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Q&A: Get-Well Gamers Foundation's Ryan Sharpe

Q&A: Get-Well Gamers Foundation's Ryan Sharpe

October 18, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

October 18, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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Charitable organization Get-Well Gamers Foundation was founded in 2001 as a way to supply gaming consoles to children in hospitals. Over the past five years, the charity has expanded from two hospitals, to 41 hospitals across 26 states a 25% increase in their network in the past year alone.

This is largely attributable to foundation being recognised and certified as a non-profit charity by the IRS in 2005, something the organizations president, Ryan Sharpe, suggests is like a Willy Wonka-style golden ticket, since people and companies can write off their donations on their taxes. Sharpe notes that he hopes for the foundations growth to continue in this fashion, and is aiming for a 10:1 patient to console ratio over the next five years in hospitals in Get-Well Gamers network.

Gamasutra contacted Sharpe to ask about the charitys history, the level of support they have found within the games industry, and what the future holds for them.

When and why did you begin Get-Well Gamers?

I started the Foundation in 2001, but the "why" can be traced back to more than a decade prior. Born with a weak immune system, I spent a great many days in the hospital with this disease or that, and it was only with the introduction of video games into the hospital around my 7th or 8th bout of double pneumonia that I finally found something that could make me forget, however temporarily, everything that was causing me to feel sick. It was years later when I realized I finally had the means to bring that same relief to children in my same situation all across the country, and thus the Foundation was born.

What is the aim of the organisation?

The Foundation's mission statement is "A game for any patient, anywhere, anytime" so I suppose we'll consider ourselves satisfied when every hospital has enough gaming equipment such that every patient could, if the mood struck them, have a video game to play with during their recuperation. Perhaps a bit overly ambitious, but if Microsoft can get away with "A computer on every desktop" then by golly we'll aim high too.

How far has the organisation come in the past five years?

When we started we had two hospitals - one next to where I went to college and one by my home. Now we're in a majority of the United States, and more added on a regular basis, so I'd say we've come pretty far. Really though, the majority of the progress has come since the Foundation became a 501(c)(3)-certified public charity. After we were able to say that, our personal and especially corporate donations increased dramatically, so really I think the Foundation has only had about a year and a half of "real" growth, since our certification went through in April 2005.

What kind of precedent is there for this kind of organisation?

There have been video game donations in the past, but it's never been a focus. The Starbright Foundation is probably the only charity that used video games to any real degree, but they only work with Nintendo games and consoles, whereas the Foundation uses a more non-denominational approach, taking just about any game from any company and putting it to use in our hospitals. Other than that, the Foundation was the first gaming-centric charity that I'm aware of.

There have been others since, like Penny-Arcade's Child's Play that started in 2003, and I've heard about a few organizations up in Canada that are trying to start a program similar to ours, but really I think we are the precedent, and I'm glad to see others following in our footsteps - it's a tall order and the children can use all the help they can get.

How successful as a pain management tool are video games?

Video games are a phenomenal pain management tool. It's been a commonsense truth to me ever since my hospital days, but in recent years we've seen studies backing us up with hard data. The University of Washington demonstrated their effectiveness at pain management with burn victims. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute have shown that playing games can mitigate the effects of stress on the heart. And Dr. Anuradha Patel at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey has proven the remarkable effectiveness of video games as a means of preventing and treating pre-operative anxiety.

Those are just the completed studies - ask any nurse or Child Life specialist at any Foundation hospital the good of games and they will tell you it's one of their number one tools for keeping patients comfortable during their hospital stay. The evidence really is just overwhelmingly positive.

How many facilities are in your donation network at the moment, and how quickly is this expanding?

We currently have 41 hospitals in 26 states, with two more "in the pipe," you could say: One in Washington D.C. and another in California. Also, we have several potential hospitals in the queue, though whether they're willing to work with us is uncertain at this time. Of course, by the time this runs, we might have even more - we've been expanding like crazy lately.

How do you go about expanding your network?

It used to be that we'd simply put the name of a state and "Children's hospital" into Google and hope for the best, but nowadays we've established enough momentum where we're getting suggestions for hospitals to add to our network from ex-patients, gamers, and even some of the doctors and nurses that work there.

What kind of donations do you accept, and how much are you getting in each year in terms of that?

