For nonprofits working on fundraising, galas, golf outings, and telethons are often the go-to live events. But in recent years, a new venue has emerged, one that has engaged new, younger donors who can’t necessarily afford an expensive plate and who might not be interested in a round on the links.
Video games, specifically video game live streams, have become a significant source of fundraising for nonprofits. In 2020, Twitch streamers donated over $83 million to charities, following $145 million in donations from 2011 to 2019, according to the Amazon-owned company. Direct Relief has received over $15.5 million since 2016 from tens of thousands of donors from the video game community.
This came as a surprise to documentary director Jeremy Lethco, 35, when his friend and producing partner, Andrew Stewart, told him and Director of Photography Austin Grebenc about it.
“We had to do a double-take. We told him to say it again,” Lethco said, referring to Stewart’s report that big money was being raised for charity on video game livestreams. Despite having grown up playing video games, Lethco said he had not stayed up to date on the industry and how popular watching other people play video games had become.
The three South Carolinians decided to jump into the world of video game charity events to try and figure out how they could tell a story about that world concisely – a challenge due to the mass of streamers and viewers now participating. One motivating factor, according to Lethco, was a desire to use their talents similar to the gamers they were now following.
“Are we using the thing we love to do the most good we can, like these guys and girls are?” Lethco recalls asking himself.
After hours of watching various genres, they settled on the Kaizo community, and specifically David ‘GrandPOOBear’ Hunt. Kaizo, as is defined in the opening frame of their eponymous short documentary, is a Japanese word defined as “revise, modify, re-arrange” and refers to a “genre of difficult, fan-made video games.”
Difficult, here, is a bit of understatement: think Super Mario Bros. levels with ball-of-fire lines extending across the whole screen, hidden blocks across chasms, and seemingly infinite enemies. Hunt is one of the best players in the world, not at just surviving such levels, but doing them quickly, in a type of gameplay called speedrunning.
Hunt fundraises for Direct Relief as well as other nonprofits. After reviewing the disaster relief work Direct Relief is involved with, Lethco reached out to see about including footage showing how the funds were being used.
Then-VP of Emergency Response and International Programs Andrew MacCalla offered to take them on a tour of Direct Relief’s work in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian.
Lethco said the documentary intentionally starts as two seemingly disconnected stories – video game streams and humanitarian aid – and then brings them together throughout the 19-minute show.
In the Bahamas, other contrasts emerged for the production team as well.
He said his reaction to the devastation after Dorian was, “just shock… it was entire parts of these towns that hardly resembled civilization, they looked more like landfills, with the rubble, trucks, bulldozers and cars, boats,” and that it was “like whiplash” to go every day from the impacted parts of the island to where they were staying, which was mostly spared.
Lethco said he was inspired by the people working every day to repair the damage and that he and his team were “blown away with the transparency and openness we got from them [Direct Relief].”
Confronting assumptions in gaming and beyond
Making the documentary forced Lethco to confront views ingrained in him from childhood.
“I just think there was something stigmatized about playing video games… they were always a distraction or waste of time, procrastinating tool—something you did as opposed to a more ‘noble’ pursuit, like learning to play the piano or reading a book. For adults, it’s seen as shirking responsibility or escaping their reality.”
“If we don’t confront the opinions we have as children, we carry them to adulthood,” he said. “I had compartmentalized them as a waste of time, and here they are used it to do an incredible amount of philanthropic good.”
The story also reframed his perception of who gives to charity. He said that the typical profile is someone older, more affluent, and either giving from the bottom of their heart or for tax purposes.
Lethco said the relatability and accessibility of video game streams could explain their appeal to younger donors. Viewers feel connected to the streamer since they can interact via chat. The donation amounts are often relatively small—$5, $10, or $20—and are affordable to more people. And donations come with the opportunity for recognition by the streamer in front of their audience and community.
“If my friend starts a project, I want to be supportive of my friends, and in streamer communities, they feel like friends. If Leonardo DiCaprio is saying call in and give, I don’t know that guy, that’s just some celebrity they hired, but if it’s my favorite streamer, I feel like I know him, and I’ll support him because I want to belong and conform my behavior to the in-group,” said Lethco, who said he was also caught up in this community aspect and felt like Hunt was already his friend when they first met.
Lethco hopes his documentary sparks a conversation among people who are not as familiar with video game charity streams. He also reflected on the project’s impact on him, more broadly.
“I thought I understood video games, and then you learn that there are entire massive aspects to this that you were completely unaware of, and I would venture that’s true in other areas as well.”
“There are probably incredible things going on that we don’t know about. It’s helped me keep my mind and eyes open a little more,” Lethco said.
Kaizo has premiered at Santa Barbara Film Festival, Bend Film Festival, Manchester Film Festival, and Docs Without Borders Film Festival. It is available to view at: https://www.kaizofilm.com.
For more information on Direct Relief’s response to Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, visit https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/hurricane-dorian/