Technology

How Gaming Gurus Reinvented Telethons for the Web

By / Jan 13, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The charity event Awesome Games Done Quick, a weeklong gaming livestream featured on the video-streaming site Twitch, raised more than $1.5 million for charity research earlier this month. How they did it says a lot about the value of embracing niche audiences online.

The world of gaming hasn’t perhaps earned the best of reputations in the past 12 months.

With the ethical debates of Gamergate adding a fresh element of politics to a medium that had largely avoided culture wars, the phrase “image rehab” may come to mind for some.

But that’s an extremely limited view of videogames—it’d be like criticizing television as a medium based on one show—as well as of that whole debate about feminism or ethics in journalism, based on who you ask. (It’s complicated: I won’t dive into it, but this Deadspin article, which notes that the ambiguity of the conflict’s goals and various players “turns any discussion of this subject into a debate over semantics,” does a good job pinning down the basics for non-gamers.)

To the outside world, serious gaming seems like an impenetrable subculture that’s difficult to understand, one that’s monolithic and closed off to outsiders. That’s anything but true, however. The popular perception ignores the fact that the videogame industry is incredibly broad in both scope and interest level, and when gamers knock their heads together, they can do some pretty cool stuff. Awesome stuff, in fact.

In fact, some of that awesome stuff was on display last week, when the latest edition of the annual Awesome Games Done Quick charity event raised $1.55 million (and counting) for the Prevent Cancer Foundation (PCF).

That’s an impressive total when you consider that the foundation raised a total of $5.5 million in revenues in its most recently reported fiscal year, according to Charity Navigator, or compared with the $233,000 the group’s annual 5k raised last September.  It even approaches the $1.7 million that PCF’s annual gala raised last spring.

For a certain audience, there’s something greatly appealing about watching a talented player figure out how to beat a game in a couple of minutes.

But most impressive of all might be the nature of the event itself. A gala and a 5k are pretty standard charity events, and, when organized effectively, they can be decent money-makers. But Awesome Games Done Quick is an event focused on the subculture of speedruns—essentially, challenges to see how quickly players can beat a videogame by any means possible, even if it means breaking the game or exploiting programming errors. In fact, the event’s put on by a website called Speed Demos Archive, which also puts on a summer version of the event called Summer Games Done Quick.

The weeklong gaming marathon, which took place January 4-10, was hosted at a physical location—the Hilton Washington Dulles Airport in Herndon, Virginia—but the momentum and energy behind the event was really online, where people could watch speedrunners play live via the video site Twitch, chat about it, donate money, and potentially win some prizes.

Great Moments Guaranteed

The livestream-driven event created numerous opportunities for the action to go viral on its own—most notably when one player, in the middle of playing the Nintendo 64 game Mischief Makers, announced that he was about to get emotional for a second, and proposed to his girlfriend live on the air, as an audience of 140,000 people watched on Twitch.

That’s a level of realness that you’re not gonna get from a blog post or a scripted video.

And there were more just like it, too. For a certain audience, there’s something greatly appealing about watching a talented player figure out how to beat a game in a couple of minutes—whether it’s a classic like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or a pile of garbage like Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing. Alex Navarro, the guy who beat the latter game—regarded as one of the worst games of all time—did it in three minutes, and he did it by driving the truck backwards.

Even genuinely unbeatable games like Tetris got time at the event. Watch this guy here—his Tetris skills will blow your mind.

And then there are hacky programming tricks which are amazing to watch, but difficult to explain, like this clip above—which might best be described as “Super Mario Inception.”

Why This Works

Awesome Games Done Quick is a great example of what can be done to create an offline event and turn it into something more valuable than the sum of its parts:

It fully embraces the long tail, touching on an audience—people who like watching other gamers play—that’s relatively small, but extremely passionate all the same. (Protip: If you’re looking for people to donate to your cause, you want them to be passionate.)

It catches on a massive trend. Twitch, the gaming-focused video site that hosted the live coverage, was bought by Amazon.com last year for nearly $1 billion. It only proves that gamers are an audience to be reckoned with.

The event creates its own hype cycle, drawing new viewers both during the week and over time. The hype’s gotten bigger every year—as have the donations. In 2010, the first edition of the event, “Classic Games Done Quick,” earned $10,000 for humanitarian relief agency CARE in just two days. Now it’s common for Games Done Quick events to drive donations in the six and seven figures for groups like the Organization for Autism Research and Doctors Without Borders.

The event has lasting value. Those speedruns are going to sit on YouTube for years to come as a form of evergreen content that’ll stand the test of time. Embedded with those videos will be messages talking up the nonprofits receiving assistance. That will pay dividends for a long time.

The Telethon Legacy, Reinvented

It’s a strategy akin to the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s annual Labor Day telethons, but instead of existing just for the sake of donations, it’s mutually beneficial to both a tight-knit cultural community and a nonprofit in need. And unlike MDA’s event, which has been whittled down from a day-long live event to a pre-recorded two-hour concert over the past 48 years, there’s nothing stopping the Games Done Quick organizers from going a week or longer other than their own endurance and the quality of their livestream.

Approaches like this show how nonprofits can embrace internet culture beyond just simple memes. There’s a difference between borrowing an online community’s tricks for your own purposes and embracing what its people represent. The first approach suggests you want to steal their thunder; the second shows you’re willing to meet them on their own turf.

Speedruns are an incredibly specific form of gaming, and the audience for them doesn’t exactly scream “mainstream.” But with results like these, who cares whether it’s “mainstream”? It’s clearly reaching an audience that cares, and that’s all that matters.

Maybe gaming culture doesn’t need “image rehab” after all.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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