Making a game out of learning to be American

Posted on April 19, 2012 at 8:14 pm

By Irina Sulejmanović

Welcome to unfamiliar faces and a foreign language.

Welcome to customs far different from your own.

Welcome to trying to understand what it means to be an American.

Welcome to the United States, where the aisles at your local stores change themes each month and you look on, dazed and confused.

From scary costumes in October to heart-shaped candy in February, American traditions can seem far from ordinary to newcomers. In fact, many refugees and immigrants entering this fast-paced, western society must try to figure out the culture and customs on their own.

With new Americans arriving every day, wouldn’t it be helpful if they had a fun way to learn about their new homeland?

A chance story heard in Kenya led Theresa Munanga to develop online games for new Americans to learn about the country's culture. / Photo courtesy Theresa Munanga

Theresa Munanga thought so. In fact, she thought she could make a game of it.

Munanga, a Michigan native, combined her interest in information technology and lessons learned during a stay in Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer and created a selection of online games to help refugees and immigrants learn about American culture and customs.

She had been interested in information technology since she purchased her first computer. Later she taught herself HTML, started creating websites and eventually earned an associates degree in computer programming and network management at Vetterott College in St. Joseph, Mo. She found a job but later was laid off.

“I couldn’t find another IT-related job,” Munanga said. “I decided that it was the perfect time for me to do something I had always wanted to do — join the Peace Corps.”

Munanga spent three years in Kenya teaching computer basics to the staff and students at an agricultural college in Yatta. Though she encountered obstacles — her accent made it tough for students to understand her, there weren’t enough computers and the electricity inconsistent — she managed to create a training program called “I Can Teach Myself! Learning the Computer,” in which students learned basic computer skills.

“It was my first foray into educational technology,” she said, “and I loved it!”

Then, at some point, she heard of a group of refugees who were boarding a plane in Nairobi to be sent to Minnesota. They would be arriving in the winter, but they had no coats. And this bothered Munanga.

“They weren’t taught about American culture, or about what the plane ride would be like or even the food they would be served on the plane, let alone how to use the restrooms on the plane or the airport,” Munanga said. “The memory of this stayed with me even after I returned to the U.S.”

When she got back, Munanga started a master’s degree program in digital media studies at the University of Denver, which has a research agenda built around humane games, with a focus on games for change, education and help. She had no idea how to create a game or what the game design process entailed, but she had a clear idea of what she wanted to accomplish: She wanted to provide educational technology — games — to help people new to America learn more about their new country.

“I knew that refugees and immigrants would do better in the U.S.,” she said, “if they could acculturate faster.”

Rafael Fajardo teaches game design at the University of Denver and was assigned as Munanga’s adviser. “She chose to do this kind of project here because we have created an environment where this kind of project gets a hearing,” he said. “I was primarily her go-to person for this project.”

Fajardo has specialized in creating socially conscious video games since 2000. The aims of the program are to explore, experiment and make video games that are helpful in society.

“Theresa’s project was harmonizing with that aim,” Fajardo said. “We were happy to work with her and help her out.”

Munanga researched game design, tried to figure out which games might work best with refugees and low-literacy immigrants and which ones might hold the attention of more educated immigrants. She studied how to make games visually appealing.

In Kenya, Munanga had run workshops and seminars on America and American culture. She began to take many of the concepts she had used in her seminars and incorporate them into her games. One such concept was time.

“In Kenya,” she said, “some children don’t go to school because their whole task for the entire day is to search for and bring back clean water for the family. And if you’re a ‘mama’ trying to find food for the family, it’s not going to matter much to you if you arrive somewhere late,” Munanga said. In the United States though, she knew, punctuality was valued. So she created a game called The Importance of Being on Time. The game explains why Americans believe “time is money” and stresses the importance in the U.S. of being on time, whether for work, school or other appointments.

Her other games included:

American Holidays. This puzzle game, which covers 12 official and unofficial American holidays, includes facts, pictures and music, all designed to explain why one day a year Americans seem to wear green and on another they exchange flowers and candy.

Budgeting. A lesson and game that focuses on why and how to create budgets, followed by a short video that explains how to play the game.

American Customs. This “memory” card game allows the player to match cards with each American custom. Then an explanation is provided after making the match. For example, the date format in the United States is month/day/year.

Using Google Maps. This lesson explains to the user how to use Google Maps when needing to find directions or a location. The lesson is available in English, Spanish, French, Kiswahili, Russian and Vietnamese.

American States. This puzzle game teaches the player about the names and locations of the 48 states in the continental United States. The player is given a route from one state to another. They are then given states to drag to their correct location until the route is connected.

Today, Munanga lives in Arizona and tries to decide whether to pursue a Ph.D or an Ed.D. Though she is not sure of what she wants to do when she is finished with school, she knows she wants to continue with creating educational technology. Her husband is Kenyan, so she expects to someday return to the country where she got the idea for the games.

“My ideal job would be creating educational technology for international students,” she said, “whether it be for U.S. refugees and immigrants or for organizations that are building heritage applications to preserve culture and language among tribal communities throughout the world.”


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