Image credit: Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget

The charity that wants video game karts in every hospital

How the Gamers Outreach Foundation is making life easier for sick kids.

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    Image credit: Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget

    In many ways, Jonathan Watson is like other 11-year-olds. He does his homework, dreams of becoming a doctor and plays video games when he can. Depending on the day, his favorite is either Minecraft or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Unlike most kids his age, though, Jonathan is at the hospital every three weeks for blood transfusions -- a procedure that can take up to six hours at a time. When I visited him at Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he wasn't slaying dragons or building a pixelated fortress; he was replaying the opening levels of Rayman Legends on a kart that had just been wheeled in. The kart was donated by a local Eagle Scout who raised funds through the Gamers Outreach Foundation (GO), a nationwide charity that puts medical-grade gaming equipment in hospitals around the country.

    The "GO Kart" Jonathan was using included everything needed to play video games: a modest Samsung television, an Xbox 360 (though any console will fit) and a pair of gamepads. The kit itself is hardly revolutionary, but anyone who's schlepped their gear to a LAN party can appreciate the simplicity of this rolling, self-contained setup. At Mott and 19 other hospitals around the country, they're the most popular "toy" available. And when you're a kid with a medical condition like Watson's, it's easy to see why.

    Gallery: Mott Children's Hospital's "The Dugout" | 23 Photos

    He has a rare disease called pyruvate kinase deficiency. Essentially, his red blood cells can't produce the right molecules fast enough and die at a rapid rate. He's been coming to the infusion center at the University of Michigan's Mott hospital for four years. If doctors can't find a cure for the disease, Watson will require these transfusions for the rest of his life.

    If you think about it, then, restarting a game every time there's an IV in your arm is hard to complain about.

    "It's okay, because then I can get good at the beginning levels," he told me. I was sitting to his left in a baseball-themed playroom called the Dugout, where floor-to-ceiling cubbies are filled with colorful toys. There's a glass display case with Brandon Inge's autographed Detroit Tigers jersey and Louisville Slugger. A quote is displayed above the shrine: "Sometimes in life we have to sit in the dugout, wait, watch, get stronger and learn. We get benched for a while, but it's to make us stronger in our life and faith." This space would be idyllic if it weren't for the lingering smell of rubbing alcohol.

    The scent didn't seem to bother Jonathan, though. His mom said he loves coming here. And besides, he was mostly focused on Rayman. This is precisely the scene GO founder Zach Wigal imagined when he started the foundation.
    Jonathan Watson playing one of his favorite games during a blood transfusion. Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget

    Back when Wigal was 17, all he wanted to do was host a Halo 2 tournament at Saline High School. After he and some friends canvassed parking lots of nearby schools with fliers, around 300 people registered for the event. Because so many people were due to attend, his dad suggested contacting the police to see if they had someone who could help staff it.

    The officer Wigal's dad spoke with called the school's superintendent and shut the event down. After someone posted the Saline newspaper's report to Digg, the story went viral. Wigal was inundated with random messages on Facebook and Myspace. From Washington State, Halo 2 developer Bungie's former in-house composer, Marty O'Donnell, wrote a letter to The Saline Post's editor praising Zach's efforts and offered to cover losses resulting from the tournament's cancellation.

    "Who are these people protecting the moral high ground?" O'Donnell admonished.

    This, combined with the outpouring of online support, led Wigal to organize a charity Halo 2 LAN party and tournament.

    "Let's donate the money to a charity cause and we'll be able to show the police officer all the good things that can happen when [gamers] come together for an event," Wigal recalled.

    Around 400 people attended the first Gamers for Giving event, in 2008. The Gamers Outreach Foundation's debut fundraising event was held at Eastern Michigan University's small student activities building. After expenses, the foundation donated $4,000 to a local chapter of the Autism Society of America.

    There's been an event every year since, but things have changed somewhat. For starters, last year's Gamers for Giving tournament took place in the 9,500-seat Convocation Center at EMU. Some 600 people were connected to the LAN to play games, and around 1,500 onlookers filtered through over two days.

    With a bigger venue, though, came a bigger goal. In 2016, Wigal hoped to raise $100,000 in a weekend to fund the foundation's next big push: in-house fabrication of the pricey GO Karts. Until last year, GO retrofitted existing hospital carts with gaming equipment. Custom fabrication would make production cheaper over time -- the cost never changed on the previous carts -- and allow GO to expand its reach and reinvest in itself. In hindsight, any worries Wigal had about hitting that goal were unfounded: The foundation surpassed its goal by nearly $73,000.

