When I became a parent, I learned I could help out other families just by playing games with friends, thanks to Extra Life—a charity event that helps keep our local children’s hospitals functioning at their best.
Over 35 years since the NES launched in North America and made video games a staple of living rooms worldwide, the medium is still largely dismissed as a trivial thing or child’s play. In many ways, its benefits are overlooked or written off, progress erased by sensational headlines about digital violence inspiring real-world crimes. But there is a lot of good that video games can achieve—as evidenced in part by the charity event Extra Life.
In this annual event, thousands of gamers commit to raising money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals across North America by partaking in gaming marathons. Whatever the genre or level of play, the goal is to play something for 24 total hours—in segments across various days, or shared between team members—and raise donations from friends, family, or stream audiences.
Supporting CMN Hospitals is a worthwhile cause, of course, but why do so via gaming? Extra Life was inaugurated in the fall of 2008 to honour Victoria Emmon, a young girl from Texas who lost her struggle with leukemia in January of that year. Members of the Sarcastic Gamer community had donated various video games to her ward at the local hospital to help raise her spirits during long stays for treatment.
In its first two years, Extra Life raised over $302k for the Texas Children’s Hospital. Its organizers realized there was a potential to make a huge difference across the continent, as many community members and donors wanted to raise money for their own local hospitals.
In 2010, Extra Life officially partnered with the CMN, and later with broadcasting platforms like Twitch, enabling participants to share their marathons with potential donors. Fast-forward to last year, and the event has now officially raised $87 million USD since its inception. Participants raised $1.69 million in 2020 alone, even in the midst of the pandemic.
Best of all, 100% of these funds are distributed to CMN hospitals as unregistered funds. This allows each hospital to decide how best to use their donations, based on their own local needs.
Personally, I first participated in Extra Life in 2016. Having vaguely heard of it—and the similar fundraiser Child’s Play, which turns donations into games and other enrichment activities for young patients—I looked into it more after the birth of my first child.
During our brief stay at the hospital I realized just how fortunate we were that our first child had arrived safely. I saw the NICU from a distance and imagined my own tiny new bundle of joy in one of its incubators. A few years later my daughter had an allergic reaction that nearly swelled her eye shut. An amazing team of nurses and counsellors swept down and took such tremendous care of her—being honest with her, yet also distracting her with popsicles and a tablet loaded with her favourite show while they got her hooked up to an IV. What should have been a traumatic ordeal now barely registers in her memory.
I’ve since heard other stories from friends of the ways that Children’s Hospitals have impacted their families. The prospect of being able to give back to an organization that played such an important role in my community seemed impossible to ignore—especially when it involves simply participating in my favorite hobby.
Video games are more than idle entertainment. They can keep us in touch with our own youth, and provide yet another activity to share with our kids. They can refine motor skills and quick thinking skills, and boost literacy. And thanks to gamer-backed causes like Extra Life, they can be a bright light to kids like Victoria who are going through one of the worst experiences in the world at far too young an age. Just as the medium allows us to escape our daily lives, it also helps these patients forget their incredible burdens.
The grim reality is, CMN hospitals depend heavily on fundraising from drives like this. Take the Children’s Hospital in London, Ontario for instance. Each year, 56,000 kids from across Ontario—from Windsor to Thunder Bay—will visit it for treatment, often transplanting their entire family temporarily. 100% of Children’s Hospital’s equipment budget this year comes from fundraising initiatives like Extra Life. Beyond equipment, the ward also depends on donations to fund emotional support programs, mental health support programs, financial assistance for families, and others.
In our first year, my team sought to raise $1000. What I didn’t know then, is that it costs that much to simply provide a single 4-hour chemotherapy session. Overnight stays for bone marrow transplants cost $5000. As I write this, there are currently 7 registered teams that have raised over $35,000 already this year—which is the cost of a single ventilator.
This may sound bleak, but I choose to see it as empowering. We, as gamers, have the potential to make a massive impact in our communities. It’s especially heartening, as a parent, to know that I can give back through my hobby. My team’s goal may “only” be $1500, but that’s enough to fund a chemotherapy and bloodwork chair, or a combination of smaller equipment purchases.
The marathon may be a 24-hour affair for me and my friends, but it can touch a family for a lifetime. And isn’t that far greater than any power-up you could get in any game?
My team is participating in Extra Life on November 5-6, starting at 8PM Eastern time. To get more information or to donate, please visit our team page—and thank you.