Charity organisation Gamers Outreach raised close to a million dollars last month through its online fundraiser campaign Gamers for Giving. We spoke to CEO and founder Zach Wigal on its impact and success.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Zach Wigal, the Founder and Executive Director of Gamers Outreach, a charity organization that helps make play readily available in hospital through video games. Gamers Outreach is on a mission to make sure every kid that’s going through hospitalisation has access to activities while they’re receiving care. They currently work with 230 healthcare facilities primarily in the United States providing devices and services to help hospital staff manage video game content. We caught up with Zach Wigal shortly after the end of the company’s Gamers for Giving weekend on March 20th and 21st to discuss this year’s campaign, and learn how the charity has adapted and thrived over the last two years.
Maly: Hello Zach, first of all I read your founding story. I love the fact that the initiative started off due to a policeman shutting down your local Halo tournament because he said it was a hazard to public safety. Things have definitely changed since then. From my perspective it seems COVID has really accelerated gaming’s reputation as a force for good. I was wondering what your thoughts were on this, and how it has affected your charity working specifically?
Zach Wigal: You touched on a good point. Our organisation emerged from a lot of the misunderstandings surrounding games. At the time of our founding, there were a number of stereotypes around games and the gaming community. I think a biproduct of our work is that we’ve been able to demonstrate the positive things games and gamers are capable of.
In hospitals, video games are one of the few tools that are capable of providing kids with access to play at scale. So what’s cool about video games vs. other forms of entertainment is that games provide kids with access to play, regardless of age, and in some cases regardless of physical circumstance. A child who isn’t able to get to a playroom can sit at their bedside and have access to gaming content. Zooming out: that can be true for hundreds of kids staying in a hospital at the same time.
Other sources of recreation such as play rooms, toys, therapy animals, etc.. are all limited by accessibility, or the interest a child might have, depending on their age, whereas video games are not. Since making that discovery, we’ve been on a quest to help hospitals integrate video games into their environments. It just so happened we accidentally became aware in part because of misunderstandings around games and the way stereotypes manifested around the tournament I was trying to produce in high school.
Regarding COVID. Interestingly, last year when the pandemic started we weren’t quite sure what sort of role, if any, Gamers Outreach would end up having. However, it turned out 2020 was our busiest year to-date. That was primarily driven by the fact that in children’s hospitals, thankfully, most pediatric facilities weren’t treating kids due to COVID. But they were still enforcing physical distancing measures to prevent spread. Volunteers were not allowed to come into hospitals, and visitation from family and friends was limited. And then on top of that, hospital staffing was diminished as well.
Put together, this created a circumstance where all the kids were being isolated in their rooms. Kids who were normally well enough to go to a playroom or interact with other kids were bouncing off the walls because they were stuck in their rooms. People weren’t allowing them to move about the facility.
The limit on volunteers also meant several “quality of life programs” didn’t exist, as well. As an example: playrooms are often managed by volunteers. There might be one hospital staffer that checks-in, but a lot of the cleaning and organizing of the space is managed by volunteers. So if you were a healthcare worker amidst all this: there were suddenly way less resources. It became really apparent that video games were a way to help. Not a total solution, but games were providing a lot of benefit to the kids. Patients suddenly had access to activities and hospital bandwidth was freed up so the staff could focus on providing care.
That’s really the reason we do our work anyway, but it was way more apparent during COVID. That influenced a lot more requests for gaming devices. Thankfully, we also had a lot of support from the gaming community as well.
Maly: 2020 was very different for you. From my understanding you had to cancel a LAN, and then hold the entire charity event online. I was wondering how did you adapt to last year, and what was the impact on the campaign?
Zach Wigal: We were four weeks from our event when we had to seriously consider whether we’d be able to host the LAN at all, and we pivoted just before lockdowns were mandated in Michigan. It became a fairly straight-forward decision. We either could risk finishing plans for our event with a high likelihood it’d be canceled, or we could take control of the circumstances and pivot with time to spare. Thankfully, from the charitable standpoint, a lot of our fundraising happens virtually. We all missed hosting the LAN, but in hindsight it was the safest and correct decision.
We received more requests for our GO Karts (portable gaming kiosks) in 2020 than we had in any year prior. The fact that the gaming community was still willing to give and be involved was a tremendous showing of support. Hopefully we’ll all be able to reunite in-person as vaccines are rolled out.
