If you’re reading this article on this site, you’re probably interested in video games, which means you’re probably a gamer. And you’re probably into video games because gaming brings you joy. Well, one California-based nonprofit organisation, Gamer’s Gift, is working to bring the joy of VR games to people who might not have access to it, such as elderly people in nursing homes or sick children in hospitals.
Dillon Hill, an 18-year-old who just finished his first year at University of California Davis, started the nonprofit while he was still in high school. He says that when he was younger, he used to volunteer in food kitchens or at hospitals, but often, these tasks were unrewarding as he didn’t get to interact with the community he was trying to serve.
“I was very frustrated by the lack of hands on volunteering for young people,” Dillon explained to Kotaku. “It was very monitored, and you don’t really get to directly interact with the community that you’re trying to help.”
Dillon, a gamer himself, was also frustrated by how his peers and family members viewed video games as a “waste of time” or a “lazy thing to do.” But the defining experiences that led him to start the nonprofit were with his friend, Chris, who was diagnosed with leukemia when they were in the fifth grade (equivalent to Year 6 in English schools).
“For the first couple of weeks as he was going through that, I would try to make as many visits as possible, but it was always really hard,” Dillon said. “It was miserable. It was tough to make those visits.”
One day, when he was on his way to the hospital with Chris’ dad, they decided to bring a Playstation 2 as a means of cheering Chris up and help him regain a sense of normalcy. Dillon and Chris began to spend long hours at the hospital, playing video games.
“We didn’t have to worry about when his next shot was coming or the nausea that he was feeling, or any of the typical things you have to deal with,” Dillon said. “We were completely immersed in that world, and we could very much distract ourselves from what was happening.”
Video games would continue to be helpful to Dillon and his friend in the future, as they both went through darker times. In their second year of high school, Chris’ sister took her own life. Once again, video games provided a welcome way to cope. Dillon and Chris would spend time playing games together as a way of coping with the tragic event.
“We always got to distract ourselves and give a distraction when we try to talk, but basically those video games, we were so focused on working together and it brought us closer,” Dillon said, “which enabled us to really communicate and kind of talk about how we were feeling as we were going through that.”
In October 2015 of their last year of school, Dillon and Chris were chatting about their ideas for a gaming-based charity.They decided to go for it, spending hours on Google learning how to start and manage a nonprofit. In February 2016, the organisation they called Gamer’s Gift officially launched, though they had no money. Dillon said they would take cake pops and sell them door to door to raise money. They ended up buying Beatles Rock Band and tried to head to a children’s hospital. Because they were all underage at the time, they could not go into children’s hospitals. Instead, they decided to visit nursing homes.
Dillon admits that their first nursing home visit was a somewhat rough experience. “We learned a lot and we did build relationships, and we learned that it’s very hard to introduce technology like that to the elderly,” Dillon said, “and we learned some strategies on how to do that better.”
Despite the challenges they encountered at their first event, ultimately they felt like it was successful, and they and they knew it was something they wanted to keep doing.
Rock Band was for starters, but Dillon’s charity now focuses on virtual reality experiences. The idea is to let people undertake experiences that able-bodied, healthy people generally take for granted. Dillon said the elderly people he serves frequently want to go back to what they used to be able to do, such as scuba diving or skiing, whereas sick children want to experience everyday life outside of hospital walls.
“A lot of the times in children’s hospitals they just want to be store clerks in Job Simulator, and they just want to be normal,” he said, referring to the comedic workplace VR game. “So different specific applications depending on where we’re going, but the general idea is escape and opportunity.”
VR also has the benefit of not having complicated controls, or a large learner’s gap.
“We couldn’t bring a keyboard and mouse to an elderly home because that’s a very hard concept to understand, but with something like the HTC Vive, it’s much easier,” Dillon explained. “It’s simple grabbing mechanics.”
A volunteer at Gamer’s Gift with a patient at Valley Children’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of Dillon Hill.
As soon as the player puts on the headset, they can experience something new, and escape reality. Still, patients and caregivers at hospitals and nursing homes were skeptical when they first learned about Gamer’s Gift and what it attempts to do with VR. VR hasn’t sold well enough to be widely popular and familiar. For those who aren’t well versed in tech, Dillon says that understanding VR and what it does can be confusing.
“Explaining it to them is really difficult, and they don’t understand it until they try it,” he said, “but once they try it, they’re excited to be able to have these opportunities and these experiences.”
Dominic Papa is someone who has benefitted from Gamer’s Gift and using VR. He uses a wheelchair, and communicates through gestures and body language, since he can’t talk. His aunt, Theresa Thorpe, and one of his caregivers, Abri Proctor-Carpenter, helped facilitate my interview with him. Papa lives independently, with the guidance of professional caregivers. Four days a week, he volunteers at the Citrus Heights Police Department, visiting malls and watching for shoplifters and suspicious passerby. His aunt read an article in the Sacramento Bee about Gamer’s Gift and was interested in having her nephew try out one of the systems. She reached out to them to figure out what to buy. But Gamer’s Gift insisted on helping her and Papa, and first visited him this past spring. The volunteers helped Papa try on different headgear sets to see which one would fit best, and selected VR experiences that didn’t require controllers, which Papa can’t use. Proctor-Carpenter was surprised at how organised the volunteers were.
“I just felt like for just for it to be some community service they were pretty well presented in what they were doing,” she said. “For some college kids who came together and said this is what we want to do, they were actually pretty professional.”
Papa expressed that he was nervous at first to try VR. But once he got into it, he loved it. He tried several different experiences in outer space, underwater, and even walking with dinosaurs. The one where he drove a racecar was a favourite. Gamer’s Gift later donated the VR equipment so that Papa could use it whenever he wanted.
Thorpe said that the experience opened her eyes to how technology could be used positively. “I’m of a generation where technology doesn’t come easy,” she said. “From my observations, I’ve noticed that [for] many people who get involved with technology it becomes an addiction. In other words I see that they lose some balance in their life.And Dillon and the volunteers, they just have such perfect balance in their lives between the technology, the people, the helping, and the school. They’re wonderful people.”
Dillon Hill, left, and other volunteers with Gamer’s Gift. Dominic Papa sits in front. Photo courtesy of Theresa Thorpe.
Gamer’s Gift raises money for itself by hosting fundraising activities on Twitch, Discord and Twitter. The organisation is limited to serving California, but Dillon hopes it will grow in the future.
“I want it to be big, but I want it to be big in a way where we can still maintain the community,” he said. “The important thing to me is growing community, because with community we can easily fundraise more effectively and we can easily spread our reach way more effectively and bring this technology to way more people.”
While Dillon juggles attending school and running Gamer’s Gift now, he says that the balancing act hasn’t been incredibly challenging. He appreciates the experiences he gets from both attending school and running Gamer’s Gift, although he does say that he is more likely to prioritise the nonprofit over his studies. And he does this because the work he does is so rewarding.
“Just seeing a disabled man who can’t speak, suddenly emote all of this emotion just with smiles and head movement as he experiences a race car in virtual reality or something like that,” Dillon said. “It’s really incredible to see the idea that video games can do so much good. To see the idea come to fruition, and make an actual physical impact on people is just... it’s been a really, really incredible experience.”