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The Games Done Quick Marathon Is More Important Than Ever

There has been an 18 percent rise in drug overdoses since the pandemic began, compared with the same period in 2019. In January 2021, 41 percent of adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorder. And over half of people who survived Covid-19 have expressed symptoms of depression, despite getting over the disease. Now India and Brazil have emerged as new global hotspots. As the disease progresses seemingly faster than vaccine availability in some communities, maybe the gaming community can help.

Games Done Quick (GDQ) is a speedrun marathon that has raised over $31 million dollars since 2010, for charities like Doctors Without Borders, AbleGamers, and the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Some popular Twitch streamers, like CarcinogenDistortion2—a man who can play Dark Souls II like nobody’s business—and Bawkbasoup have contributed some of the most exciting, heartfelt, and therapeutic streams in the history of the event. 

All the money generated goes to charity, so the marathons support great causes while providing much-needed entertainment during the Covid-19 lockdowns. When the (unfortunately named) Carcinogen gets someone to bid for cancer research during his playthrough of Resident Evil 7, he mentions how Louisiana doesn’t have basements—contrary to protagonist Ethan’s venture into the basement in the fictional Dulvey—to the applause of people in the crowd watching live. And when Bawkba plays the Resident Evil 2 remake in Claire’s skin from the original 1998 Resident Evil 2, in all her polygonal glory, classic and modern-day fans in the audience laugh.

So how does a game development charity marathon help with Covid-19? The World Health Organization said last year that video games are a good way to stop the spread of Covid because, predictably, it’s a hobby you can engage in while indoors and isolated from others. On the charity side, Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), has Covid-19 treatment centers in the more than 70 countries in which they operate. Direct Relief, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of people in extreme poverty or emergency situations, has given pandemic aid to over 100 countries, through masks, shields, gloves, and over $1.3 billion in medical and health aid. Funds raised through GDQ supports all of those organizations and their operations. Matt Merkle, GDQ’s director of operations, says that “we show our speedrunners that the funds their streams generate go directly to the organizations and not somewhere else.”

But GDQ is typically held in-person, meant to bring the community together. The event, like so many others during the pandemic, has had to convert to an entirely online forum. Merkle has worked for GDQ since 2012, and says he’s thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

“All the time people mention how GDQ has positively impacted themselves or family members. Through our charities, we touch countless lives,” Merkle says. “Our summer event, this July, will be online. We talked about charities and were wondering if we should do it in person, but we didn’t want to turn this into some kind of superspreader event.”

A gamer himself, Merkle likes Team Fortress Two. “I’ve played it for hours. I play a lot of FPSs. But mostly I love speedruns. I wanna meet the people who do speedruns, which is part of the reason I got involved to begin with. I went to college for graphic design, but I didn’t have a direct goal in life until Games Done Quick came along.” Since the beginning of the pandemic, GDQ has generated over $5.6 million dollars for charity.

Michelle Colder Carras, with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is also a gamer and a scientist specializing in commercial games, online gaming communities, and their role in supporting mental health.

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As a society, she feels that we’ve become more accepting of our new pandemic-adapted lives. “I think we're coming to grips with it. The new normal—at least for now—involves spending way more time in the house to protect ourselves and others. Things outside the house are temporarily removed. As we’re growing to accept it, there will be a role for games."

Colder Carras believes the best analogy about how video games can get us through pandemic-related—and post-pandemic—depression is from the book Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. Colder Carras says, “It’s a great book about how video games can help us in the real world when things don’t go our way. The entire world is dealing with unimaginable tragedy. Rather than just helping people with depression, games are helping people just make it through the day, the week, the year. Things have changed so much—we don’t have choices. Games are providing choices, connection with others—a lot of things we just can’t easily get anymore.” 

Colder Carras believes the pandemic has offered many options for people who are new to gaming to ease into the pastime on their own terms. “Toward the first or second month of the pandemic,” she says, “when we saw Among Us and Animal Crossing explode, the general public started to see the benefits of video games." She points out that overreliance on games can lead to problems, but that our understanding of what constitutes "too much gaming" is different during the pandemic. "Many people used to run into problems with not doing the things they had to do, spending time on games instead of school, work, or chores. Since Covid, however, there's not as much to compete with. Businesses have let people go. Students can't go to school, or go to school for a shorter amount of time. Gyms, bars, and restaurants are all closed. People aren't going out because they're not vaccinated. We just have fewer things to do. Games can fill that gap and provide the recreation and connection when our other choices are gone.” 

If you’re new to GDQ, one runner to start with is BloodThunder, as he starts his run of the original Bioshock in January of 2020. Bioshock, which navigates the aftermath of a community that fully embraced Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, is arguably one of the greatest games of all time, and presents a world quite a lot worse than the one we currently find ourselves in. It almost feels like a cautionary tale about what could be, but which we should be grateful is not. BloodThunder’s favorite charities are Child's Play Charity, which improves the lives of children through gaming, and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to more than 80 percent since it opened more than 50 years ago.

And on the completely opposite side of the spectrum is Quebec native, poutine connoisseur V0oid, whose favorite charity is Doctors Without Borders. His 102 percent DKC2 (Donkey Kong Country 2) run at GDQ in 2016 is by far one of the most exciting you’re likely to see, and it never lets up. Your eyes can hardly keep up with how fast he flies across the screen with Diddy or Dixie. For fans of classic 8- and 16-bit games, this should be right up your alley, and it’s far enough removed from our current reality that it makes for a great bit of escapism.

GDQ is more than a feel-good string of speedrunners doing what they do best, and it’s more than gamers admiring other gamers’ skill and the feats they can accomplish. It’s a community of people that come together to connect, sometimes during desperate, difficult times—and one that gives a significant amount of money to help those who need it the most.

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