Maly: Last year Gamers for Giving managed to raise just under $700,000, I noticed you smashed your record this year just over a weekend.
Zach Wigal: Our whole team was elated to see the result from this year’s virtual event. With the help of streamers, our sponsors, and a diverse showing from the community – we raised almost a million dollars. It was a record-breaking weekend for the cause. It’s really amazing and humbling to see that sort of support from the community.
Those resources are going to make a huge impact in hospitals. We’ll end up building a whole fleet of our gaming kiosks, and they’ll make a massive difference for kids and families for years to come.
It’s also worth recognizing the diversity of streamers as well. Of course, our roots are in esports – and we had a few people from the esports landscape who were involved. There were some Halo players who organized a tournament, as well as some folks from the Counter-Strike community who got involved. And we also had a number of people who are variety streamers / just play games, generally. There were a lot of different games and communities represented. It was pretty cool to see. So yeah, overall, was a wonderful turnout, and it will make a huge impact over the coming year.
Maly: I was wondering what were your most memorable campaign runs by streamers or gamers this year? Any personal favourites?
Zach Wigal: I have to give a shout out to Markstrom. He typically likes to stream a game called Escape from Tarkov, and he alone raised $50,000, which is pretty remarkable. I think that’s a personal record. He’s been involved with Gamers Outreach the last few years now and he’s raised over $100,000 for the cause. He’s built multiple GO Karts at this point.
Markstrom’s a remarkable guy. He also has a backstory I really appreciate. He was on track to become a doctor himself. Coincidentally when he got accepted to medical school, his career as a streamer started blossoming and he decided to stick with being a content creator. I think he’s mentioned his parents gave him a bit of a hard time for the decision, but it’s all worked out. It’s cool to see him be able to give back and be involved in the healthcare space through our cause. So that’s something that’s struck me about his involvement I think is pretty unique.
Another streamer I was excited to watch was Maximilian Dood. He’s pretty active in the fighting game community and I actually subscribe to his channel. I really loved his breakdown of Final Fantasy 7 Remake. So it was just neat, as a fan, to watch him get involved with our cause.
Of course there are way more stories than what I’ve alluded to. We had over 215 campaigns created in support of this year’s fundraiser. Within those are hundreds of stories and moments that were remarkable. Our team is grateful for the support, and there’s a list of streamers I could keep gushing about.
Gamers Outreach and the entertainment industry
Maly: Several well-known faces from the entertainment industry also joined the party, for example Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was involved via a partnership with Xbox. Gal Gadot as well. That’s quite a remarkable partnership. What it was like to have people of that high profile involved?
Zach Wigal: It’s inspiring! Outside of Gamers for Giving, we were super excited over the holiday season to team up with Xbox and work with The Rock. Then shortly thereafter we had the chance to work with Gal Gadot around her new movie, Wonder Woman 1984.
We’ve worked with Xbox over the years on a number of programmes, and we’re thankful to count them as supporters and friends. Some of their crew reached out before the new console launch and casually mentioned “hope you don’t mind, but we’d like to deliver some GO Karts thanks to Dwayne Johnson.” Of course, I was like… “do you mean THE ROCK!?” Our whole team was amped. He’s a major figure in the entertainment industry.
It’s amazing to see him and Gal use their platform for kids and families in hospitals. And of course, it’s fun for the kids and families, too. Gal actually recorded a special message for the kids that we installed with all the consoles. It was really heart-warming to see.
Maly: It must be pretty surreal to see Gamers Outreach now reach the point where you’re able to raise close to a million dollars for charity in just a single weekend.
Zach Wigal: We started this organisation, as you mentioned, thanks to a cancelled Halo tournament. And when we started at that time, 14 years ago, we were a bunch of high school kids in my parent’s basement. It’s been a passion project for half my life thus far, and it’s been amazing to see the support grow, and realize the impact the community is making. This is a cause we feel really strongly about. As gamers, it’s obvious video games can make a tremendous difference in hospitals.
How to get involved?
If you are interested to learn more about Gamers Outreach or want to get involved head to their website. You can get involved by starting a fundraising campaign, offering to volunteer or by making a monetary donation. Gamers Outreach also organises several annual fundraisers, one of which is the Spooktacular Streamathon around Halloween.