Gaming For Good

Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Domino, James Brown – Denver's historic Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom has seen them all since its inception as a ex-servicemen's club in the 20s.

On a night earlier this month, the people packing into the club didn't come to listen to the famous sing. They came instead to stand on a stage, face the crowds and play popular video game and karaoke replacement Rock Band.

The real draw, though, wasn't the chance at a moment in a spotlight once used by jazz men and musicians from the 20s to today, it was the chance to play video games and raise money for children.

Call it gaming for good or child's play for charity: At least once a year video game enthusiasts around the world find interesting and eclectic ways to raise cash for those in need.

Likely the largest gaming group raising money for charity is Washington State-based Child's Play which has, with the help of more than 100,000 gamers worldwide, managed to raise more than $5 million in donations of toys, games, books and cash for children's hospitals around the world.

"Child's Play is the grass-roots gamers' charity: created by gamers, for gamers," said Kristin Lindsay, Child's Play Project Manager. "I believe that we receive the support of the gaming community because we represent the charitable voice that gamers want to have. We are sharing our love of gaming with kids in need, and giving back through play. It really does make a big difference in our partner hospitals."

And it's not just video games and recreation equipment that Child's Play funds. Recently the group started a grant program through which they offer one-tome support to smaller facilities including pediatric hospices, crisis centers, school and group homes.

While many people donate directly to Child's Play, other groups create their own community fund-raisers to help raise money for the organization. The largest by far, Lindsay said, is the Desert Bus for Hope drive, which brought in more than $70,000 in donations last year.

Two years ago British Columbia sketch comedy group LoadingReadyRun decided to start raising money for Child's Play. One of their members came up with the Desert Bus concept.

While the fund-raiser is actually a sort of an Internet telethon, it gets it's name from a mini-game found on unreleased video game Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors.

The object of the game is to drive from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada in real time in a bus that constantly pulls to the side of the road and won't go faster than 45 mph. Completely the mini-game takes 8 continuous hours of play. Desert Bus can't be paused and if you crash or drive off the road you get towed back to Tucson and have to start over.

While the LoadingReadyRun accepts challenges to do silly things for donations during their telethon, the mainstay of the fund-raiser is the group playing the game non-stop. This year the group played the game in shifts for five days and 16 hours non-stop, raising more than $132,000.

"We all love to play video games, and we love the idea that we play a game (even a bad one like Desert Bus) and make a child's quality of life so much better," said LoadingReadyRun member Kathleen De Vere. "Child's Play is a very inspiring charity that does absolutely amazing things all over the world, and we are honored to help them with
their work."

And fund-raising isn't limited to the United States.

David Abrams, editor and owner of Tokyo-based Cheapassgamer.com, has raised more than $75,000 for Child's Play over the past five years.

"I decided to start to help collect funds for Child's Play simply because I was very impressed with the initiative Penny Arcade's founders had taken in creating the charity," Abrams said. "Child's Play was started partly as a response to the negative portrayal in the media of gaming and gamers and I wanted to help be a part of that response. Of course helping children is reason enough on it's own."

While some events, like Desert Bus for Hope and Abrams' online drive, bring in staggering donations, more than half of the cash comes to Child's Play through individual donations or smaller community fund-raisers like the one held in Denver earlier this month.

The Kotaku.com-sponsored fund-raiser brought in about 400 people from as far away as Florida and raised more than $6,500, a bulk of which came from people showing up at the worn doors of the club, cash in hand.

Once inside, gamers and developers crowded onto the decades-old dance floor, donating cash and dancing under an over-sized disco ball.

As the event's hesitant emcee, I split my time overseeing the door prizes we handed and threw out to the crowds between songs and talking to the many folks on hand about why they were there.

Plenty came to party, to have fun, to game on stage, but many more came for the cause.

As the event wrapped up, a young man approached me to shake my hand.

"I wish they had something like this when I was a kid," he said.

"Why?"

"I'm a cancer survivor," he said, "You have no idea what difference a few games would have made to me when I was in the hospital."

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.