How Islamic Relief is using a gaming app to reach young audiences

Judith Escribano
Judith Escribano11th March 2020
Last October Islamic Relief UK launched an innovative gaming app, Virtue Reality. Its aim was to inform young people about how aid works and to tackle prejudice against Muslims. Judith Escribano, Head of Communications at Islamic Relief UK, explains the story behind Virtue Reality.

A couple of years ago, Mark Galloway, Director of IBT, asked me what my boys watched on television. ‘Nothing’, I replied. His eyes nearly popped out of his head! I told him that they and most of their friends just watch YouTube videos and play online games on their phones.

And that set me thinking. How could we, as the communications department of a charity, reach young people if they weren’t watching television or reading papers? And when algorithms mean they may not be seeing the social media posts we want them to see?

At the same time, I was reading Shelina Janmohamed’s book Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World. And I discovered that young British Muslims either felt that they were not represented in films, TV programmes or video games; or when they were, they saw themselves represented as terrorists (if male) or weak and oppressed (if female). And I thought about the impact that must have on the psyche of a young British Muslim.

I wondered if we could produce a video game app as a means of reaching young British Muslims and as a way to communicate Islamic Relief UK’s two key messages: aid works, and Muslims are inspired by their faith to donate to charity and to do good in the world. Could this also be a way of tackling widespread islamophobia in the media?

 

We didn’t want our game to be preachy

Since we’d never done anything like this before, we didn’t know whether it would work, let alone how successful it would be. But the CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide took a risk and allowed me to go ahead with the game without demanding any KPIs. A huge relief! We found a brilliant developer in Shahid Ahmad, the Managing Director of Ultimatum Games. As a Muslim, he had suffered Islamophobia and tokenism both in the gaming sector and society at large. He could bring his own experiences and passion to the project. But he also knew how to create compelling games. This was important to us because we didn’t want our game to be preachy. We wanted people to enjoy playing it, to share it, to talk about it. And to feel good about seeing people like themselves in it.

Shahid’s wealth of experience meant that he could create a game that was both informative AND fun. Starting with a microdam in Mali, players work their way through real-life projects run by Islamic Relief UK, hiring staff of different genders, ethnicities and appearances and earning ‘deed coins’ for their work. Once a certain amount of money is earned on a project, it is upgraded to different levels and once these levels are maxed out, new projects open up.

We rolled out Virtue Reality at Sheffield’s National Videogame Museum during Charity Week – a crucial fundraising initiative for Islamic Relief run by Islamic Student Societies at universities across the country. We invited local schools to come along and try out the game. And my media team targeted a range of media, recognising that this story straddles many themes: children’s; education; faith; BME; technology; charity; international development; local; and even mainstream news.

A still from Islamic Relief’s mobile game Virtue Reality

 

Broadcasters were keen to cover the launch

One of the reasons we had such success with media is that we made the launch visually attractive for broadcasters. Over an hour at the event was dedicated to children playing the game and being interviewed by journalists as they played. The BBC, Sky’s children’s programme FYI and the Islam Channel all attended and broadcast footage. We also prepared spokespeople for different specialities on the day: Shahid from the tech perspective; our Head of Programmes to talk about in-country work; our Head of Fundraising to talk about Charity Week. And myself to talk about where the idea came from. Having so much to offer meant we could give our diverse media exactly what they wanted.

The media interest validated the product. Editors who were quiet at first started warming up again a week after the launch event, having seen coverage on the BBC News website and across charity sector media. And the more the game was shared via external links online, the more it was shared on social media by influencers like Shuhei Yoshida (Sony’s President of Worldwide Studios), and Melissa Fleming, Director of Global Communications at the UN. Many communications professionals will be familiar with that domino effect of attention on your campaign or message. That was the case with Virtue Reality.

So far we have had coverage in over 50 outlets – and are still fielding interview requests three months after launch. It has been downloaded over 5,000 times and currently has a 5 star rating on the appstore and 4.8 star rating on Google PlayStore. And Virtue Reality’s journey is far from over. It has now been launched by our offices in Malaysia and Germany, and this year, offices in Canada, the US and Australia will introduce it to their markets.

Check it out for yourselves by downloading the app for free on the appstore or Google PlayStore. Tell us what you think!

 


Judith Escribano is Head of Communications at Islamic Relief UK

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