Project Hope uses gaming to improve mental health, education of refugee children

For years now, Turkey has provided refuge to more than three million Syrian refugees, many of them children, who have fled their war-torn homeland. The millions of displaced children have various psychological and educational needs that are left unattended to and can stunt their growth and development as a result. A new study released this summer shows how some of these various needs can be met with video games.

Research by educators and academics from New York University, the City University of New York, and the Bahcesehir University in Turkey discovered that video games such as Minecraft and others designed specifically with their needs in mind can provide the educational, psychological, and emotional support that refugee children based in a foreign country require.

“It is our hope that this study shows that even with limited resources, and even when there are language barriers, we can make a difference in the lives of children through leveraging technology,” said Selcuk Sirin, J.K. Javits professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt in a news release published by NYU.

Minecraft and more

A team composed of NYU and Bahcesehir researchers initially discovered that half of the Syrian children refugees in Turkey suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome and that a majority of them are not enrolled in school due to the language barrier and other factors.

The researchers, including Sirin, Jan Plass (Paulette Goddard Chair in Digital Media and Learning Services, NYU), Bruce Homer (Associate Professor of Educational Psychology, CUNY), and Sinem Vatanartiran (president of BAU International University), responded by launching Project Hope as a means to address these issues “with digital game-based education opportunities to improve Turkish language proficiency, executive functions, and coding skills while decreasing their sense of despair and increasing hope.”

The research team worked with 147 children between the ages of 9 and 14 in Urfa, Turkey in daily, two-hour sessions for a period of six weeks. They separated the children into two groups. The children were handed five titles to play and were measured in their performance, satisfaction, and other various skills at the end of the study period.

The researchers discovered that the use of games such as Cerego, Minecraft, titles at Code.org, as well as others designed specifically for their needs (Alien Game), increased the children’s abilities in language proficiency, executive functions, and cognitive skills.

Positive results were seen after encouraging children o build their own world in Minecraft, including their dream/ideal versions of a house, neighborhood, and school.

“Our pilot study shows that using game-based learning is an effective, cost-efficient way to teach refugee children important skills – and importantly, this structured environment provided distressed refugee children an outlet to imagine a better future for themselves,” said Vatanartiran.

Most of you reading this article probably don't need to be convinced that gaming can have positive psychological effects, but this is a story worth sharing with anyone in your life who says gaming is harmful or "a waste of time."