks’. The Open University, France MeÌ?dias Monde,  

[8] RMMS & DRC, (2016) ‘Regional Mixed Migration in the Horn of Africa and Yemen in 2016: 2nd Quarter trend summary and analysis’, pp. 1-8

[9] Mitchel.R. (2015). Challenges for schooling in Ethiopia: a summary of recent findings. 15-20

[10] UNICEF (2014). Out of school children study in Uganda, pp. 9-20.

[11] Wakori, K. S. (2014) ‘Factors affecting performance in the Kenya certificate of primary education a Case of Kirinyaga West District Kenya’. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, pp. 286-293.

[12] Williams, J. H., & Cummings, W. C. (2015) ‘Education from the bottom Up: UNICEF's education programme in Somalia’. International Peacekeeping, 22(4), pp. 419-434. 

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Solution Summary
School in an app: Immersive education through innovative mobile gaming
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By:  School in an app
Challenge: Learn: Refugee Education
How can we improve learning outcomes for refugee and displaced young people under 24?