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World & Nation

When hurricanes hit, philanthropic video game enthusiasts came to the rescue

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Matthew “MC” Moffit, a specialist in gaming and philanthropy, left, plays “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD” with other team members during a fundraising “gamathon” at Zeldathon Wild in June.
(Courtesy of Catherine Frisina)

Unable to help with hurricane relief efforts in person, Scott Jones did the next best thing he could think of — he gripped his Nintendo 64 video game controller and began playing, his fingers jumping across the game pad.

His goal: a 24-hour video game marathon to raise money for charity.

Wearing a T-shirt and pajama bottoms and camped out in his apartment in Arlington, Va., Jones spent the first 23 hours playing video game classics, such as “Star Wars Episode One Racer,” and only getting up when nature called.

With one hour left, he switched to “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” but in advanced mode — a decision he regrets.

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“It was brutal, I was so tired,” Jones said.

Still, he kept his eyes glued to his computer screen, his every move broadcast to about 350 viewers who watched as he showed off his talents. By the end, Jones’ viewers donated $1,736 for Direct Relief, a nonprofit humanitarian organization in Goleta, Calif.

“I wasn’t really able to get my army boots on and go to Houston to help people,” said Jones, a 27-year-old Virginia Military Institute graduate and software company sales manager. “This was a very low-key way to try to make a little bit of an impact.”

In the weeks after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, thousands of online gamers, such as Jones, sprang into action to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities.

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Thomas Tighe, chief executive of Direct Relief, said his charity received more than 30,000 individual donations totaling more than $500,000.

“This was not the result of solicitation. It was a spontaneous outpour from people wanting to help. It took on a life of its own,” Tighe said.

More than 1,000 campaigns for hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria has been started on Tiltify, a secure crowdfunding platform, raising nearly $1 million for charities, said Tiltify chief executive Michael Wasserman.

“You’re seeing a millennial-driven crowd, and the impact that it has and how passionate everyone is about it makes me proud. It’s a crowd that wants to know what’s going on and they care,” Wasserman said.

In recent years, gamers have begun harnessing the power of their growing audience base. Gamers have raised millions of dollars for annual events or individual fundraisers, such as Jones’ marathon, in response to disaster.

Save the Children, a nonprofit that aids children in conflict and disaster zones, said that in the last five years gamers have raised more than $5 million for the organization. Charities have even launched outreach efforts targeting video game enthusiasts.

Save the Children said that by early September gamers launched 46 individual fundraisers, raising $28,000 for victims of Harvey and Irma.

Brett Claywell, cofounder of Tiltify, will be participating in an event Sunday called “Game 4 Paul” — which honors the late actor Paul Walker, who was a gamer — to help people affected by Harvey, Irma and Maria. Proceeds will go to the charity Reach Out Worldwide.

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“So far we’ve raised $30,000, but we expect to raise $250,000 on Sunday during the event for people affected by all three hurricanes,” Claywell said.

One of the most popular platforms gamers use to broadcast themselves is Twitch — a website launched in 2011 that lets viewers watch and talk to their favorite gamers. To raise funds, gamers can create a fundraising page on Tiltify. As they play, they encourage viewers to donate online.

Charities said they are raising money quicker during natural disasters than in previous years and inspiring more individual donations from people who usually don’t donate.

“We were surprised in the volume of individual donors. These are new and first-time donors,” said Ettore Rossetti, Save the Children’s senior director of innovation. “And they skew younger, around 18 years old and male. This is contrary to our typical donor, who tends to be older and female.”

“The next generation of donors will be coming out of the young generation that we see in the gaming community, and it’s happening faster than we expected,” Rossetti said.

And even if those gamers are too young to donate, they can urge their parents to give.

At Zeldathon Wild gamathon fundraiser, June 2017, Matthew Moffit adjusts the levels of the broadcast
At a Zeldathon Wild "gamathon" fundraiser in June, Matthew Moffit adjusts the levels of the broadcast to make sure viewers can listen.
(Photo taken by Catherine Frisina )

“When I talk to charities they all say, ‘We don’t know how to engage with millennials,’” said Matthew “MC” Moffit, a specialist in gaming and philanthropy. “But now even kids are learning about this and asking their parents to donate.”

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Moffit was a 16-year-old high schooler when he cofounded Zeldathon—a charity marathon event in which video game enthusiasts play while viewers stream it online and donate.

Although he raised only $301 during his first “gamathon” in 2005, Zeldathon turned out to be much more. By 2013, Moffit’s gamathon events had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now 24, Moffitt said gamathon events have raised more than $1.6 million for charities. His efforts caught the attention of Direct Relief, which hired him as a gaming production specialist.

“We have gotten good at how we engage with viewers. We interact with them and tell them what their money goes towards,” Moffit said.

Looking back, building an alliance with the gaming community should have been obvious, charities said.

One of the first collaborations occurred in 2003, when gamers raised money for Child’s Play, a nonprofit, to bring toys and games to children in more than 100 hospitals around the world, Moffit said.

“Over time people wanted to choose different things where money could go towards, so they got the attention of charities,” Moffit said.

Starting about2012, the relationship began to grow. Save the Children started building relationships with the gaming community, as did other charities, such as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, based in Memphis, Tenn.

“Gamers would reach out to us and say they were interested in our mission,” Rossetti said. “So we did a small fundraiser and it was quite successful.”

For the gamers, the fundraising has another value — dispelling stereotypes that they are an anti-social and closed-off community.

“People often like to put gamers into a corner of people who are not charitable and who are selfish,” Moffit said. “But we are very giving and it’s been an untapped market, but over the past few years charities are starting to realize its potential and get involved.”

David Hunt, known as “GrandPOOBear” to the online gaming world, is a full-time video gamer but says his focus is on raising money for charity. In the aftermath of Harvey, Hunt did a 12-hour gaming marathon and raised $5,000 for Direct Relief.

“My wife brought me snacks during those long streaks,” Hunt said.

In October, he plans to attend a three-day event in Anaheim with other gamers who will fly in from across the world in the hopes of raising $50,000 for hurricane relief.

“I want to raise $1 million for charity this year,” Hunt said. “And I know I’m not the only person in the gaming community who wants to do that.”

melissa.etehad@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @melissaetehad

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