The national advocacy organization JDRF is tapping into the video gaming industry for a new wave of diabetes awareness and fundraising.

In case you missed it, their new initiative called Game2Give was kicked off during Diabetes Awareness Month in November, with support from video livestreaming service Twitch and digital gaming storefront Humble Bundle.

According to JRDF, the video game community has already donated $1 billion (and growing) to various charity causes. The diabetes-specific Game2Give initiative “aims to capitalize on this fundraising potential by bringing together all types of people with T1D who work and play with video games — including game developers, professional streamers, and gamers — and by mobilizing this community to raise money and awareness for diabetes research.”

The initiative’s been spearheaded by the innovation-minded JDRF Greater Bay Area Chapter, whose members took note of emerging video games in which players show off their diabetes devices and talk T1D, along with a new generation of musicians weaving diabetes awareness, peer support, and even fundraising into their work.

“We think this could be a massive new way to bring philanthropy forward, not only to JDRF and diabetes, but other nonprofits,” said D-Mom Karen Jordan, who helped launch this initiative and received a national diabetes award recently. “This ties in with burgeoning gaming efforts, those gamers and streamers, who are creating a T1D community in a new way on different platforms.”

“There are a lot of people in the game industry who’ve been touched by type 1 diabetes, whether it’s developers or business people,” says California D-Dad Dan Connors, a video game industry pioneer with an 11-year-old son who was diagnosed more than 6 years ago. “If we could just get out there to talk and connect with those people, the opportunities would open up.”

These days, Connors serves as volunteer “video game liaison” with the JDRF Bay Area Chapter. But those in the gaming world may recognize him as an industry pioneer: Connors worked at LucasArts back in the early 90s, before co-founding Telltale Games in 2004 and serving as CEO off-and-on until late 2018.

He observed the gaming industry participate in charitable causes and events through the years, and saw an opportunity for JDRF to jump in. At one point, he raised $180,000 from a percentage of Telltale Games profits being donated to the org.

This latest effort materialized after a small group in the gaming universe met and crafted a message to their peers. Soon, lots of other diabetes dads and those living with type 1 diabetes themselves started signing on. In March 2019, the group hosted a local JDRF event called Gaming & Giving Together that helped widen the net of those wanting to support the effort focused on T1D.

They eventually teamed up with streaming platform Twitch and digital content seller Humble Bundle to launch JDRF’s Game2Give initiative in November.

Here’s a YouTube video promoting the initiative, which Connors describes as “just the tip of the iceberg.”

In just the first month, the campaign that included a week-long fundraising drive on Twitch raised $35,000 for JDRF to support T1D research and awareness. More than 60 people signed up to stream on those platforms, with gamers doing live broadcasts as they played games or even sang or played instruments on their respective channels. All the while, they offered commentary about their own lives and experiences with T1D, and what JDRF has meant to them.

Not only did it raise money, but importantly it created places on these digital platforms where people in the D-Community could gather, to connect and share.

“We have a 21st century infrastructure here, with games and streaming… these ways that people entertain themselves now, these are taking over as how the next-generation operates in the world. So we’re building out tools and technologies to become part of the conversation within that ecosystem,” Connors says.

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A search for “diabetes” on the livestreaming site Twitch brings up users like these, along with 10 recommended channels with thousands of followers.

Organizers point to emotional testimonies from campaign participants who shared that they never knew anyone with T1D, before but were able to learn about the condition by finding it on a gaming platform. Others were grateful to be able to share aspects of life with diabetes in ways they’d never been able to before.

One example is a Nashville-based woman who was diagnosed about 5 years ago, who goes by the name Resurrection Fern online. She’s plugged into the gaming community, but her online presence is largely focused on her work as a singer-songwriter and musician. You can often see her wearing a Dexcom CGM on her arm in the videos on her YouTube channel, or when streaming her music during live broadcasts.

She creates diabetes-themed music like her (not-from-“Frozen”) song “Let It Go” made just after her diagnosis, and her newest piece “HiLo” inspired by her daily T1D struggles.

Fern participated in the JDRF Game2Give initiative in November and raised upwards of $5,000 with two livestreams. She was also able to share her own T1D diagnosis story, connect with peers, and help support a broader audiences of those who found her by way of the campaign materials and searching “diabetes” on the Twitch platform.

“I think livestreaming channels are so powerful in the T1D community because we get to see, in real time, people that are going through what we are going through, and that understand and empathize,” Fern wrote us in an email. “It makes you feel less alone knowing that another person is in a similar situation and is still thriving and connecting to others in a positive way in spite of T1D.”

“It’s amazing how so many of us on Twitch have found support, encouragement, and community through the platform,” she said. “The fact that the JDRFG2G campaign was even possible is proof that T1D awareness is spreading and connecting people within Twitch.”

Over the years, we’ve seen several examples of groups trying to “gamify” diabetes management itself, to motivate a young crowd:

  • the Captain Novolin game on Super Nintendo in the early 90s that was sponsored by Novo Nordisk
  • GlucoBoy that turned an actual glucose monitor into a gaming experience that integrated with a GameBoy or related Nintendo system
  • the ninja app created by pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Jennifer Dyer in Ohio years ago

None of these have seen significant success, but with advancing technology and new multimedia platforms now thriving across the internet, the possibilities seem ripe.

Connors sees a future where game characters could have T1D themselves — such as sports games with players who are actually living with diabetes in real life. He believes that making health conditions relatable in this context could become more mainstream as more interested people get connected to each other.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the quote goes… but the opportunity is there for us,” he says. “This is a new way to fundraise and offers a whole other possibility of bringing people together.”

While this question is not a current focus JDRF’s new effort, it certainly does come to mind. It has been explored with some limited research, but remains a controversial topic over the years.

For example, an August 2017 study that found men participating in an online game with diabetes management and education components actually saw improved A1Cs and overall blood sugars.

Dr. Joyce Lee at the University of Michigan, a proponent of the “health maker” movement and gamification in health, has been part of multiple efforts to involve T1D kids and young adults in their own care via gaming and design. Her results found these efforts to be empowering and help build problem-solving skills for the participants.

A few years ago, a Bay Area diabetes dad actually built a special version of Minecraft to motivate kids diagnosed with diabetes and is still evaluating the impact of that, as reported by Beyond Type 1.

But some parents worry that too much video gaming could have the opposite effect, causing kids’ blood sugar to run high from too much sitting and the stress of trying to master the game.

In this Q&A, a parent who expressed those concerns about her 12-year-old is told by the responding certified diabetes educator (CDE) that the same rules apply to all kids, diabetes or not: moderation is key, and a good rule of thumb is to limit screen time to a max of 2 hours per day.