As high school students, Matthew Moffit and a few friends loved playing video games. They also wanted to raise money for a charity that distributed toys and games to children’s hospitals. So instead of participating in the usual charity race, they designed a virtual marathon in 2009; people could pledge toward them beating several installments of the classic Nintendo video game franchise Legend of Zelda in one 36-hour session.
They raised $300. Things fell apart a bit when the entire team accidentally fell asleep. But over the next few years Moffit refined his approach, inviting more gamers to join, and a larger audience to tune-in over Twitch, a live-gaming network. “We thought it was fun. Hey, we were making a difference, even if it was a small one,” he says. Having more players around made the late nights less brutal and created an energy—and eventually some trademark hijinks—that has attracted more and more viewers.
Seven years later, Zeldathon, is now a six-day attempt to beat more than two dozen related games, including Zelda sequels Wind Waker, Ocarina of Time, and A Link Between Worlds. The last session drew 70 gamers to Moffit’s hometown, with thousands more tuning in online to raise $230,000 for Direct Relief, a disaster logistics and supply agency. To date, the group has raised more than $1 million for various charities. “With Legend of Zelda, it’s really a game about a hero trying to save the world. That translates well to charity,” says Moffit. Because the original debuted in the 8-bit era of the 1980s, their mission draws in all ages of gamers. Zelda Williams, the daughter of late comedian Robin Williams, who is reportedly named after the game, has made donations.
If you’re not wise to the fact that watching video games is a huge new form of entertainment, you might be asking why people pledge to watch this sort of thing. On one hand, elite game players passing levels turns solving those puzzles into high art–that’s why people watch any livestreamed gamers. But Moffit has added a new element of interactivity: Audience members can pay to have players read their personal shoutouts, and reaching certain goals kicks off stunts like playing upside down, taking a pie in the face, or having the group perform some skit or musical act. In order for each marathon to continue, givers must also hit donation benchmarks at the right pace. “We’ve come within probably an hour of the marathon ending but we’ve never not hit one of those goals,” Moffit says. All of this is geared toward fans who love controlling avatars and unlocking new levels. In other words, there’s a game within the game, which makes it highly appealing.
To keep it all moving smoothly, Moffit’s team has created their own customized transaction system called Kinstone—an insider-y nod to powerful artifacts that can be combined inside another edition called Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. It’s a platform that syncs with Paypal, allowing donors to enter a username, donation amount, and comment to be read live. Once their payment clears, that comment shows up in an approved content stream. It’s the sort of thing that would be marketable to other gaming event planners, but Moffit’s not done yet. He hopes to build it into a formal directory for charities too, who would share their preferred deposit info and what branding those planners could use to promote. There’s no formal timetable, but he envisions a clearinghouse that all gamers, charities, and viewers can trust.
In the meantime, no one is taking a paycheck yet. Twitch sponsors the group’s playing time, and Moffit, who goes by the online handle SuperMCGamer, covers his own planning and participation through Patreon, an artist-funding platform where fans have committed to a small monthly stipend—it’s less than $1,500—to keep him working on Zeldathon and other video-game oriented projects. In October, he’ll be running a Zeldathon Classic, a mini-marathon that’s a throwback to their original and will benefit Child’s Play, their original charity. The next major marathon starts on December 27 and will attempt to raise $300,000 for a yet-to-be-named organization.
For Moffit, this is no longer about just beating a game. It’s about creating a culture that’s empowered to take more control of the real world for the greater good. “Zeldathon has restored my faith in humanity,” he says.
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