Beirut – On World Refugee Day, a golden shipping container was brought on to the grounds of the United Nations General Assembly hall in New York.
Inside, cutting-edge audiovisual technology allowed delegates to converse via live video chat with children inside Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, as though they were standing in the same room.
The New York-based global public arts initiative Shared Studios operates more than 20 of these containers, known as portals, with a goal to build connections between people on opposite sides of the globe. The portal in Zaatari, operated in collaboration with UNICEF’s Jordan branch, is just one of the ways in which interactive technology is transforming humanitarian outreach efforts.
Over the past five years, as the global refugee crisis has reached record proportions and traditional fundraising methods have struggled to engage jaded donors, charities have increasingly turned to interactive digital technology to connect with an international audience.
“The emergence of new technologies, like virtual reality, is enabling us to transport people into our projects and take them places that we wouldn’t normally be able to … It’s a very valuable thing to be able to do,” said Elisabeth Little, the head of corporate fundraising at War Child.
In November 2014, 11 bit studios released This War of Mine, a computer game set in a city under siege. Players must ensure the survival of civilians trapped in an abandoned house, battling hunger, illness and exhaustion, and risking their lives to scavenge for supplies.
The studio approached War Child and offered to use the game to help with raising funds and awareness. The game – since re-released for mobile devices, PlayStation and Xbox – was released in a special edition on Steam, from which all profits were donated to War Child. It raised a significant sum of money for the charity, while also generating awareness of the organisation’s work by confronting players with the dangers facing civilians in countries such as Syria. Gaming is now so ubiquitous that it allows for a truly global reach, Little said.
“I think it’s a fantastic industry to be working with in terms of fundraising, but also raising awareness … It’s not like a transition from one media to another, where people read the same thing online or on tablets. It’s completely new audiences,” she told Al Jazeera.
Nadim Shartouny, a specialist in interactive technologies and a managing partner at The Council, a Beirut-based post-production studio, noted that gaming is a particularly effective outreach tool because it fits in with existing behaviour patterns.
“Most people, especially the younger generation, play a lot of games, so you’re not taking them away from something they like to do and telling them to do something else to help with a cause,” Shartouny told Al Jazeera. “They stay doing what they’re doing, and they can still help … Before you needed to call, say, 1-800-donate or send an SMS. Right now you can have a QR code where you just scan and donate. You can click a button on your phone and donate. You can snap a photo and donate … It’s quick and easy.”
By engaging users on a personal level, interactive media aims to elicit a sense of empathy and social responsibility. Several charities have designed online quizzes that encourage players to engage with the topic in a fun way and build up an emotional investment, before asking for donations.
“Innovation is becoming increasingly important overall in humanitarian programmes, particularly when you’re in a situation where you’ve been in a crisis for several years,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, a senior communications officer with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in Lebanon.
Gaming is not the only form of interactive media being harnessed by aid organisations: At the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, the UN Millennium Campaign debuted the UN’s first foray into virtual reality. Clouds Over Sidra was shot in the Zaatari refugee camp with the help of UNICEF Jordan, and is narrated by a 12-year-old girl who describes life in the camp. The film provides a 360-degree view of every scene, allowing viewers to look around in any direction.
“You actually think you are inside the camp,” UNICEF Jordan spokeswoman Miraj Pradhan told Al Jazeera. “The way it’s filmed, you can turn around and see kids playing or going to school … It gives you a much more personal experience than watching it on a flat screen.”
UNICEF Jordan has placed an increasing emphasis on interactive technologies in recent years. In addition to the film and the portal project, they have on several occasions invited Syrian refugee children to take over their official Twitter account, tweeting about their day-to-day lives and answering questions from people around the world.
“It’s really helpful if children themselves talk about how they go to school, what are the challenges and what they like about the camp,” Pradhan said. “I think that is quite powerful.”
The emphasis on interactivity is likely to continue as new technologies emerge, Shartouny said – but a successful campaign is more complicated than simply latching on to the latest gimmick.
“You can create a game, [but] nobody will play it if you don’t market it properly and you don’t keep it running properly,” he said. “People get bored quickly. We don’t use 90 percent of the apps on our phones. How can you make the user always use your app? That needs so much work. It needs 10 times the budget it took to actually develop the game.”
In addition, the swift pace of technological advancement means that projects quickly become obsolete. My Life As a Refugee, a mobile phone game produced by UNHCR and released in 2012, is still available as a free download, but it now appears old-fashioned.
Ariane Rummary, a senior communications officer at UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva, said that while the immersive element of interactive technology is useful for engaging the public, the underlying approach to most humanitarian campaigns remains the same.
“This idea of putting yourself in the refugee’s shoes is not new,” Rummary told Al Jazeera. “We’ve been doing that for a really long time. But I think what technology is doing is giving us more fun ways to do that.”