Gamers Outreach: Using Games and Community to Make an Impact in Hospitals

When Zach Wigal isn’t busy exploring the wildness of America’s landscape with his husky pup Chewy, he is adamantly leading the charge for Gamers Outreach, a charity set on bringing the joy and catharsis of video games to children in hospitals across America. As we speak on the phone he is filled with alacrity and ease, speaking to his passion for his work and the capacity for games.

A mixture of philanthropy and passion, Gamers Outreach was born out of a high school gaming tournament gone viral. One summer, while stuck inside due to a case of mono, Wigal discovered the capacity for the professional gaming community. He delved into Mortal Kombat tournaments and eventually decided to run a Halo 2 tournament at his school in his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Unfortunately, a local police officer who believed games were a threat to public safety reported his concerns to the district superintendent, who then decided to cancel the event.

“I was really frustrated by that,” admits Wigal. “Especially after doing all of this work to set up the tournament over a few months.” His frustration was understandable. Bringing together a community, marketing an event, and gathering TVs and systems to host the event is quite a feat for anyone, let alone a teenager.

The tides shifted when the local news caught wind of the story, reporting that local teenagers on a productive mission were shut down by ‘the man.’

“It was sort of a weird ACLU free speech issue,” Wigal says. “We rented a public space for an approved event. It didn’t make sense, especially since we weren’t running the tournament as part of the school.” The cancelation of the tournament spread like wildfire on social media, eventually reaching the eyes of the creators of Halo themselves: Bungie Studios. At Bungie, it came to the attention of composer Martin O’Donnell, who wrote a letter challenging the shutdown.

It was this coming together of community and developers over the news and social media that made Wigal realize the power behind the people involved in gaming. “After having this experience, I really began to see how the gaming community works together—what happens when gamers come together. And as much as Gamers Outreach is for the children in hospitals it’s also an outlet for the gaming community to combine our passion for gaming to charitable action,” he says.

Following the Halo 2 tournament, Wigal continued to channel the power of gaming community into positive action, hosting tournaments with his friends and donating the earnings of the events to local charities. “As a teenager, I never really thought of video games being used in that context. It was great to uncover the potential of them,” he adds, expanding on his experiences meeting with parents and seeing the positive effects games had on their children. He mentions a mother of a child with autism, and how games created an even playing field for him to make friends and socialize. And he’s right, there is a lot of evidence that supports how playing games can help children with social disorders by providing them an environment that can alleviate their anxiety.

Over time, Wigal realized how widespread that impact could be. “When we got into the second year of hosting our event we learned our local children’s hospital was having trouble providing kids access to entertainment. The child-life asked if we could do a fundraiser for them,” explains Wigal. “At the time there was another charity called Child’s Play [that did fundraisers for hospitals], but this hospital wasn’t registered with them.” Wigal realized the hospital was also asking for portable gaming devices like Gameboys and PSP’s because their hardware was constantly getting stolen or disappearing. So, instead of donating devices that would eventually need to be replaced again, Wigal collaborated with the hospital to develop portable gaming hardware that would be more difficult to walk away with, accidentally or not. And thus, the GO Karts were born: portable stations containing PlayStations and Xboxes that could be karted around hospitals with ease.

 “We started to repurpose medical carts to house gaming hardware and that’s how the whole thing came about. So, the first five or six years we would host Gamers for Giving, we’d build medical carts, and we’d fundraise independently,” he explains. Over time news of the GO Karts and outreach spread and companies began to reach out about hospitals that weren’t so local. Now Gamers Outreach supports over 200 hospitals.

With the growth of the charity, Wigal came to a crossroads of choosing a career at Corsair or pursing Gamer’s Outreach—and he realized that he couldn’t let the organization go. At that point, he knew what games could do for others and what the community could do for each other. “Our goal now is to make video game content easily accessible to hospitals and just generally available for them… so we’re basically addressing two needs. The first need is that a lot of hospitals know the benefits of gaming content but don’t know a lot about the hardware or how to access it. So that could be as simple as providing TVs and systems… but it often gets more complicated in determining how kids can have access to them, right? New hospitals are considering entertainment in their development, but older facilities don’t have that luxury. So how do we get kids access? The other need is the management aspect. So how do you help a hospital manage the equipment once it’s been deployed?” says Wigal.