    The first generation of Karts was successful in other ways, too. For starters, they showed how video games can serve a therapeutic purpose in hospitals. In particular, they make hospital stays less lonely, and may even help patients and their families briefly forget why they're in an intensive care unit.

    Marianna Wechter, a child life specialist at Mott Children's Hospital, cleans a GO Kart before Jonathan Watson uses it. Timothy J. Seppala/Engadget

    "It's really therapeutic, in that [patients] get absorbed in the game and it takes them away from some of the scary things that could potentially arise in this type of environment," said Marianna Wechter, a child life specialist at Mott's infusion clinic.

    One patient at Mott (his name wasn't disclosed, so we'll call him Paul) used to suffer through an extended ordeal every time the dressings on his arm needed to be changed. It took multiple staffers to hold him so the bandages could be removed, the wound cleaned and fresh dressings applied. Eventually, J.J. Bouchard, who helps oversee the GO Kart program at Mott, learned that Paul loved playing the Lego video games. One day, while he was playing with Paul, a nurse came in to apply new bandages. Soon enough, the procedure got to the point where Paul was only able to play one-handed. Bouchard controlled the action buttons while Paul directed his on-screen avatar. There was a problem, though: The smell of something made Paul "freak out," Bouchard said.

    Gallery: Scenes from Gamers for Giving 2016 | 25 Photos

    To remedy that, Bouchard used his free hand to pinch Paul's nose and block out the smell. With that, the staffers changed the dressings without issue, and for 18 months, this treatment became routine. The Karts help, sure, but having trained medical professionals on hand is still important. Almost overnight, what used to take seven nurses an hour took two people 20 minutes.

    "That was when I was able to convince my staff that this is a powerful tool and can really help people -- save the hospital tons of money and save this kid a lot of PTSD," Bouchard said.

    Saving time and money is part of the Karts' core design. They roll right up to a patient's bed. Their height can be adjusted, their TV angled toward the patient for easier viewing.

    Bouchard said the Karts are "indestructible." Every time a kid is done playing, someone from the hospital has to disinfect the kit with rubbing alcohol or bleach. Those harsh chemicals have destroyed previous gaming setups, but the first Kart Wigal donated to Mott six years ago is still in use today.

    A Gamers for Giving 2016 attendee takes a GO Kart for a spin.

    The Kart was originally intended as a one-off, but once other hospitals started seeing its potential, they contacted Wigal to request units of their own. Each of the first-gen Karts cost $4,000, and that was before shipping or the cost of consoles and TVs. That high price explains why, despite demand, the Karts are in only 19 children's hospitals and one veterans' facility.

    Debbie Kruse, director of patient support services at Seattle Children's Hospital, told me that if her facility had 10 Karts rather than one, she'd find places for all of them. "I know that once one [patient] has it, as soon as they're done with it, it'll be snatched up by the next person," she said. "It's constantly in use."

    Thanks to help from Microsoft's Aaron Greenberg and the very nature of how Gamers Outreach fundraising works, her hospital's luck would soon change.

    Gaming charities like Extra Life and Child's Play have made it simple enough that anyone can start fundraising for their respective organizations. GO's platform builds on that; all it takes to start is setting up a fundraising campaign on GO's website. But the difference is that you aren't collecting pledges for a 24-hour gaming marathon and then sending the cash off to abstractly help "heal kids" (part of Extra Life's tagline). Instead, you're funding something tangible: a GO Kart.

    What's more, raising money is only the first part of GO's hands-on process. Once your fundraising campaign is complete, an order is made for a Kart, and when it's ready, you can help deliver it to your hospital of choice. That's partly why YouTube's 29-year-old director of global gaming partnerships, Ryan "Fwiz" Wyatt, threw his weight behind the foundation. Prior to YouTube, he was a professional Call of Duty player and commentator. He's also a member of GO's board. Before all of that, he was a kid with Crohn's disease living in Ohio.

    Around 2001, at age 14, Wyatt was hospitalized following a surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. During his month-long recovery, he commandeered a makeshift cart outfitted with an aging Super NES. At the time, it didn't matter that he wasn't playing on a PlayStation 2 or an Xbox, because it was a way for him to feel like he was home. "It could've been a regular Nintendo and I could've been playing the first Mario for all I cared at that point," he said.