Well, our mainstay is in-kind donations: Old video games, systems, accessories, and so on. The other kind of donation is monetary, though those are far less frequent (sometimes dangerously so), although not without reason. As a gamer myself, I can see why it would be much easier for someone to donate a PS1 or N64 they got ten years ago versus part of the pay check they got yesterday. It doesn't make the reality any easier on us financially - but I understand.

Now, those video game companies that would rather sit on a stock of last year's bargain-bin SKU's instead of getting rid of the unsellable inventory and getting a tax write-off for it, that one's a little harder for me to understand, but c'est la vie.

Why do you only accept consoles post-1989?

Two reasons - one the fault of gamers, and the other the fault of the hospitals. On the gamer side of things, even the most devoted of gamers would have a hard time keeping an NES or a Master System in good condition for close to twenty years. And even if the occasional gaming saint could get a Colecovision in fantastic shape to us, statistically the odds are just against us being able to make regular good use out of such donations. The other problem is the hospitals - component inputs have become such a standard nowadays that most of the televisions in the hospitals we deal with aren't even capable of accepting the co-axial inputs of the older systems.

1989 puts us at the Sega Genesis, which is the absolute oldest system we can still find a regular use for, though many of our hospitals are phasing them out. If that happens, we'll bump the limit to 1991, which drops the Super NES to the bottom rung of the ladder. I don't foresee us going any farther than that anytime soon, however - the SNES carts and console are very solidly constructed, and even as old as they are all the components usually have no problems, even on donations that have obviously suffered a lot of abuse.

What kinds of people are making donations?

Mostly gamers, as you might imagine, though more recently we've been seeing lots of expansion within that psychographic. In the beginning it was the prototypical 18-24 college student with an old collection, but lately we've received donations from the length and breadth of the gamer population. Some notable donations have come from lawyers, sanitation workers, even a few military personnel.

Nowadays saying "I play video games" is about as rare as "I drink Coke", so in a sense I'm not surprised to find gamers in these professions - what is surprising is how far our message has disseminated into these areas you'd normally never associate with gaming.

Have you had publishers and hardware manufacturers donate anything?

Occasionally, though the process usually takes a good helping of patience and a fair bit of luck. I worked on Microsoft for nearly two years before I finally found someone with the right connections and authority to authorize a donation, but when they finally came through they did it in a big way, donating nearly 100 consoles of various kinds to us. Sony took about a year's worth of finagling, but the effort netted the foundation 200 PS1 and PS2 games.

There have been other, smaller donations - a half-dozen games from Activision, twenty from Electronic Arts, etc. - but the process of getting corporate donors in the game industry is quite difficult because so many companies have absolutely no infrastructure for dealing with charities. None. And these aren't just the art-house developers I'm referring to here, I'm talking about companies that have shipped AAA titles you've all seen in retailers and on the covers of gaming magazines that pretty much give me blank stares when I ask about who handles charitable donations for them.

Finally, where are you hoping to take the organisation in the next five years?

International, for one. We're in the slow, excruciating process of trying to get our charitable status recognized in some other countries like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom for starters, and after that we'll probably try to head into Europe and the Far East. Of course, the big problem there are the different region encodings - I couldn't hope to send any of our North American Xboxes to a PAL country, so essentially we'll have the problem of dealing with three distinct inventories.

Second, we'll be continuously working to expand the coverage in our current hospitals. A new GameCube is nice, to be sure, but that only allows at most four more patients to be playing games at any given time. Some of the hospitals have what we call a "Carrying Capacity" of only one active controller available for every thirty or forty patients. Ideally we'd like to get all of our hospitals to that "Anytime, anywhere" 1:1 ratio, but for the five-year plan a 1:10 ratio is an acceptable goal.

Finally, and this might not even make it into the five-year scope of the question, we have what we call the "special projects" folder: projects to help the Foundation do its mission more efficiently by providing things to hospitals that overcome some of the environments and situations that hinder the use of video games.

Chief among these is the "Waterproof Game Boy" project. Patients with severe respiratory afflictions or burn victims frequently find themselves in super-hydrated environments, necessary for their treatment but arguably some of the most miserable conditions to be in - and hence when the release and escape of video games is most direly needed - but the presence of so much water precludes the introduction of electronic devices.

Of course, none of us are engineers, so how we'll actually be able to design and manufacture a durable yet pliable waterproof skin for a Game Boy (let alone all 10+ iterations of the hardware) is anyone's guess, but perhaps in the next five years we'll be able to come up with a more definitive answer.


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