Charity’s Real-Life Action Heroes Show Different Side of Gaming

Somewhere in America, a parent turns out the lights with a silent prayer: “Please give me another day where my 15-year old shows no signs of dying his hair purple, piercing his ears, shrinking his wardrobe down to black socks and a raincoat, and gunning down Milton, the ice-cream man. Oh, and please make tomorrow another day where our rules are obeyed: no video games.”

“No video games” for some fearful parents is a way of making sure the other stuff doesn’t happen. They’re joined by an army of gaming critics who fear that a link ties violent video games to violence played out in real life. These opponents accuse the video-game industry of insensitivity in creating games where a kid can practice video-simulated sniping and gain the capability of deadly perfection. As their arguments go, repeated video-gaming results in blurred distinctions of passable behavior, as players navigate once too often from virtual exactitude to off-line reality.

Enter Seattle-based illustrator Mike Krahulik (“Gabe”) and writer Jerry Holkins (“Tycho”) whose Gabe-and-Tycho alter egos are known to millions who go up on their comic strip site Penny Arcade.

This is a site that trains its focus on the gaming lifestyle and games themselves. Only this time the two wanted to do more than comment online. Fed up with all the negativity, the two wanted to show another side of gaming. They talked about a charity appeal going out to all gamers for money, games, and toys for sick children in hospitals. That appeal turned into the charity, Child’s Play.

For those who forget the nation in shock after the Columbine killings and the scramble for answers, the need to show another side of gaming was also in tune with the times.

Post-Columbine Fallout

“You don’t see it so much anymore, but back in 2003 the mainstream press couldn’t get enough of gamer-bashing articles. Gamers were offered as scapegoats,” said Mike Fehlauer, who handles media relations for Penny Arcade. “It’s mostly post-Columbine fallout,” he added, referring to the 1999 school massacre by two teenage students. Video games were among the very easiest of scapegoats, he added.

“Games are by far the most popular pastime for teens and, increasingly, adults,” says Frehauer. “So it’s big news to blame games for a tragedy — certainly easier and more interesting than investigating, say, the complex issues of social dynamics in high school or troubled home life. Instead of looking into the root of the problem, say, an unbalanced kid with easy access to guns, why not blame big game corporations, sue them for a lot of money, and marginalize non-voters.”

The two Penny Arcade masters after setting up a wish list for the Seattle Children’s Hospital told their readers about it and the idea took off. The response from the gaming community was so overwhelming that the list of hospitals extended to other cities. “Over half a million dollars later,” said Fehlauer, “I think gamers have made their point.”

The first year of appeals drew over US$250,000; last year $310,000 was raised. With this year’s appeals, they hope to be able to say that, years combined, they have raised close to a cool million.

That a grass-roots effort can do so much partly stems from the fact that Penny Arcade gets over 45 million page views a month. “The strips are funny and the news posts are well written,” says Fehlauer, “but I think what the readership appreciates the most is that Mike and Jerry are honest … they trust, respect, and take care of their readers.”

Communities Unleashed

These are the kinds of viewers who appreciate a no-bull charity opportunity to help sick kids free of commercialized fluff. Their energy is not unlike that of programmers on sites like Slashdot, where they prove capable of taking an isolated comment and turning it into a collaborative tidal wave

“Penny-Arcade provides the administration and logistics, but Child’s Play is fueled by gamers,” Fehlauer told TechNewsWorld. “Game players hook us up with hospitals, spread the word by including a Child’s Play link in their sigs, and get us coverage by evangelizing to local media,” he explained. “Enthusiast sites take up the torch by featuring Child’s Play on their home-pages. It really is a community effort.”

Right now, the Child Play organizers are busy planning for the upcoming Child’s Play Fundraiser Dinner Auction on Tuesday, December 13, in the Seattle suburb, Bellevue. It’s not lost on the Child’s Play charity organizers that these pre-Christmas weeks present a unique opportunity for more donations in the basket. “While most of the money comes in from online donations, the charity event is the venue that serves as a ‘showcase,'” he remarked.

As part of this year’s highlights, he said, “We’ve got Gabe and Tycho in tuxedos, national mainstream and enthusiast press, awesome auction items donated by game publishers, speakers from partner Children’s Hospitals, the works.”

With tickets priced at $100, gamers will find themselves at a “swanky” dinner event, complete with auction highlights such as Penny Arcade signed and numbered game consoles, and an appearance in a Penny Arcade comic strip.

The Dec. 13 night won’t be the first time the charity organizers have staged such an event. Kristin Lindsay, Child’s Play and events coordinator for Penny Arcade, said last year’s auction raised around $30,000 in just that one night alone. According to Lindsay: “We also have a very special guest attending this year. Washington State Representative Toby Nixon will be joining us for the evening. We’re thrilled that he will be coming by to learn about Child’s Play and see the support of the gaming community.”

Johns Hopkins in the Act

If Child’s Play is opening doors to a very human side of the gaming community, it’s also seeding valuable ties with medical researchers who are interested in the effects of gaming on sick children. That may come as a surprise to those who worry over gaming as a disease in and of itself.

“We’re helping fund a project called HOPE (Hospital-based Online Pediatric Environment),” said Fehlauer.

This project involves a research team studying the impact of online gaming in children on hemodialysis at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. The results could affect a broader area of pediatric care.

Fehlauer said, “Many of the patients in a children’s hospital are there for chronic conditions that require extended treatments … that often take a long time and are quite painful. HOPE connects these patients with others who share a similar experience. The project links kids on pediatric dialysis with others in the same predicament. They get to game, talk about their conditions with someone who can understand, and focus on something other than the pain. The result is a happier patient who heals faster and needs less pain medication.”

Some of the money donated to Child’s Play is used to support the project. “The money comes from the general Child’s Play fund; if you contribute $5 through the Paypal link then some of that money is going to HOPE,” he said.

According to the Project HOPE Web site, “Our goal is to allow every child with a debilitating ailment to captain a virtual football team, slay virtual dragons, and learn to build and maintain valuable community relationships. It’s as simple, and as ambitious, as that.”

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