This Charity is Teaching People About the Healing Power of Video Games

Many conversations about the benefits of digital play focus on the ways popular technologies can improve kids’ academic, home, and social lives. But what about the kids who are too sick to make it to class? Who spend as much, or more, time in the hospital as they do at home? Whose social interactions for days, weeks, even months at a time consist mainly of immediate family, hospital staff, and other patients? For these kids, video games are an important resource, not only because they help keep brains sharp, but because they provide a link to the outside world, a sense of normalcy, a comfort when life is scary.

But it’s not exactly practical or even possible for a family to drag an Xbox along for a hospital stay. Enter Gamers Outreach, a non-profit working to make hospital stays a lot less scary for kids and a lot easier on parents and hospital faculty. Gamers Outreach builds and donates GO Karts (Gamers Outreach Karts) —  medical-grade, portable gaming stations — to hospital children’s wards, providing young patients with some much needed digital play. GO Karts are in hospitals across the nation, from Boston to Los Angeles, helping an estimated 85,000 kids a year take their minds off their illnesses and exercise their brains.

What’s even cooler about Gamers Outreach is that its founder was in high school when he started the charity, which is now his full-time job. Zach Wigal’s love of video games — and his desire to prove that gamers can be good people who contribute to society — led him to establish a gaming competition to raise money for charity. The competition, called Gamers for Giving, has become a yearly event for Gamers Outreach, one that has raised thousands for the charity’s programs — more than $170,000 just this year. I had the pleasure of talking to Zach about Gamers Outreach, the difference it’s making for hospital patients and staff, how it’s changed his own life, and how people can get involved.

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Gamers Outreach founder Zach Wigal delivers a GO Kart donation to a hospital. Photo: GamersOutreach.org

I asked Zach how the idea for the GO Kart came about. He told me that when the first Gamers for Giving event turned out to be such a success, it was clear that he wanted it to become an annual thing. “The idea came about to donate a bunch of video games to [C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital] in Ann Arbor,” Zach told me. “We thought it would be a good idea to check in with the hospital itself to see if they could even use them. When we started talking to the staff, we found they were always trying to create activities at the bedside environment for kids who couldn’t access Mott’s playrooms.” Some kids just don’t have the same mobility as other patients in the hospital, Zach explained, and some nurses and child life specialists are great with kids but not necessarily great at playing video games. There might be times when a nurse comes along and there’s a kid who wants to play Xbox but the nurse isn’t familiar with how to use the console or play the game. And moving the equipment becomes an issue, with the added concern of misplacement or theft.

“So we spent 6 months interacting with the hospital, volunteering, and because Mott’s is a teaching hospital, they were very receptive to experimentation,” Zach told me. A medical company was willing to let Zach and his team repurpose old medical equipment and create the GO Kart. “And then a neighboring hospital wanted one. Then, as word spread, gamers started wanting them for their local hospitals,” he said. “GO Karts are a byproduct of going in and observing and creating something useful.” As Zach sees it, like books, games, and movies, video games are just “one more tool for the folks in the healthcare environment to add to the quality of life for patients.”

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A recent Gamers for Giving event.
Photo: GamersOutreach.org

Gamers can build Karts by themselves now, and hospital donors are funding them. Today, there are just under 40 GO Karts in about 20 different hospitals across the country. There’s even a GO Kart in a veterans hospital in Texas, which suggests that Gamers Outreach may be branching out to serve adult patients in the near future. And a changing manufacturing process is allowing GO Karts to be produced much more quickly. Next year may result in more GO Karts than in the entire existence of the charity. “The Go Karts are not console specific,” Zach explained, “So we’ll equip the GO Karts with PlayStation or Xbox. Wii presents a challenge because of the wireless controls.”

Zach never intended Gamers Outreach to go nationwide. At first it was a fun idea, but because of the interest of hospitals and patients, it became evident that there was a real need. Zach says the feedback he gets from hospitals and families is validating. “We have not had a hospital turn one down yet,” he told me. “Space is the biggest challenge. We reach out to hospital, see if they’re interested, and if they are, we go ahead and deliver the Kart to them.” But even if one hospital doesn’t have space, a neighboring hospital is always willing to take one. “The number one piece of feedback we get from hospitals,” Zach revealed, “is, ‘We want more of these.’ Every single time we have delivered a GO Kart, it has always led to another GO Kart.”

GO Karts are useful to hospitals in a variety of ways. They are a good pain management distraction and they help keep kids calm, entertained, and mentally and socially stimulated. Zach relayed a story of a child who had suffered a severe burn and was very anxious about the painful care process. When nurses brought in a GO Kart loaded with LEGO Batman and offered to play with him as his dressing was changed, the process of tending the burn, which had previously taken a long time and many staff members, took two nurses just a few minutes. And for goal-oriented doctors who have trouble putting kids at ease, GO Karts present an opportunity to break the ice at a child’s bedside, Zach explained, “I’ve seen doctors play with kids, too.”

Having access to video games in the hospital has also had some unexpected benefits on kids’ positive psychology skills. Zach told me the story of a 13-year-old who, during his 9-month stay in the hospital, had grown pretty attached to the institution’s only GO Kart. When staff kept taking the GO Kart to serve other patients, this young teen ended up going door-to-door looking for donations, raising an impressive $15,000 to build and donate more GO Karts to the hospital. Having video games in the hospital is helping parents, too. “I was talking to a father a few months ago who has a son [with a] blood disease,” Zac told me. “They were at the hospital three times a week for dialysis. His son can’t engage in active play, so they are bonding through video games. I talk to a lot of parents who are playing video games with their sick kids because that’s the safest and easiest kind of play in their situation.”

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Player 2 volunteer Jon Shim plays LEGO Batman with a patient. Photo: GamersOutreach.org

Though Zach started Gamers Outreach nearly a decade ago to prove something about video game culture, he says there’s been a shift, not just in attitudes about gaming but in his own view of the work Gamers Outreach does. “Games are so prevalent now, even my mom plays,” he said. “[But when I was growing up], every time something would happen, it was blamed on video games. I personally grew up playing all kinds of video games, and now I’m running a charity organization. . .So yes, the charity began because of bad feedback, but now it’s charity first and reputation second. As a gamer and someone who’s been involved in the charity scene for a while, I find that unless a person has a personal connection to a cause or takes a leap to get involved with a charity, most folks won’t get involved with a charity. For us, games introduced us to this greater world of charity. I loved playing games, I was already passionate about that. Introducing the charity element introduced me to the good I could do for community.”

The most impactful way to help Gamers Outreach is through donations, which go toward building GO Karts and funding Player 2, a program that places gamers in hospitals to visit and play with patients and help nurses distribute games. Gamers in Michigan can also volunteer annually at the Gamers for Giving event. If you know of a hospital that could use a GO Kart, Gamers Outreach has a fundraising tool on their website to help you raise the $3,500 that it takes to build the Kart, outfit it with a console and monitor, and deliver and set it up.

For more information about Gamers Outreach, including photos, detailed fundraising information, and ways to get involved, visit their website at GamersOutreach.org.

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