Speedrunning for Charity: How Video Game Charity Marathons Raise Millions for Charity

This post summarizes the CSCW 2019 paper “Speedrunning for Charity: How Donations Gather Around a Live Streamed Couch” by Stephen Tsung-Han Sher and Norman Makoto Su.

Summary: We studied Games Done Quick, a video game charity event, to investigate how they are so successful in raising money for charity. We found viewers are strongly motivated to donate to take part in the varied sociality — represented by a streamed, living room couch — of each showcased video game.


At 2:00AM on June 30, 2019, the donation counter on the Games Done Quick video game marathon live stream hit $2,900,000. With 10 minutes left in the event, the otherwise silent halls of the hotel conference center echoed with hundreds of people chanting “THREE! THREE! THREE!” as everyone anticipated the setting of a new record of raising more than $3,000,000 in a single week for Doctors Without Borders.

Hundreds of thousands of live stream viewers watched on Twitch as the donation counter sped up and raised another $100,000 in 10 minutes to reach $3,000,000. The room exploded with cheering and celebration when the milestone nobody thought was possible was achieved.

A crowd of hundreds in a conference room suddenly burst into cheer by jumping and raising their hands.
A crowd of hundreds in a conference room suddenly burst into cheer by jumping and raising their hands.
Crowd cheering upon passing $3,000,000 for Doctors Without Borders at Summer Games Done Quick 2019. The screaming and cheering from the audience was deafening (video by Stephen Tsung-Han Sher).

Games Done Quick (GDQ) is not an isolated phenomenon. Charity events held by video game communities has grown with video live streaming becoming a popular form of entertainment. An independent survey by Matthew Patrick and Stephanie Cordato reported gaming-related charity events generated more than $12,000,000 in 2018, with GDQ being one of the most significant. Having witnessed GDQ raise millions of USD for charity time and time again, we sought to understand the question: “How does GDQ succeed in raising substantial donations in such a short time-span despite featuring an ostensibly niche subculture of gamers?” Our paper examines how the sociality around a live streamed couch featured at every GDQ create a social desire among viewers to donate and how a large rotating cast of couch members for each featured game builds a far-reaching pool of potential donors.

We found that viewers of GDQ are strongly motivated to donate by the ability to write donation messages that have a chance to be read out loud on the live stream by the host for the couch and audience to hear. This opens the opportunity for the everyday viewer to engage with the banter and jokes told on the couch, allowing them to be an active member of the couch. Additionally, by showcasing hundreds of games spanning various subcommunities of speedrunning, GDQ allows each subcommunity the time to broadcast their support for the charitable cause. Each subcommunity creates a new sociality around the couch, presenting to the viewer population the chance to virtually join the couch via donating and having their donation messages read.

What is Speedrunning and Games Done Quick?

While there are many forms of speedrunning with different rules and variations, the basic form of a speedrun, as defined by Eric “Omnigamer” Koziel in his book Speedrun Science: A Long Guide to Short Playthroughs, is:

“playing through a [video] game with the goal of optimizing for speed.”

This is achieved using gameplay exploits, glitches, and optimization, along with hundreds of hours of practice and attempts, to reduce the time required to beat a game.

A video footage of the Super Mario Bros. World 2–1 stage. Walks through a wall (a glitch) to reach the warp zone faster.
A video footage of the Super Mario Bros. World 2–1 stage. Walks through a wall (a glitch) to reach the warp zone faster.
Using a wall clipping glitch in Super Mario Bros. to access the warp zone faster. Footage by somewes, the former world record holder for this game (https://www.youtube.com/user/somewes).

“Speedrunning” (or often just “running”) has its own community of “speedrunners” that has produced unbelievable achievements such as completing the original Super Mario Bros. on the NES in 4 minutes and 55 seconds. When a new video game is released, speedrunners will immediately gather and start experimenting with the game to find glitches, exploits, and strategies to beat the game as fast as possible.

In 2010, a small group of friends gathered and held the first Games Done Quick event, raising just over $10,000 for charity. Since then, GDQ has held two events every year: Awesome Games Done Quick (AGDQ) in January benefiting Prevent Cancer Foundation and Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) in June benefiting Doctors Without Borders. GDQ has been met with immense growth and support. In its nine-year history, GDQ has raised over $22,000,000 for charity.

A chart showing the total amount raised by GDQ each year. There is a steady increase almost every year (except 2016).
A chart showing the total amount raised by GDQ each year. There is a steady increase almost every year (except 2016).
Total funds raised by Games Done Quick Events by year (data from www.gamesdonequick.com/tracker).

Why Do People Donate to Games Done Quick?

To understand the motivations behind why people donate to GDQ, we interviewed 18 GDQ participants: 6 runners, 4 hosts (volunteers who read donation messages on the live stream), 5 online viewers, and 3 GDQ attendees. We also traveled to AGDQ 2019 and SGDQ 2019 to gain first-hand experience of the event and analyzed donation data made public by GDQ’s donation tracker.

We found many of the motivations behind why people donate to charity live streams events parallel the motivations of why people donate to individual live streamers as identified in a study by Wohn et al. in 2018. These include wanting to show support to the organization or streamer, provide compensation for the entertainment or educational value of the live stream, and express their emotional attachment to the video game or live stream content. Another powerful motivator was the possibility to interact with the featured personalities on the live stream via donations — when donating to GDQ, the donor has the option to write a message that, if selected, will be read out loud by the host on the live stream. Finally, live streamers will occasionally hold charity events to raise funds, although on a smaller scale compared to GDQ, and viewers respond well to these charitable efforts.

However, a differentiating motivator between donating to individual live streamers and charity live stream events, as studied by us, is the desire to socially interact as a member of the speedrunning subculture — to be in on and part of the unique jokes, memes, banter, game expertise, and camaraderie that characterize speedrunners. There is a unique sociality created around the couch on the GDQ live stream comprised of notable members of the speedrunning community, and the viewers donate to interact with the runner and members of the couch.

The first GDQ was planned to be held at a music and gaming convention in Virginia. However, due to last-minute technical difficulties, a small band of speedrunners relocated their live stream to be held in Mike Uyama’s mother’s basement. The basement had a single couch in front of a television, where the speedrunners ran games, ate pizza, and fell asleep on the couch on the stream. At each subsequent GDQ, the organizers would continue to feature the couch directly on the live stream for speedrunners to gather around. It is arguably the centerpiece of GDQ events. At the AGDQ 2019 panel on the founding of GDQ, Breakdown, a GDQ staff, described the significance of the couch:

“I think the couch still helps keep a more casual-ish vibe. Like a home-y feel, just playing games with your friends.”

A picture from a GDQ live stream. The speedrunner is sat closest to the camera, followed by the couch, then the audience.
A picture from a GDQ live stream. The speedrunner is sat closest to the camera, followed by the couch, then the audience.
The GDQ live stream of SGDQ 2018 for the Super Mario World speedrun. The speedrunner is front-most, with other community members on the couch behind the runner (photo taken from video by Games Done Quick).

However, the couch at GDQ is more than just an enduring symbol for its humble grassroots beginnings. As thousands of speedrunners have had sat on the couch at GDQ, the couch has become the quintessential social gathering place for speedrunners and their community to take the spotlight to showcase their speedruns and broadcast their support for raising money for charity to hundreds of thousands of live stream viewers. This exemplar of sociality around the couch evokes a desire among viewers to engage with the live stream via donations and participating, albeit virtually or at a distance, on the couch themselves.

We found two significant socially-driven motivations for viewers to donate to GDQ. The first is the desire to associate with the couch through means of writing donation messages that are a kind of “shout-out” to friends and fellow speedrunners. Two of our participants describes their thought process behind donating to GDQ:

“So, I figure if I am going to donate… I will donate and shout-out my friend [who is running] and wishing him luck.” — Participant A3

“During events I try to [donate], if friends of mine are [on stream] or someone I know is [on stream] I’ll try to donate something like, give a shout-out or a joke” — Participant H4

Runners, who sit in front of the couch, told us they do hear and appreciate these shout-outs messages, even during intense speedruns. All of our participants who had run games at GDQ recall hearing donation messages from friends, family, or “familiar strangers” being one of the more memorable moments of their GDQ experience:

“A lot of people who watch my stream and know me in the community, they donated too. It was really nice hearing the donations. Hearing the donations, I’m thinking ‘Oh yeah, I know who that is.’ That was really cool” — Participant R4

These shout-out donation messages were so common and well-received that GDQ actively supports this engagement. GDQ hosts will check with the runner beforehand to ask for a “whitelist” of names, including family members, close friends, and community members, so if a donation by someone on the “whitelist” is received the message can be expedited to the host to be read aloud on stream.

Secondly, we found viewers donate to directly engage with the couch’s banter and jokes. Some of these donation messages are made with the intention of partaking in conversations that happen on the couch. For example, during the Pepsiman run at SGDQ 2018, an old Pepsi-themed video game, the couch often will discuss whether Coke or Pepsi is better. It is not uncommon for donors to broadcast their Pepsi versus Coke stance with donation messages:

“Pepsi is the superior soda. I mean, does Coke have a superhero? I didn’t think so.”

“Pepsi for GDQ #Pepsi.”

“Don’t tell Pepsiman that I prefer coke products.”

“Coke is better than Pepsi.”

“Despite being a fan of Coke, my boyfriend is a Pepsi-fan.”

Furthermore, donors also join in on jokes that happen on stream, whether in the form of meme-donations, such as writing messages containing “Kaboom!” in response to the battleship minigame during The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker HD run (AGDQ 2019 received more than 700 “Kaboom”-related donations, many of which were read by the host), or in the form of telling jokes via donations, such as when a participant who had worked as a host for a previous GDQ, “challenged the [viewers] to come up with as many horrible shoe puns as possible” in response to when the runner of a game was missing their shoe on stream. Other examples include hosts asking for tongue-twister donations to read on stream or runners requesting viewers to donate the dollar amount corresponding to the index number of their favorite Pokemon (Pikachu would correspond to a $25 donation being the 25th Pokemon entry).

What Can We Learn from GDQ’s Couch?

To understand why GDQ receives such a high amount of donations during their events, we identified the underlying motivations behind why viewers are so eager to donate. The couch at GDQ is a highly sought-after experience due how exclusive the couch can be — only hand-selected individuals by the runner are able to sit on the couch. We can see this desire to join the couch by observing the large gatherings of attendees behind the main GDQ stage on the aptly named backup couch. The backup couch retains a similar atmosphere to the main couch but is not directly broadcast on the stream and is physically accessible to all attendees.

A gathering of people behind the stage of GDQ around the backup couch. The backup couch is positioned in front of a TV.
A gathering of people behind the stage of GDQ around the backup couch. The backup couch is positioned in front of a TV.
The gathering of attendees around the backup couch (offstage) at AGDQ 2019. The actual furniture of the couch (directly in front of the television) is obscured by the extra chairs pulled up from others who wanted to join the couch. It is not uncommon to see 10–15 extra chairs around the backup couch with more people sitting on the ground. Note the analogous “real” couch on stage (photo by Stephen Tsung-Han Sher).

When a viewer (online viewer or physical attendee) donates to GDQ and their message is read on the live stream, they are granted a virtual seat on the couch, a promotion from the lesser exclusive general viewing experience to the highly sought-after couch experience.

A pyramid hierarchy with online viewers on the bottom, then live audience, backup couch, couch, and runner.
A pyramid hierarchy with online viewers on the bottom, then live audience, backup couch, couch, and runner.
The hierarchy of viewing experiences of GDQ. Viewers can be promoted up the hierarchy by having their donations read on stream.

This is furthermore coupled with the large rotating cast of runners and couch members to maximize on potential donors. Each GDQ event showcases up to 150 games, each with a different runner and cast of couch. As each game rotates onto stream, it brings in a different viewing population that resonate with game and presents the viewers the opportunity to donate and fulfill the social desire to join the couch. Even after the run ends and the couch disbands, these viewers who had their donations read will have had succeeded in taking a virtual seat on the couch — their donations are forever immortalized on the Games Done Quick video archives on YouTube and Twitch.

A chart showing the movement of runners, couch, and viewers through each game, and how viewers donate to join the couch.
A chart showing the movement of runners, couch, and viewers through each game, and how viewers donate to join the couch.
The rotating cast of games, runner, couch, and viewers. Each new game run on the GDQ stream presents the audience with a new opportunity to donate to take part in a new couch.

From these insights, we encourage charity event organizers and scholars to explore the following design considerations to increase donor engagement, retention, and community building:

  • Offer diverse motivations to donate: Donors have varying motivations to donate, from wanting to support the event or charity, to responding to the entertainment or education value of the stream, emotional attachment to the video game or wanting to interact with the personalities on stream. Addressing these varied motivations ensure the event does not alienate potential donors;
  • Identify and provide opportunity to satisfy social desire: the couch at GDQ creates a social desire for viewers to partake in the banter around the couch and allows viewers to fulfill this desire by donating. By evaluating the target population and identifying sources of social desire unique to these populations, designs can leverage the sociality of these gatherings to incentivize donations;
  • Provide opportunity for different communities to take the spotlight: we suggest charity event organizers provide opportunities for heterogeneous communities to establish, present, and foster their presence at the event to broadcast their support for the charitable cause, there by attracting potential donors from these similar communities.

In sum, people donate not just to watch or support the key attractions but to participate in the social interactions that allude to the culture around these attractions. Viewers are entertained and thus motivated to donate by the social gatherings engendered by spaces like GDQ’s couch that preserve its cultural roots.

Paper citation: Stephen Tsung-Han Sher and Norman Makoto Su. 2019. Speedrunning for Charity: How Donations Gather Around a Live Streamed Couch. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 3, CSCW, Article 48 (November 2019), 26 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3359150

ACM CSCW

Research from the ACM conference on computer-supported cooperative work and social computing

Clenoic (Stephen Sher)

Written by

Ph.D. Student at Indiana University | Esports, speedrunning, and charity researcher | Bikes and cooks a lot

ACM CSCW

ACM CSCW

Research from the ACM conference on computer-supported cooperative work and social computing

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