When we think of technology, what often comes to mind is a type of invisible connectedness, an infinite web or abstract database of communications, texts, emails, and video. Gaming sessions are among these distant translucent connections, allowing hundreds of millions of people all over the world to compete and cooperate together. Instead of sharing a couch to play games with friends, we share servers. The gaming community continues to grow and evolve in part because of these instantaneous, distant interactions, but what happens to the old ways of playing, occupying the same physical space? As the gaming community at-large grows and connects on the interwebs, what of local gaming communities? Does the affordance of our technology negate the need for personal connection?
In Honolulu, Keith Limos is a man attempting to feed and revive that need for good ‘ole couch cooperative play (co-op) and split-screen competition, the days when we sat next to our friends for hours trading blows and jests. He founded the non-profit Video Gamers Hawaii in 2014 to bring the Hawai’i gaming community together via Facebook. At first, this was to find other people with which to play Bungie’s Destiny, and over time VGH began to display posts about new games coming out, different genres, and even movies. The vision of VGH changed to the point that Keith recognized a shift, that VGH was “like a Maxim magazine,” they “have a little bit of everything.”
“In the long term, we want to reach outside of Hawaii,” Keith told me. “IGN and Gamespot, if you read how they first started, they started off in a garage talking story about games, like us with Destiny. If anything, we want to end up like that. We’re like them, be invited to events, do stuff for their gaming community.” IGN and GameStop started in a garage. Now they're industry standards. VGH would like to follow a similar path towards recognition but for the purpose of community service and charity rather than profit.
With the online community growing in the following years, Keith and crew pushed for involvement through events of their own. In 2015, the Hawaii Video Gaming League, another non-profit gaming organization dedicated to bringing the community together with games like Street Fighter, invited VGH to participate in the Gamer’s Expo Hawaii where they set up a fighting game competition with Killer Instinct and Mortal Combat on four screens. The challenge, Keith discovered, was that he “didn’t realize how much of a core Street Fighter and Marvel vs Capcom had.” HVGL already supported these games at their events, and VGH wanted to bring different titles, but their popularity in the community proved to be less pervasive. Two people turned out to compete on Killer Instinct, for instance, while around six participated with Mortal Kombat. An additional challenge was that though there’s a great deal of vocal support in the community for these events, when it came to participation, there were no bodies:
“Sometimes we throw things out there, [they] want to do this or that, and they’re interested, and they don’t show up. Which is not cool in my opinion, we put down our time and money, [we need them] to show up and let us know they support us. They don’t show up. The thing about gamers...online gaming kinda killed the videogame gathering. Arcade scenes are dead now. In my opinion, playing in person is the best way to play with people...Online gaming, don’t get me wrong, I do it too, but if you can’t show up to an event ‘cause you don’t want to leave the house, that’s not cool.”
VGH persisted by diving into online streaming, broadcasting live gameplay for entertainment or to garner support for a cause. Keith streamed for Extra Life, a non-profit organization that unites gamers all over the world for 24-hour gaming marathons to generate funds for Children’s Medical Network Hospitals. He encountered the same participation problem he had with the live event. After streaming, the dollar amount raised was a big fat zero, so Keith donated his own money. “I think VGH started rising after that,” he told me, “we started talking about how we can change the scene.”
Then came the story that brought VGH to my attention. In 2017 VGH began a giveaway for the community members, now numbered close to 1700. The Nintendo NES mini was popular and expensive, with scalpers charging “5, 6, $700,” so VGH sold one at wholesale price--about $60--to a community member drawn at random. Another community member was inspired by this to donate their own NES Mini to VGH. Though everyone in the community was excited to get their hands on the rare device, VGH decided to donate it to Kapiolani Medical Center. They dropped it off, along with plenty of collectables like Funko pops, to incredulous hospital employees. “They were like, ‘oh my gosh, are you sure you want to give this to us?’ They knew how rare these were.” And this year, VGH is planning on doing it again, but involving the entire community via a toy and game drive.
VGH continues to grow, a grassroots effort to unite a community becoming an avenue to benefit larger communities around them in need. “Our future goal for VGH is to turn ourselves into a non-profit organization, try and get some sponsors to represent us.” Success builds over time; in March, VGH organized a benefit for Planned Parenthood with a 24-hour gaming gathering with multiple systems, and this time a good number of people showed. Lucas Nakao, Keith’s right-hand man who offered his home for the event space, commented that they might require a $5 donation because “people came and hung out, but didn’t necessarily donate. I’m providing the place, so if you’re coming, you should at least donate.” Again, the challenge of garnering commitment from the community is clear, so it’s my hope (along with theirs) that establishing a baseline that way helps their causes. Even with a lack of donations from many of their participants, they raised $180. The potential for more is evident, and they’re pushing to meet higher goals, both charitably and in membership.
VGH is a great example of a Honolulu community reaching out to unite for the benefit of others and to bring gamers into spaces where they can shake hands and recognize faces. Charity gaming marathons have become a successful avenue to promote causes and charities, with Extra Life raising over $30 million since its inception in 2008. If you’re interested in supporting the group, find them on facebook here, and check their event listings with weekly competitive game nights at Franky Fresh and Osoyami Bar and Grill in Honolulu. Get out there, meet some gamers, and give back to the community!