When we applied to NORAD’S EduApp4Syria contest – thinking we’d adapt and translate the work we were already doing for children in Sub-Saharan Africa with SEMA – we had no idea how challenging this was going to be. We followed our drive to reach more children who could benefit from what we were doing, and felt we had to try to help children who suffer from the consequences of the Syrian conflict in whatever little way we could. While there were many elements of SEMA that we could leverage – notably in replicating our tried and tested game engines – little did we know that building this in Arabic represented a massive undertaking! After nine months of development, SIMA’s Beta verison is finally ready, and we’re thrilled to release it.

SIMA is a smartphone game designed specifically for Syrian refugees that takes children on a magical adventure and empowers them to learn how to read and write while improving their psychosocial well-being. To build SIMA, we brought together a team of Syrian experts and storytellers, Arabic curriculum and content developers, and cognitive psychologists and psychosocial well-being experts to build the most effective learning path. We continued to work with our amazing game designers, animators and software developers with whom we’d built SEMA, our Swahili and English game, to embed this learning path in an adventure game inspired by some of the best games in this space – from Super Mario to Donkey Kong and Angry Birds – paired with Disney-style narrative to bring magic to learning and create an intrinsically rewarding experience.

SIMA – The story
SIMA’s narrative brings children on a magical adventure inspired by the Syrian culture, myth and folklore. As the story unfolds, a courageous Syrian girl, Sima, with the help of her little brother Samir, her Grampa Jaddy Saber and Ogarit the Princess of the desert, embarks on a journey to defeat Hurras and Layel and revive an ancient community of learners who once shared their knowledge freely amongst anyone who sought to learn.

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Overall game structure
The game is designed with a matrixed structure that overlays a dozen game engines with educational levels. Sima contains 9 worlds that each include an animation of SIMA’s adventures, 3 mini games with 5 different levels each and a final test that closes the episode. The games are all set in a different Syrian context like the traditional market, the roads near the Aleppo Temple or Syrian villages, near the ocean on the beach. Each game within each level covers a specific part of the literacy and psychosocial well being curriculum.

After completing each level, the player unlocks various rewards such as photo rewards– enabling children to take a selfie and add stickers that represent our main characters or various elements from that episode onto the picture. Kids love it.

Inspired by local culture
Sima’s music, graphics, narrative and names were inspired by the our research into Syrian culture.

The graphics were all designed following a field trip to Lebanon. We visited Beirut as well as the Beqqa Valley, took hundreds of pictures of the urban and rural environment, and brought those back to our designers for them to use when designing the visuals. The music came from our study of traditional music taste and rhythm. Our music composer Phoebe Garret composed 18 original scores to fit each part of the game.

Our voiceover artists all currently live in Damascus and recorded the sounds of the animations, the characters’ voices, the educational content and game instructions. Our storyteller Naman Tarcha – who’s a Syrian TV journalist, writer and expert on Syrian culture – and our content developer Naman Tarcha– who developed all of the content for Sima and has extensive experience teaching standard Arabic to primary school children – are both from Aleppo, though they currently live in Rome, Italy.

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Literacy Curriculum
Our literacy methodology focuses on:
Immediate focus on grapheme to phoneme conversion
Quick automaticity of letter sounds (in order of most commonly used)
Early transition to blending of small chunks

Our Reading and Writing Curriculum in SIMA to teach Standard Arabic covers: Letter Sounds; Writing Letters; Writing in the 3 different ways; Long Vowels; Short Vowels; Word reading & writing; Sentence reading & writing; Listening & reading comprehension; Sentence Dictation; Oral passage reading; Vocabulary.

Psychosocial Well being
Our team also worked with Professor Emanuele Caroppo, Ph.D. in “Advanced Research in Mental Health”, expert and author of multiple publications and books on migrant’s psychosocial well-being, to design a set of mini activities that cover the four main dimensions the psychological well-being: Cognitive, Physical, Emotional and Social well-being.

Cognitive well-being: addresses the mental processes such as attention, memory and creativity and is covered in all games of the App that teach reading and writing.
Emotional well-being: helps the child build resilience, understand different emotions like anger, sadness, happiness and share them in a safe environment.
Social well-being: teaches children to overcome social barriers by learning how to relate with children of different nationalities, identifying cultural differences and empathizing with physical disabilities.
Physical well-being: provides children with the opportunity to take care of their body and improve their emotional and mental well-being.

We think SIMA is an incredible game and our early tests in Lebanon confirm the potential impact on Syrian refugee children. Starting from January 2017, we’ll deploy additional tests of SIMA in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey, with the hope of helping to close the education gap while alleviating the pain these children have gone through.

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