Academics and Research / News

Grad student designs video games to help refugees and immigrants learn about America

One of Munanga's games teaches budgeting and uses an animated avatar to conduct the lesson.

No one was surprised when Theresa Munanga signed up for the Peace Corps. She’d volunteered since she was 14, offering her time to organizations like the Girl Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the YWCA and an HIV/AIDS group.

“My two passions in life are volunteering and computer programming,” says the DU master’s student. So when Munanga was laid off from her job as a programmer for Sprint PCS just after 9/11 — around the same time the Peace Corps was looking for information technology volunteers for a school in Kenya — her two passions collided.

During her time in Kenya, Munanga developed a free, self-paced software program that can teach anyone how to use a computer without the need for formal instruction. Once she saw the effect her work had — helping to lift people out of poverty by enabling them to find jobs, despite an 80 percent unemployment rate — her future was clear.

“I pretty much dedicated the rest of my life to somehow helping people,” she says.

And she didn’t lose any time starting down that path. Once she returned from the Peace Corps, she quickly finished her bachelor’s degree — she was just a few credits short when she left —  and found her calling in instructional design — taking educational materials and presenting them in a technology-based format, oftentimes games, to teach life skills.

“Educational technology is not a classroom, and you’re not being bombarded with information,” Munanga says. “You’re learning something, and you’re enjoying the process.”

But she had never designed games before, so she sought out a master’s program that would support her goals and chose games as a format to continue creating educational technology while learning game design at the same time.

“DU’s Digital Media Studies program has a fantastic social conscience,” she says. “They do humane game design where violence is discouraged. Plus, I could format the [program to incorporate] instructional design” by taking education classes to learn best practices for teaching and curriculum development.

She’s applying those principles to her master’s project: a set of six computer games she’s designing to help refugees and immigrants learn American customs.

“Immigrants will do better in our society once they learn our culture,” Munanga says. “With games, they can learn on their own time, by themselves, with no pressure, in a fun environment.”

One of the games she developed teaches the concept of time. “In the U.S., time is money, but in developing countries, time may have no meaning at all,” she says. “When you spend your whole day searching for food and clean water, it doesn’t matter if you get somewhere on time.” Her game will feature a storyline in which characters have an objective — say, getting to a job interview — and will have to overcome time-wasting obstacles.

Another game focuses on American holidays. “How would you feel if you didn’t know about April Fool’s Day and someone pulled a prank on you, or if your culture believes in witchcraft and you see all the ghosts and goblins on Halloween?” she asks.

A third game teaches immigrants how to use various features of Google Maps to take a “virtual field trip.” Players may have to determine whether they can take a bus from Denver to Washington, D.C., or what state Yosemite National Park is in. The Google Maps game — the only one translated into other languages so far —already is being used by people around the world, according to Google Analytics, Munanga says. “I have hits coming from Russia, Malaysia — I’m getting between 30 and 50 hits a day and I haven’t even advertised it yet,” she says.

A fourth game teaches American customs and behavioral expectations — that eye contact is considered respectful, that pointing at someone is considered rude, that it’s OK to ask questions when you don’t understand something, and so forth. Players have to match virtual cards that pair a custom with its explanation.

Another game teaches budgeting and uses an animated avatar to conduct the lesson. Like several of Munanga’s games, it’s designed for people with low-level literacy, English or computer skills. That way, even if immigrants have never used a computer before, they just need someone to turn it on, and within minutes, they’re using the mouse independently. So even that becomes a lesson, Munanga says — and a valuable one, because computers are important in American culture.

A sixth game has players take shapes of the 48 contiguous U.S. states and place them on a map to complete a pre-determined route, thereby teaching state locations.

“My whole purpose for doing this project is to help others while showing [potential employers] that I can take educational material and create computer programs out of them that might also be entertaining,” she says.

Munanga’s games are available for download at her website, But she cautions that none of them are completely finished yet, and probably won’t be until March, when she’ll present them along with her thesis as a requirement for graduation. She’s graduating a quarter early because she took extra classes to stay stimulated; plus, she says, she’s eager to begin working in the field of instructional design, and plans to pursue a PhD in the subject.

“[I hope to] work in educational development,” Munanga says, “especially for people who have needs, who are under-represented in education — whether it be immigrants, helping with education in developing countries, or coming up with programs that teach autistic children. Helping others is my passion.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *