Gamers for Giving Provides Sick Children with Digital Playgrounds

In 2007, Zach Wigal and his friends at Saline High School decided to organize one of Southeast Michigan’s first competitive video game tournaments. They spent months preparing and eventually arranged to rent out the school’s cafeteria. Everything seemed to be in place, and with more than 300 people registered to attend, excitement ran high.

Then, three days before the tournament was to begin, a municipal busybody hit the pause button.

“Video games are corrupting the minds of America’s youth,” said the local public safety official in a message left on the school superintendent’s voicemail. This official further claimed that if the tournament were allowed to proceed, it would render the community unsafe. The event was canceled, but in its place, a new charitable organization was born the following year.

“We were really frustrated that the tournament was shut down because of negative stereotypes,” Wigal says.

So, in 2008, he and his friends organized another event—a competitive gaming tournament and LAN party that simultaneously raised money for a good cause. They called the event Gamers for Giving and formed the nonprofit Gamers Outreach Foundation to facilitate it. It wasn’t long, Wigal says, before Gamers Outreach took on a life of its own. On Saturday and Sunday, Gamers Outreach will host its 11th annual Gamers for Giving fundraiser at Eastern Michigan University’s Convocation Center.

“I had not really been involved with many charitable organizations in high school,” Wigal recalls. “A parent reached out and said her son had autism but thanks to video games, he was able to socialize with kids in his high school. I had never really thought of games being used that way. Generally, there is a lot more awareness now that games can be a conduit for some people.”

As Gamers for Giving events grew, so did the scope of the Gamers Outreach mission. In 2009, the organization began working with C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI, to provide video games to patients. Hospital staff had been having a hard time providing bedside activities, and they warmed up to the idea that gaming could be an effective distraction tool for bored, sick kids.

Six months into volunteering at Mott, Gamers Outreach began building GO Karts, medical-grade video game kiosks that gave nurses and social workers a portable way to provide entertainment to bed-bound children who were unable to leave their hospital rooms.

Today, Gamers Outreach, now based in Los Angeles, is focused on supplying therapeutic recreation through interactive digital entertainment to young patients across the country. It has so far built GO Karts for 200 facilities, and Wigal estimates that his program has the capacity to support 1.1 million kids each year. Gamers Outreach volunteers also distribute and play video games with young patients through a program called Player 2.

“The way we think about it, a lot of groups are focused on research and treatment,” which are obviously important, Wigal notes. “Because of that, the quality of life piece sometimes takes a back seat. [Patient liaisons] almost become pseudo parents whose job is to normalize the hospital experience. Video games are an incredible tool they can use to socialize and give kids recreation, and it doesn’t require a lot of the hospital’s bandwidth.”

Wigal points out that with platforms such as Xbox Live, kids can also connect with their friends outside the hospital. He mentions one young patient who spent 10 months waiting for a heart transplant and therefore wasn’t even allowed into the hallway outside his room. Because Gamers Outreach supplied a digital playground for him and his friends, he got through it a little easier. “He’s fine now, but his mom said, ‘My son would have gone insane without video games.’ We hear that a lot. It’s helpful to let patients self-soothe, and that’s something I never thought of when we started.”

Gamers Outreach’s engagement has been so successful at Mott and Seattle Children’s Hospital, they have each hired a full-time staffer to oversee digital activities, Wigal adds. He also loves that through his six-person organization, gamers—not widely known for altruistic behavior—have been introduced to philanthropy.

“We exist as much for gamers as we do for the healthcare industry,” Wigal says. “As gamers, the passion we have for our medium gets amplified when we can channel that into helping people.”

Gamers for Giving, which is aiming to raise $500,000 through donations and ticket sales this weekend, is open to spectators as well as competitors. Wigal promises the event, which he describes as being like a modern-day Jerry Lewis telethon, will also feature online celebrities popular on Twitch and YouTube. To watch from home, check out the stream at Twitch.tv/GamersOutreach.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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