    One Sunday afternoon a few years ago, Wyatt streamed himself playing Call of Duty for his ample social media audience (currently over 454,000 across Instagram and Twitter) and asked for donations to build a GO Kart. Within hours, he had enough money to put one in Cleveland Clinic's pediatric wing, where the doctor who took care of teenage Wyatt still worked. "it was a cool experience," he recalled. "I said, 'We've gotta do this [Kart donations] for everybody.'"

    Wigal's connections to the gaming industry have helped make that happen. He met Greenberg, Xbox's head of marketing, years ago. Last year, Wigal took him on a tour of Seattle Children's Hospital to show him the effect its lone GO Kart had on patients.

    Returning the favor, Greenberg showed him around the Microsoft campus and introduced him to as many people as he could, even barging into Xbox chief Phil Spencer's office without an appointment so Wigal could tell his story. "Phil was probably on the phone, but I didn't care," Greenberg told me. "[Wigal] is doing great work, so I raised my hand and said I'm gonna be his hype man."

    In 2016, GO received a gift through Microsoft's corporate giving campaign. One philanthropic event involved a pie-throwing contest. Employees bought tickets, exchanged them for tinfoil pans full of whipped cream and hurled them at management. Greenberg was a willing target. In one day, Microsoft employees raised $5,000 for the foundation. For an idea of how many pies he caught with his face, Greenberg told me the next day he still smelled like Cool Whip and even had some lodged in his ears.

    He didn't stop at taking pies to the face. Using the GO fundraising platform, he recruited others to help fill Seattle Children's Hospital's need for an additional nine Karts. Using his position in the gaming industry, Greenberg reached out to people like Game Awards host Geoff Keighley, Electronic Arts exec Peter Moore and HoloLens creative director Kudo Tsunoda to donate and help spread the word online. Even electronic musician Steve Aoki got in on the action.

    "We play our games, and we love gaming as an art form," Greenberg said, "but to be able to tie it back to something where [games] mean even more to kids in hospitals? I don't know how to describe the feeling I get."

    Greenberg paid for two Karts out of pocket, and tasked the gaming community to raise the additional funds for the remaining seven. With high-profile streamers helping out, Greenberg's fundraising campaign brought in $12,599. Streaming app Infiniscene, a 2016 Gamers for Giving sponsor, matched those donations, pushing the total past $25,000. Greenberg said this success overshadowed all the work he'd done for Microsoft in 2016 -- including launching Forza Horizon 3 and Gears of War 4.

    "It was the most important thing I focused on this holiday," he said.

    Expanding into more facilities is Wigal's ultimate goal. More visibility thanks to celebrity endorsements will ultimately advance that mission, but it isn't the point. However, Wigal expressed deep gratitude for the work people like Greenberg have done for GO.

    "I see it as a pathway for growth," he said. "But not the pathway." The real method for expansion is empowering gamers to fundraise, getting the word out about the foundation and combining those with in-house fabrication. As of this writing, there are more than 50 fundraising campaigns listed on the GO website at various stages of completion. But all the fundraising campaigns in the world won't do much good if GO can't supply the Karts to hospitals.

    Last year, Gamers for Giving raised $172,495, and the first round of custom Karts have begun shipping from a Texas manufacturing facility. The new setups cost $3,500, all components included, versus nearly $4,000 for just the first-gen cart. With time and manufacturing advances, the price could go down even further. This month, Gamers Outreach will deliver 31 karts in one shot -- almost as many as it has since 2010.

    You could almost look at the past nine years as being a small beta test for the foundation. Now, with the custom Karts and the inroads Wigal continues to make with the gaming industry, he seems ready to launch GO on a larger scale.

    Gamers for Giving 2017 is just around the corner, too, returning to EMU's Convocation Center April 1st and 2nd. Rather than focus on raising money to start the manufacturing process this year, funds will go toward building Karts themselves. If the community is as enthusiastic as it was in 2016, that could mean an awful lot more Karts in more places, fulfilling Wigal's dream to help more. There's also the chance to move beyond domestic children's hospitals and into general care and veterans' facilities or international hospitals.

    "My thought is that, wherever there are gamers, Gamers Outreach Foundation should be," he said.

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