Katy Goodman chats with Ryan Sharpe, founder of the Get-Well Gamers Foundation about Get-Well Gamers Foundation and exposes one of the many positive sides to video games.
Often bearing a heavy blame for violence and indolence, video games always seem to carry with them a negative connotation whenever mentioned in media. Funny, because there is little to no tangible evidence that violent video games incite violent actions; I personally grew up playing games like Doom and Call of Duty, and I can’t even find it in my heart to kill most insects.
It was in these baseless accusations of video games that I found inspiration to pursue research in benefits of video games for my Master’s degree. There are multiple studies proving that playing games can actually improve both speed and accuracy with critical thinking, leading into studies on how games can actually alleviate or delay the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s. There is also evidence that supports the educational value of games in active learning. The best part is that all of these studies are backed by numbers and actual facts, something our media tends to forget. Essentially, it seems like there are far more benefits to video games than there are negative side effects.
Continuing my quest to prove to the world that video games are awesome, I searched the floor of this year’s E3 for a few organizations that do just that on a daily basis. Amidst the frenzied atmosphere of this year’s E3, I was lucky enough to meet Ryan Sharpe, the founder of the Get-Well Gamers Foundation. Get-Well Gamers, founded in 2001, is a non-profit organization that supplies video games to pediatric sections in hospitals. Initially sending donations to a couple of local hospitals, the foundation now touches the lives of around 1.15 million kids a year. Following this year’s E3, I had the pleasure of chatting with Ryan about the foundation, how video games affect children, and how the future of the industry will affect the the foundation as a whole.
Can you tell us a little about the Get-Well Gamers Foundation and when you started it?
The Get Well Gamers Foundation was started in 2001 and it was dedicated to finding a way to bring video games and electronic entertainment to hospitalized children, first in the United States and now actually around the world.
And how many hospitals did you initially start with?
We started with two hospitals. Seattle Children's, which was near where I was going to school, and the Children's Hospital of Orange County, which was by my old hometown. Now we are up to over 180 hospitals in the US, Canada, Iceland, and England.
Wow, that's incredible. So what inspired you to start the foundation?
Well, I was sick myself as a kid. There was such an amazing difference between the time spent when I didn't have video games available at my hospital and the time I spent when I did. Because, you know, this was back in the day before there was cartoon network or anything, and after maybe 10 o’clock at most, any kind of child entertainment was gone. It was all game shows and soap operas and boring stuff like that.
And that was back when TV had like, 12 channels, so you can imagine between that 10 o'clock at the period after school when I was just bored out of my mind. When you are already in a hospital you have something weighing on you... just being sick, what hurts, what is difficult, and all of that other stuff. They finally added video games to my children's hospital, which was just a pair of arcade machines in the employee break room. That was it. It was Zaxxon and Donkey Kong Jr.
No way! Oh those games...
Even still, just being able to wheel my IV stand down the to the break room and drape the drip over the second player controller and lose all of those boring hours and not even remember that you are sick. You know, you are just able to lose yourself in those games and enter a world outside of the hospital walls.
That had such an impact on me that when I was in college I got together with some friends and one of them said that he had recently been sick. He had gotten the flu and spent a week just playing video games, and that is how he got over it—video games, water, and rest. One of my other friends recalled a time when he was in the hospital and said, 'Boy, I wish I also had video games when I was in there!' So it just kind of hit us—somebody should do that. Somebody should be getting video games into hospitals, and every hospital should try to have them. There was really no one else out there at the time that did that, so we just started doing it ourselves.
That's so great. So how many people are working with the program now, are your friends from college still involved?
It is a lot of the same group, including volunteers. When we get volunteers and stuff... when we have events like the Electronic Entertainment Expo and the Game Developer's Conference, we get a lot of volunteers and can have 10 to 15 people working at the same time. But for most of the day to day stuff it is a core group of three to four people.
That's such a big endeavor to take on with that amount of people. What are some of the biggest challenges you guys face in terms of networking, especially with different hospitals?
A lot of it is just going through the Post Office. The real difficulty in getting new hospitals really has to do with finding the right person to talk to. In the early days we would try to talk to hospital administrators who, forgive me for saying, just didn't really get it. You know, 'I don't know about this video game stuff.' But we just started calling around and discovered that there is this position called the Child Life Director, which is basically the person responsible for all of the child's non-medical care during their stay. Not just medicine and x-rays and things like that, but actually keeping them well and happy. Those people are the ones who have actually been in the trenches and they know what makes the children happy. Most of them have said that it [video games] is one of the best things they have.
We send an annual survey to our hospitals every year and ask if they enjoy having video games for long term stays. The answers are between always, usually, sometimes, rarely, never... it was 58% always and 42% usually. I’ve never even seen anyone put sometimes.
And that was this year's survey?
Yeah, that was this year's survey.
That's fantastic. Video Games are obviously a very different form of entertainment from the TVs and magazines they often have in the hospitals—primarily because they are so interactive and immersive. Is that why you think they are so effective for children in hospitals?
Yeah, definitely. They have actually done a study that proves that fact. Looking at brain activity, games require more attention than books or movies or even board games, because video games engage you visually, auditorily , tacitly, and most importantly cognitively... you know, you really have to think about what is on the screen at all times. Games use so much of your brain’s bandwidth. These studies have shown that your brain actually starts to deprioritize the pain centers of your brain. Instead of an obvious pain message, the pain becomes a low hum. Your brain is going, 'I get the idea, but I don't need to know every time. I'm busy.' You know, it literally on a physiological level makes people forget they hurt when they are playing a video game.
And that's such an incredible thing, especially for children in hospitals. I remember in a previous interview I heard you talking about a study about on Game Boys and how they are more effective for children who are going into surgery than...
Than tranquilizers, yes.
Can you expand on that a little bit?
It's something they are a willing participant in and there is a calming effect to it. It's important—when you are putting someone under general anesthesia you are nearly killing them and you don't have a lot of room for error between being too much and being too little, which means either death or waking up during surgery, both horrific circumstances.
So the fact that a Game Boy can engage them so much and set them in this zone of a calm steady heartbeat and rhythm. Tetris is more effective than a tranquilizer in keeping children steady and stable prior to surgery.
And probably less expensive. [Both laugh]
Yeah, that's one of the things that is so great. With medical supply places, the kinds of things they use for therapy and other medical needs can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. But these physical therapists can get as much mileage out of a Rock Band set as something that costs 10 times as much for basically the exact same thing; these are just retail off-the-shelf solutions which are great and effective.
On a sadder note, the amount of money that is allotted for these things, for children just to be able to enjoy their stay with things like non-medical wellness, averages out to less than a dollar per patient per year; it's actually more like 71 cents for the whole year. Many of our hospitals have told us that if we didn't send them games, they would have none. There is just no budget for it.