Healing through Xbox: Locally-launched non-profit gives games to sick kids nationwide

What's the best way for a video game enthusiast to combat the negative stereotypes associated with gaming? Point to research concluding games aren't making society more violent? Recite anecdotes? How about leveraging the power of video games and gaming enthusiasts into a nationwide non-profit improve the lives of more than 26,000 sick kids each year?  

That might seem like overkill to make a point, but Saline native Zach Wigal's aspirations for Gamers Outreach, the non-profit he started while he was still in high school, have moved far beyond proving video games aren't so bad. The organization has partnered with children's hospitals across the nation to build portable video game carts for kids to use during their stay. 

"In the hospital, things get really deep really quickly," says Wigal. "When nurses have to switch out IVs, it can be so hard on kids. What used to take six nurses and holding a kid down, now you hand them a video game console and say, 'Here's Lego Batman,' and it's so much better for everyone."

Game on

But back in 2007, Wigal was just trying to organize a video game tournament in the Saline High School cafeteria. Nearly 300 people had signed up to participate in the Halo tournament when, three days before the event, a protest by a local police officer shut it down. Citing the belief that video games were corrupting kids' minds, the tournament was deemed a public safety hazard and canceled. 

"We were so disappointed," says Wigal. "So we ended up putting up an alternative. We wanted to say, 'Hey man, you think gamers are bad, we'll get together and do something good.'"

So he and his friends moved the tournament and donated the money raised by the event to a charity. That would mark the first year of Gamers for Giving, the annual fundraiser that still fuels Gamers Outreach today. 

The GO Karts

For two years, the funds raised by Gamers for Giving were donated to the Autism Society of America. And then, Project GO Kart happened.

"We wanted to do something for Mott Children's Hospital, and we thought it would be really cool to give them a bunch of video games for the kids," Wigal says.  

The staff at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital was on board. In practical terms, however, this meant donating a limited amount of games to the shared play area where the televisions were located, or investing in portable game consoles that were likely to get lost. 

After six months volunteering there, it became clear to Wigal that getting video games to the kids who were stuck in their rooms would make the biggest impact. He reached out to medical supply companies and found one that would work with him to modify an existing, medical-grade cart into a video game kiosk. 

In 2009, the first GO Kart was delivered to Mott. The impact was immediate.

"I was just talking to a kid who is in the hospital three times a week for dialysis treatment," Wigal says. "He's there for three to four hours at a time. But when he goes, he and his younger brother play Ninja Turtles. The video games help normalize everything. 

"It's not about the dialysis anymore, it's going to play video games with his brother."

Doctors use the video games too, playing with the kids to connect with their patients. Wherever there is a GO Kart, there is a waiting list of kids waiting to use it. 

The next level

The demand for Gamers' Outreach's GO Kart has officially gone beyond the halls of Mott Children's Hospital. The organization has built carts for hospitals across the U.S., including Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, Children's Hospital Oakland in Oakland, Calif., and even veterans have gotten in on the fun at Dallas VA Medical Center. 

The proliferation of the GO Karts wouldn't have been possible without some major supporters getting behind Gamers Outreach. Big names in the gaming world have taken it upon themselves to fundraise, like professional gamer Michael “Flamesword” Chaves, who did a 24-hour gaming marathon, raising more than $9,000 for carts. The Gamers Outreach board members are now spread across the country and include people Wigal calls "heavy hitters" in the video game industry. 

These days, the Gamers for Giving fundraising event still takes place at Eastern Michigan University where it has been hosted for years, but it's bigger than ever. Wigal expects this year's event, which will take place Feb. 21 and 22, to attract 1,000 people. Their fundraising goal is $25,000.

As much as Gamers Outreach has grown they're only getting started. After working in the tech industry for years, Wigal is now becoming the full-time director of the non-profit he started nearly eight years ago. 

"We're doubling down on Project GO Kart," he says. "We're working on scale, and we're working on measurable results."

In addition, Wigal is working to make it easier for people to discover, help and share about Gamers Outreach. 

"Not only do we want to deliver more carts in 2015," says Wigal, "but we want to make it so people can very easily get involved in their own way, and benefit hospitals that are local to them." 

With so much ahead for Gamers Outreach, the now national organization is still finding new ways to benefit their hometown partner, Mott Children's Hospital. When a large organization contacted Gamers Outreach with an offer to offload more than 300 Xbox 360 consoles at a deep discount, the best home for them was never in doubt. The organization helped facilitate the sale and delivery of the consoles to Mott, bringing gameplay to kids' rooms throughout the seventh floor of the hospital in January with plans to continue installation in the remaining rooms over the next couple of months. 

Wigal is confident the police officer from his community has gotten the message that video games can do plenty of good. Not that he holds any grudges. Gamers Outreach owes is existence to his misguided complaint. And the result has been an organization that provides comfort and happiness to tens of thousands of sick kids across the country.

Seems like the perfect rebuttal to us.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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