All of this problem-solving is worth it because of the tangible evidence of patient success that Wigal, his colleagues, and volunteers witness daily. “Now that we’re out there we think along the lines of how hospitals measure patient success. For example, do video games serve a role in improving patient outcomes? If someone’s in the hospital how quickly do they heal? What’s the overall outcome of their results or their overall recovery?”  he explains, adding that they want to begin looking at metrics and researching the effects that entertainment has on patients, especially those who have elongated stays in hospitals.

To evaluate the state of a child, patient caretakers will often ask what their current pain score is, 10 being severe pain and one being none. “There’s been times when a patient may be at, let’s say, a seven, but the child-life specialist will allow the child to play a video game for a certain period of time. And then when they follow up they’ve said they feel like a four or a three. So there’s the idea now that video games can help with patient anxiety and focus,” Wigal adds. And though the idea of metrics and research is fledging and takes patience, they’ve seen tangible outcomes from the start.

“We had a child who was a burn victim and every few days the nurses would have to come in and change out his bandages. It got to a point where the kid was so anxious over the process that the nurses would have to hold him down during the procedure… One of the nurses found out that the kid enjoyed playing Lego Batman. So they wheeled in one of the GO Karts and they let the kid play games for a while before the procedure. It went from six nurses required to restrain the kid to just two: one to hold one end of the controller because he didn’t want to lose his progress and the other to perform the procedure; so they didn’t have to administer any drugs or sedatives to calm him. The nurses had an easier time doing their job, and obviously, the child has a better experience. And for the hospital, those four other nurses and go about helping other patients. We see this stuff on a daily basis,” Wigal reflects with excitement.

Patient success involves factors like length of stay and recovery, and patient engagement, or how a patient is engaged with content during treatments or procedures, is on the road to improve those factors through content saturation. GO Karts and games are an answer to patient boredom, depression, and anxiety. “Ultimately, when we think about Gamers Outreach in the future, we ask ourselves what does the future of entertainment content look like in healthcare and how does the video game community play a role in supporting the evolution of that?,” Wigal says adding quickly, “The GO Karts is a program to help support that and we actually have a volunteer initiative that we’ve rolled up on our website now.”

The volunteer initiative is called Player 2 and it allows volunteers to act as digital activity managers. They play games with kids, provide technical support for tech, distribute games, and can help manage GO Karts. But the volunteer position isn’t just playing games with kids, it’s fully involved with the hospitals.

When asked what next, Wigal was clear that the mission of the charity is stronger than ever, as is the demand. “These [Project GO Karts and Player 2] are both programs that help serve that question,” says Wigal.“ But the GO Karts are a solution to a set of challenges in the hospital—they’re not the be all end all of what we can do.”

This conversation comes on the heels of an announcement that unites both the Electronic Sports League (ESL) and Gamers Outreach to further the capacity for positive action in the gaming community. “As the league and e-sports have matured and developed a growth mindset, they’re mindful of their leadership in the space and use the platform responsibly and give back,” Wigal adds. “Our partnership with them is in the healthcare space and they have a massive platform. It is an incredible opportunity for us to raise awareness of what kids and families are going through, and for the ESL it’s a strong opportunity for them to rally their community and do good with it.” Starting off this partnership is the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) in Chicago, which will donate a portion of its ticket proceeds to Gamer’s Outreach.

 “I think there will be a lot of people who learn about the power of good and giving through our partnership who maybe weren’t aware of that before,” Wigal comments. And he’s right. Gamers Outreach has proven that since its fruition, and it seems like it will continue to help drive the community, which can sometimes be consumed by its own toxicity, to step up and use the medium it loves to make a difference.

Interesting in helping?

Want to get involved with Gamer’s Outreach and help make life better for children in hospitals? Check out their website here, donate to their cause, or sign up to volunteer with them! You can also follow their social media accounts for calls to action.

Photos courtesy Gamer’s Outreach

Author: Katy Goodman

Katy Goodman is a freelance writer and English teacher. When she isn't busy writing and training horses or composition students, she can be found playing games, researching rhetoric and linguistics, or climbing trees; sometimes all of those things may happen at the same time. She holds an MA in Rhetoric and Composition and has been published on various sites including Kotaku, Cinema Blend, Gameranx, and Match.com. Follow her on twitter @InvizzyB or on her blog ProcessofThoughts.com.

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