In a year that has highlighted the basic need for human connection, Gamers Outreach, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based out of Michigan, is using the power of play to help bring hospitalized children together this holiday season. 

Founded in 2008 by Zach Wigal, Gamers Outreach is a charity that helps kids cope with long-term medical treatment by providing gaming hardware and software to hospitals across the United States, essentially helping to improve the quality of life of young patients through the power of video games.

Growing up in Saline, Michigan, Wigal’s passion for gaming can be traced back to the summer of 2006, when he found himself stuck at home with a case of mononucleosis. It was during his time in relative isolation that a then-16-year-old Wigal developed a deep-rooted interest in competitive video-game tournaments, which was the catalyst for his decision to host his own grassroots tournament at his high school the following March.

In his junior year, Wigal and his friends organized an open Halo 2 tournament in his high-school cafeteria, spending months gathering resources and registering more than 300 participants for the event. 

Unfortunately, just days before the event was scheduled to take place, the organizing committee was met with disapproval from a local public safety official, who thought that games like Halo were “corrupting the minds of America’s youth” and ultimately forced the cancellation of the event. The decision was not well-received by the community, and the controversy went on to make national headlines.

After overcoming their initial disappointment, Wigal and his friends were still determined to host a video-game tournament. Together, they decided to organize a new event to showcase the positive impact that gamers can make when they come together for a good cause, which led to their initial collaboration with former professional gamer Dave “Walshy” Walsh, heralded as one of the greatest and most successful Halo players of all time.

In 2008, the group launched Gamers for Giving, an annual competitive gaming tournament and LAN party that provided participants with an opportunity to play popular video games while raising money for charity. In the process, the Gamers Outreach Foundation was established, and they were able to donate $4000 to a local chapter of the Autism Society of America.

With the intention of making a bigger difference in the community, Wigal was introduced to the staff at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who immediately wanted to team up with Gamers Outreach to deliver portable video games to kids and families within their facility. 

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Photo Credit: Gamers Outreach

After months of volunteering at the hospital, Wigal discovered that there was a considerable need for bedside activities for patients, which led to the creation of the revolutionary GO (Gamers Outreach) Kart.

A medical-grade cart that has become an instant hit in hospitals across the country, the GO Kart is a portable video-game kiosk that provides recreation to children who are unable to leave their hospital rooms during treatment, providing them with a source of entertainment during an otherwise frightening time. All GO Karts, which currently support 1.25 million children, are equipped with games, a gaming monitor and a gaming console (Xbox or PlayStation). With 360-degree swivel wheels, easily disinfectable surfaces and a lift mechanism to adjust the height of the cart, the GO Kart has become an ideal outlet for safe socialization in environments that prioritize activity alongside treatment, especially during the pandemic.

“Being in a hospital can already be a scary experience especially for a young kid who might not understand what’s going on, [but] couple that with the inability to have visitors and it could really boost that scariness and loneliness,” explained Samantha Robertell, the Marketing Manager of Games Outreach. “GO Karts help to give hospitalized children a sense of normalcy. Maybe the exploration in Minecraft takes their mind off of the treatment they’re receiving or a competitive game of Rocket League moves their focus on to the screen rather than the hospital room.”

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Photo Credit: Gamers Outreach

Robertell reveals that this year the administrative team has received more requests for kiosks than ever before, but that has only helped the non-profit organization to expand its national outreach. 

Early last month, Gamers Outreach teamed up with Dwayne “The Rock” and Xbox to launch a new generation of consoles called the Xbox Series X and the Xbox Series S. The initiative, which was announced by Johnson across all of his social media platforms, will give 20 children’s hospitals the very first batch of custom Xbox Series X consoles with specialized GO Karts.

According to a press release published by Gamers Outreach, “The custom Xbox Series X features Johnson’s iconic Brahma Bull logo representing strength, resilience, heart and power, and includes a special engraved message for kids alongside his signature summoning hope and goodwill: ‘Keep smiling and have fun. Love, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.’ Custom Xbox Series X consoles are accompanied by customized Xbox Wireless Controllers with a matching gold Brahma Bull and will be featured on the portable GO Karts outfitting the hospitals.’”

Over the next year, more than 50,000 kids will be able to play with the customized GO Karts across 14 different states. In the interim, Gamers Outreach is also preparing for the next Gamers for Giving event, which will be held from March 20-21, 2021. The weekend-long tournament, LAN party and streamathon will move online, revealed Robertell, but will hopefully return to an in-person celebration in 2022.

After a year that has brought so much darkness, Gamers Outreach is a shining light that will continue to help hospitalized children rediscover the power of play for many years to come.

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