Even Diabetes Research Foundations Are Trying to Connect With Kids Through Roblox
But it's one thing to show up on Roblox, it's another to connect with those audiences. This foundation learned that the hard way.
A few years ago, Josh Larson, national director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Game2Give initiative was wrestling with a basic question: “Where do kids hang out online these days?” Larson asked the group’s “youth ambassadors,” children with type 1 diabetes who advocate for better awareness of a disease that afflicts hundreds of thousands of children, and the answer was unsurprising: Roblox.
Larson decided the foundation should head to Roblox, and over the past few years, they’ve built out a series of experiences designed to act as a shared space for children who have type 1 diabetes, or help others understand how it works.
“That's where representation in media is really critical,” said Larson, whose own daughter has type 1 diabetes, a condition where the pancreas makes little (or no) insulin. “This is something for them, and they can play with their friends and expose them to it and have fun doing it.”
The initiative didn’t have the best start, however.
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The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF)’s biggest event is One Walk, where thousands of people across the country—wait for it—walk together. It’s a fundraiser.
But during 2020, as most people were locked in their homes, and an event where people gathered together wasn’t possible. Instead, JDRF encouraged supporters to walk in ways that felt safe. Roblox was part of this push. But making an experience for Roblox is different from understanding what makes Roblox work, and JDRF ended up learning this the hard way when they first launched One World back in late 2020.
The partner JDRF was working with on building One World in Roblox was, by coincidence, closely watched by some popular Roblox accounts on YouTube, because they’d previously built a special Roblox space for a musician. Such events, now routine in places like Roblox and Fortnite but novel at the time, often meant players could get access to special, one-off items. Kids love free stuff! People started picking apart early materials for JDRF’s One World space, and speculating about what it might be.
“There was a lot of word of mouth going into it,” said Emily Morganti, a video game marketing consultant in the game industry who’s been working with the JDRF Game2Give program since the start. “We had a huge initial rush of traffic from these people who had seen this stuff on these Roblox YouTubers. And then they showed up and they were very disappointed. [laughs]”
JDRF’s event didn’t have an item players could take to other experiences in Roblox. You could spend Roblox’s in-game currency, robux, on items, but they could only be worn while you were in the JDRF experience. This quickly caused a backlash:
It is, strangely enough, not the first time a diabetes-themed game’s launch has been rocky. What, you’ve never heard of Captain Novolin for the SNES? Shame on you! Captain Novolin, per Wikipedia, is a (apparently not very good) 2D side-scroller where “the titular hero setting out to save Pineville's diabetic Mayor Gooden from aliens and their leader Blubberman, as the mayor only has enough insulin for 48 hours.”
Captain Novolin came from a place of trying to better inform the public, and specifically children with diabetes, about how the condition worked. The plan, according to a 1992 issue of GamePro, was to hand out copies of the game to hospitals.
Here’s what the game’s director of marketing, Arthur Williams, said at the time:
“Children with diabetes may have a hard time articulating what they have to go through to friends, neighbors, and families. Captain Novolin does the talking for them by teaching and sharing information about diabetes.”
A few years later, JDRF is taking another stab at things.
“Diabetes is often a punchline on the internet, and especially in streamer and gamer culture,” said Morganti. “It's always ‘oh, you're gonna give me diabetes, because I ate too much sugar.’ To have a world where it's not a joke, and it's actually being discussed in ways that people who have type one can relate to and might actually teach some people who don't have type one, who might be tempted to make that kind of joke, some things they didn't know about it?”
[Editor’s Note: Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that, in reality, has no correlation with sugar intake.]
A key part of the puzzle was partnering with Isaac Maier, who specializes in Roblox development, and had previously worked with JDRF while part of a studio that builds in “metaverse” experiences and often works with brands trying to enter that world.
Maier pointed out—and he’s correct—that Roblox players need a loop. Free items are a reason to come in…but also a reason to leave. Why would they actually come back?
The result is Charity Walk Simulator, where players gain experience and level up simply for walking around. There are lots of activities to do along the way, like exploring mazes and answering trivia questions, and an upgrade path. You’ll learn which fruit gives more energy, which is critical knowledge for those with diabetes.
“The very descriptive name of Charity Walk Simulator was both for SEO purposes,” said Morganti, “but also because Maier said that [with] games on Roblox, you basically want to be straightforward. You want to tell them what they're going to get into. A marathon or a simulator is a big deal in Roblox, and charity walk is the thing that we're trying to convey here.”
It is fun to watch a number go up, and Charity Walk Simulator makes that feel good. It has one of the slicker interfaces I’ve seen in a Roblox game, which may or may not be a positive, given that most players do not seem to care about intuitive interfaces.
They also, crucially, learned the biggest lesson from last time and built a digital Rufus, a toy bear that, in real-life, helps children diagnosed to learn where they can take shots. In Charity Walk Simulator, it takes an hour to unlock Rufus, and guess what?
Within 24 hours, they’d given away more than 2,500 of them to walking players.
And yes, players could take it with them.
You can play Charity Walk Simulator within the broader JDRF hub by clicking here.
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I remember when I learned a friend in elementary school had diabetes, and recoiling when they casually pulled out a needle. What a tough break for kids.
Lotta brands are on Roblox, or trying to be on Roblox, but it’s not shocking JDRF had trouble. It’s easy to publish on Roblox, but not to easy to connect there.
My youngest, who is almost four, has started asking to play Roblox, but only because her sister is playing it. She’s quickly learning how bad the interfaces are, as evidenced by her inability to exist some screens without throwing the iPad.