Building Peace with Programming
The Nairobi Play Project combines game design with computational thinking to promote dialogue between communities in conflict
By My Nguyen
What do game design, Scratch programming, and peace-building have in common?
According to the Ariam Mogos, founder of the Nairobi Play Project, more than you may think.
Ariam’s family is from Eritrea, a small country in the horn of Africa.
“When most people think about the global refugee crisis, understandably, they think of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle East and North African countries, but there is also a high number of refugees from countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Eritrea being one of them.”
When Ariam was based in Kenya for work in 2015, she encountered some Eritrean refugees in Nairobi who shared their struggles around access to quality education and work opportunities.
“Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese, and other refugee communities live on the fringes of society. This is not unique to Kenya — we’re seeing this same issue across countries in Europe. Unfortunately, there is a lack of quality education initiatives that support intercultural dialogue and competence.”
After further discussions and some research, it became clear to Ariam that integration is a huge obstacle for refugee populations. She decided to merge some of her own experiences and tools she’d used in the past to address this need, and thus, the Nairobi Play Project was born.
The Nairobi Play Project is a game design and computer programming initiative that “equips urban refugee youth and Kenyan youth in Nairobi with technical skills, 21st century skills, and a peace-building model to support the local integration of urban refugee youth into Kenyan society.”
During the program, young people from diverse backgrounds come together to create and program games about community-based issues using Scratch, giving both groups an opportunity to interact meaningfully with each other in ways that they might not have otherwise.
The curriculum embeds intercultural dialogue activities throughout the game design process, and leverages tools like Scratch, MakeyMakey, and Empathy Toys to strengthen participants’ computational thinking skills.
The Scratch Foundation spoke to Founder and Global Project Lead Ariam Mogos to learn more about the Nairobi Play Project and its inaugural program launch in Nairobi during August 2016.
Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Ariam Mogos. I currently work at UNICEF as an Education Innovation Specialist, but I also run the Nairobi Play Project. I love to make things, and enjoy creating platforms and programs that provide young people with opportunities to discover their passion for making and learning.
What is the Nairobi Play Project?
It is a program model that leverages game design and computational thinking to promote intercultural dialogue between communities in conflict.
The mission of the initiative is to create a successful and engaging model for constructive dialogue and conflict resolution, which promotes empathy and peace-building, and provides intercultural communities with the skills and tools to live together.
What does the week-long program look like?
The program is scaffolded, and the activities cover four different key areas: 21st century skills development, design-based learning, computational thinking, and social activism. Each day usually starts off with exercises focused on active listening, collaboration, constructive criticism, and similar topics. We try to make these exercises as hands-on as possible, and have used Empathy Toys and other tools to accomplish this. As we move on to other activities, we encourage participants to practice these skills throughout the day. Over the course of the week, participants play games, learn the game design process, and remix games.
One of the most significant aspects of the program is the storytelling process. Participants break down the classic storytelling arc and the hero’s journey, which they apply to stories they know. We also do research around national events, based on selected issues, and create stories around these events. Of course, we also have a ton of Scratch workshops and incorporate MakeyMakey. This all culminates in a final game, which participants create in teams.
What kind of computer science and programming opportunities exist for Kenyan youth, in general?
CS and programming opportunities for Kenyan youth are rare. They tend to be found in well-resourced private schools or expensive bootcamps offered by corporations. Unfortunately, young people who come from low-income backgrounds, refugees and migrants, and girls usually do not have access to these types of opportunities.
Can you describe the young people who were involved in the inaugural program?
Our program in August was specifically focused on building bridges between Kenyan nationals and refugees in Nairobi. We had eight Eritrean refugees, eight Ethiopian refugees, and eight Kenyan nationals. The cohort was quite diverse, ranging from ages 12–23 and various socioeconomic backgrounds. 50 percent of the group was girls which was awesome. There were no technical prerequisites, so the kids came in with varying competencies, but most were novices.
What kind of projects did the kids create together?
They created games about issues in Kenya which have had an impact on their lives. Some of those issues were corruption, youth unemployment, access to quality education and healthcare. They really wanted to pull from personal experience, so we did our best to make the space for them to do that.
How is game design an effective tool for integration? And peace-building?
Games-based learning is ideal because of how critical narrative is to both games and to intercultural dialogue. Young people can bring their perspectives about a specific issue to the table, and work together to craft one narrative, which can still represent many perspectives or challenges embedded in a game. This process can help young people discover common ground and perspectives and experiences, as well.
In the peace education field, sports is regularly used as a tool to bring communities together, and similar to sports, the game design process incorporates values such as teamwork and individual responsibilities, which can help young people to develop the values and skills necessary to prevent and resolve conflict. What I think gives games an edge over sports is that making games is not limited to a universal experience, but rather results in an artifact that young people create together — an artifact that communicates a narrative which everyone contributes to through dialogue and debate. Computational thinking can also make a great contribution to peace education. Many computational thinking concepts and practices like decomposition and pattern recognition can make us become better problem-solvers, and as a result, better at resolving conflict.
What did you observe about the kids as the program progressed?
On the first day of the program, they were visibly uncomfortable. The program was advertised as a game design camp — that was the only information they had. When they walked in on day one, they were surprised by who was in the room. Throughout the week, they had to collaborate on a number of activities, including their games. By the last day of the program, they had established real friendships.
Do you have any favorite stories from the August program?
After our play test, we had a small party, and one boy stayed behind to help us clean-up. I asked him how the week had gone for him, and if he had had many opportunities like this one, or was even aware of them. He said, “No, there aren’t that many opportunities to interact with different groups like this. Honestly, when I saw everyone on day one, I said to myself, ‘Keep your head down, be quiet, learn what you can, and get out of here’, but today, I can’t believe how many new friends I have.” I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy cleaning up garbage. That memory will probably stay with me forever.
What surprised you about the pilot program?
I was surprised by how seamlessly it went! I expected many things to go wrong, but we really got lucky. I would say the other thing that surprised me — although it didn’t, really — was how dedicated the youth were to their games. We had a public playtest at Nailab, a startup incubation space, and the youth still wouldn’t stop coding and debugging in Scratch. We had to physically take their laptops from them so that guests could play their games! One team even lost a lot of their code and worked to rebuild their game during the playtest. Their resilience and determination was very inspiring.
What did you learn?
One big takeaway for me is that peace-building and conflict resolution can be fun! I think we often imagine these processes involving two groups sitting across from each other, engulfed in heated discussions, only reaching consensus through a skilled mediator. What Nairobi Play has shown me — and I hope continues to show me — is that the shared experience of “making” and taking pride in building something with others, can help facilitate these processes and enhance our own skills for conflict resolution, which is incredibly powerful.
What’s next for the Nairobi Play Project?
We’re in the process of designing the program to be a three to four-month immersive experience, in collaboration with UNICEF Kenya and Xavier Project. We’re also piloting the program in Algeciras, Spain, in partnership with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. My hope is that once we’ve gone through a couple of iterations, we can create a global open-source toolkit to support educators and other practitioners in the conflict resolution and peace-building fields to adapt, remix, and scale the model successfully.