Streaming for good: How gaming marathons are raising thousands for charity

While the World Health Organization has deemed gaming disorder as a treatable addiction, it doesn't mean marathon gaming sessions can't be used to help others

To mark five years since the release of the PlayStation 4 console, maker Sony let gamers sync up their account with an online tool that broke down just how many hours they have spent playing in that time.

I did this and discovered that I’d racked up 4,481, erm, quite a few hours of pushing buttons on a controller. Feel free to tut and shake your head or give me a nod of respectful recognition at this point.

The number of hours that gamers spend in front of a screen became a hot topic last year when the World Health Organisation identified gaming disorder as a treatable condition. But it’s not just playing games that are taking over – many gamers spend just as much time watching others play on online platforms like YouTube or Twitch.

And, hey, while games should be enjoyed in moderation and those people who overindulge may now be able to get the help they need, sometimes marathon gaming sessions can be utilised for good.

Online grassroots movement Extra Life turned 10 last year and challenges gamers to stream their game footage for 24 hours in aid of charity. In that time, it has raised more than £30m for children’s hospitals across the US, attracting big names in the industry like a $1m (£790,000) contribution from YouTuber network Rooster Teeth.

Many UK streamers take on the red-eye inducing, Red Bull-pounding challenge and, in that decade, streaming has gone from a niche corner of the internet to big business. There were just under 112 million hours of Fortnite streamed on Twitch in October alone, according to stats firm Statista, while the platform saw 434 billion hours of content streamed across 2018, more than six times the 72 billion hours broadcast in 2012.

The top Fortnite streamer Ninja is fast becoming a household name and spent 2018 rubbing shoulders with talk show host titans Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Fallon and playing online with Drake. He raked in £500,000 per month from paid contributors out of his 12 million Twitch subscribers alone – giving him more regular viewers than the population of London.

As Ninja, real name Tyler Blevins, put it to Fallon: “So many people say to me, why would you watch people play video games when you can play video games yourself? Can you do that? Can you play at that high level and be entertaining too?”

With all the money swilling around streaming, it has pushed the buttons of charities like Macmillan and Shelter on these shores too.

Homelessness charity Shelter’s Level Up programme requires a mere 135 minutes per session in recognition of the 135 families the charity say are made homeless every day in the UK. Marja Möller , Shelter’s senior digital fundraising exec and lead on Level Up, told The Big Issue that mobilising the gaming community to do good back in November was a no-brainer.

“Our inspiration came from research we did on the gaming community – it’s huge,” she said. “We’re always keen to reach as many people as possible, both to fundraise and raise awareness of Shelter’s work, so the gaming community made sense. So many gamers are extremely passionate about different causes and their expertise helped us to develop our strategy.

“We’ve had a great response. The best thing about Level Up For Shelter is that gamers can hold their streaming event whenever they choose.

“We had an amazing launch day, where (fundraising site) GivePenny came to our office and we held an eight-hour streaming marathon. Popular streamer Knightenator also hosted her own stream and raised over £2,000 – as well as many others who’ve taken part and raised money.”

Cancer charity Macmillan have also dipped a toe into streaming with its Game Heroes programme, raising £120,599 with their own 24-hour challenge last October.

“Game Heroes was inspired by one of our incredible fundraisers – who managed to raise over £50,000 through his own gaming marathon back in 2014,” said Cara Grantham, marketing manager at Macmillan Cancer Support. “Since establishing Game Heroes as a fundraising event it has brought thousands of supporters together to take part in gaming marathons – which have raised over £800,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support.

“Each year we also hold a live event, which sees two teams of professional gamers go head to head, livestreaming their gaming marathons on Macmillan’s Twitch feed.”

And the beauty of video games is that unlike watching a film, bingeing on a Netflix series or reading a book, they can be played in different ways. This can pave the way for sub-cultures like the speed-running community – who exploit programming code and use dizzying hand-speed to complete hours-long epics in just minutes – and they have raised $16.5m (£13.3m) to battle cancer with Awesome Games Done Quick over the years.

Or for climate change scientists to use Twitch to bust myths and spread knowledge while viewers watch them play Fortnite, bringing science to a new audience.

So the reductive claim you often hear that “it’s just watching other people play games” has run out of lives – streaming is going to the next level and brings with it a wealth of possibilities to impact the real world. Well,
if you can get me to put down the controller.

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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