It’s hard to imagine a more misunderstood industry than gaming. People assume that it’s the pastime of pubescent button-bashers who reach for controllers instead of their maths homework. It isn’t – the average age of a US gamer is 33 and nearly a third of UK adults between 25 and 54 have a games console rigged up to wifi.
Stereotypes tell you that it’s the niche hobby of a geeky minority. But in 2019, the UK’s total consumer expenditure on gaming was £5.3bn. Software sales alone exceeded £3.8bn – which is more than a billion pounds higher than expenditure on video and more than double that of music.
The biggest mistake you can make in terms of gaming, though? Underestimating it as a source of charity fundraising.
“Gaming has such an impact on people’s lives that it can do so much for charity,” says Shay Thompson, co-host of Gaming for Good, a podcast from Salesforce, the customer relationship management platform, which profiles gaming’s philanthropic side. “A lot of people are surprised to find out how much money it raises, but this is the future of fundraising.”
Gaming’s charity credentials first started to emerge in 2003, when the creators of Penny Arcade – a webcomic about the gaming industry – decided to challenge a media narrative that linked playing games with real-life violence. They set up an Amazon wishlist for Seattle Children’s Hospital and encouraged gamers to donate. They ended up raising $250,000 in under a month and spawned a new charity, Child’s Play.
Since then, Child’s Play has raised more than $46m (£35m) and now supports a network of more than 180 children’s hospitals worldwide. It also funds staff who help with therapeutic initiatives, such as providing VR headsets to children undergoing chemotherapy. And it’s largely thanks to having been one of the earliest charities involved with live-stream gaming.
“Our Desert Bus for Hope fundraiser has been streaming since before streaming was a thing – the community around it is incredible,” says Kirsten Carlile, Child’s Play’s philanthropy and partner experiences director. The week-long initiative, first organised in 2007, saw comedy troupe LoadingReadyRun stream themselves playing Desert Bus – a bus simulator largely believed to be the most boring game of all time – for as long as people would donate to it. Last year the comedy group raised $865,000 (£680,000) over the week, and has a fanbase so loyal that they save all year long to donate. “The following is incredible. Fans almost have this philanthropic budget they save for Desert Bus,” says Carlile.
Gamers who live stream now raise astonishing sums of money for good causes. The live streaming site Twitch has raised $200m (£150m) for charity, primarily via gaming streams, with $55m (£43m) in 2019 alone. In-game charity purchases are also increasingly helping to fund benevolent work, with Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends, raising $6m (£4.5m) for the Riot Games Social Impact Fund, which ultimately enables players to vote for nonprofits in their region to receive a grant.
In 2018, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation received its largest ever single corporate partner donation of $12.7m (£9.9m) – all raised in a fortnight by Overwatch players purchasing a $15 (£11) pink skin.
A forward-thinking approach to tech is increasingly something that charities need to embrace. Unfortunately, according to a recent charity industry survey, The Future Charity, only 25% of charity employees see their organisation as well equipped to change for the future. That’s where working with organisations at the forefront of innovation in the private sector can be an asset: Salesforce is one of the world’s leading customer relationship management software companies, and has a social impact centre, salesforce.org, which provides non-profit and educational organisations with access to powerful technology, strategic community partnerships, and impactful investments. With Covid-19 forcing most fundraising online, it’s more important than ever to have the right technology in place.
“We’ve seen record increases in donations since March,” says Michael Wasserman, CEO of Tiltify, a fundraising payment platform that enables live streamers to donate to a cause of their choice. “Some months it’s been 600% or 700% up on the same period as last year.”
Partly, this is due to the natural advantage that gaming had in recent months – it can still happen, even in lockdown – compared with fundraising that involves physical events. It’s also due to the way that gamers have rallied to fight Covid-19, with initiatives such as Twitch Stream Aid raising $2.7m (£2m) for the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund thanks to esports tournaments, celebrity gaming sessions from the likes of Joe Jonas and live music from John Legend, Shaggy and Sting. But it’s also due to the fact that it’s an intrinsically compelling thing to donate to.
“It’s charity fundraising where what you’re paying for is genuine entertainment – people will always give money to that,” says Wasserman. “It’s just more fun, it’s more entertaining – it really gets people clicking to donate.”
There are virtual sporting events that involve genuine physical activity, with UK streamer Inel Tomlinson raising $25,000 for the US civil rights organisation NAACP by leg scissoring and squat thrusting his way through three hours of the Nintendo Switch fitness game Ring Fit Adventure. In recent months, sports stars have even used games to blur the line between esports and their physical version. Venus and Serena Williams took part in a $1m charity Mario Tennis tournament, while Manchester City stars including Sergio Aguero entered a FIFA 20 virtual football charity competition.
According to Child’s Play research, in the US 11% of funds for non-gaming related charities now come from streaming, with it rising to 32% for gaming-related ones. Increasingly, big charities are seeing the potential in gaming. Macmillan Cancer Support has its own Game Heroes initiative to encourage gamers to earn money for it. War Child UK has raised more than £700,000 in donations from gaming initiatives. Its Armistice campaign worked with games companies to not just fundraise, but also reduce depictions of in-game violence by selling weapons that shot hearts rather than bullets – championing the charity’s ethos while helping to finance it.
For the charities that are partnering with gamers, they’re increasingly realising that not only is it a great revenue source, but it’s also changing the way they work. According to Wasserman, who’s spent most of his career in charity fundraising, organisations that previously struggled to attract donors younger than 60 are being lavishly funded by a youthful demographic for the first time. And the Tiltify platform has attempted to even gamify fundraising, by offering “milestones” where fundraisers perform tasks if they raise certain amounts, be it eating food they hate or having to face a fear live on camera – turning even the donation process into a game.
On top of all of that, the platform automatically captures huge amounts of data on the most successful ways that fundraisers earned money. So charities constantly find out how to evolve to stay on track. Frankly, it’s hard to see gaming as anything other than the future of fundraising.
Or in the words of Alyssa Sweetman, diversity and charity programme manager at Twitch: “There is no end to what is possible when the creativity of streamers and their community of viewers come together. It’s a success that can’t be replicated elsewhere.”