Is an iPhone app really a legitimate way of raising awareness of social issues? Youth homelessness charity Depaul UK and advertising agency Publicis London believe that it is.

Launched yesterday (May 10) and billed as the world’s first live action charity iPhone app, iHobo is a free, real-time game that puts the user in charge of a homeless person for three days.

Over that time, the user is responsible for every decision that impacts on their iHobo’s life – offering food, money and choosing when they can sleep. Push messages send alerts to the user when their iHobo needs something and, if you don’t respond; he may choose to take matters into his hands, maybe accepting drugs to block out the cold. Meanwhile stats will show about his well being, calorie intake, temperature and how many alerts you missed. Once the game ends, users are encourage to make a donation to Depaul.

According to Publicis, the “controversial and emotive” app aims to raise awareness of the issue of homelesseness by encouraging people to questions the labels that are placed the homeless. Of course, it is also trying to target that elusive young audience, who live entirely through their mobiles, to encourage them to donate to Depaul, which is reliant on a donor base aged over 65 years old.

So far, iHobo has proved polarising. It instantly earned the tag “Tamagotchi” with a social conscience and provoked a storm of criticism for being crass and patronising. However, reviews improved as people actually tested out the app with Martin Bryant on The Next Web saying it “instilled a sense of guilt” in him as he strolled down the road.

At a time when shocking images and messages can be seen on the news – let alone in advertising -  Depaul and Publicis have taken a risk by creating something to provoke its target audience and delivering it through a channel they not only understand but actively encourage. However, as BNET noted, if you don’t respond to your iHobo’s demands for help, he will eventually break the glass of your phone in frustration, leaving said reviewer wondering if it wasn’t more fun to ignore than help.

While that might not be the desired response even if people don’t help their iHobo, they are still interacting with the game and the issues it raises. Whether that helps to widen Depaul’s pool of donor or actually increase the money it receives will, of course, be the only real indicator of its success.

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