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Extra Life: A Calling Above and Beyond Games

Interviews By Jean Prior on August 19, 2014

The notion of leaving the industry for something even better or more fulfilling can scarcely be imagined by most of us, but it does happen.  Rick Heaton, aka Sapience, recently left his position as Community Manager for Lord of the Rings Online to join the Extra Life gaming charity as their first Community Manager.  He was at SOE Live last weekend as part of Extra Life's efforts to raise awareness for their work and to enlist both Sony Online Entertainment and a number of their players to join the cause.

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that Rick is a friend of the author and had requested the interview.  However, he'd be the first to point out that none of this is really about him, it's about what Extra Life is doing.  The format for the charity involves gamers raising money over the course of a year and then on one day in October or November, they do a 24-hour gaming marathon, whether it's video games, board games, or whatever.  The point is that gamers are fundraising for Extra Life, and that Extra Life gives that money to the Children's Miracle Network Hospital that the gamer selected.  Extra Life founder Jeremy 'Doc' Adams posted the charity's origin story on their website, and it's worth a watch of the video.  Mainstream media is quite happy to paint gamers as anti-social neckbeards or addicts to violent video games, when it's things like this that are a more honest representation of the average gamer.  A simple request to a gaming community to help one girl fighting cancer has led to over three million dollars raised just last year.  Not too shabby for a charity that was founded in only 2008. 

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Rick explained to me how he got involved in Extra Life during his tenure at Turbine.  Fellow community manager Seraphina 'Celestrata' Brennan had approached him three years ago and asked if it was okay if she participated in that year's efforts.  After doing the research to ensure things were legit, he decided to participate as well because he felt it was a great thing to do and his community would get behind it.  While her initial goal was $250, he decided to double down on it and set his own goal as $500.  By the end of that year's run, he had personally raised over $18,000 and was the country's #1 individual fundraiser, with Turbine taking the #3 spot for teams.  The second year Turbine employees participated, Rick himself raised over $50,000, and he pointed out that even gamers who hated his guts due to his work on Lord of the Rings Online were happy to pony up cash for his team for the sake of sick children. 

Last year, Extra Life's servers were the target of a DDoS (Direct Denial of Service) attack, where the servers became unreachable for people to make donations.  I asked Rick what Extra Life planned to do about the potential for a repeat this year.  He said that he believed that the DDoS attack was a reality of the internet and the world we lived in, and much like the Michael Caine quote from The Dark Knight, there were simply people out there who wanted to watch the world burn.  He added that he didn't believe that the attackers were disgruntled gamers, but rather just a bunch of people wanting to be jerks.  He was very certain in his belief that whoever these people were, they weren't gamers. 

He also made a distinction between his previous job and his current one, stating that he no longer had to worry about a game going down, or having to deal with a dev making a change to the game that the players may or may not like, or the game's datacenter going up in flames.  His current job has one singular goal: to get as many people to help as many kids as possible and to make it as big as possible.  He added that he figures that if a gamer stood up and said that participating in a gamer charity was a bad thing, they'd get shouted down pretty quickly by their fellow gamers. 

We turned the discussion to what he would or wouldn't do on behalf of his new calling.  In his first year participating with Extra Life at Turbine, one of his higher donation goals was to shave his beard.  It's worth noting that even his own significant other had never seen him without a beard before, and afterwards she forbade him from doing that ever again.  There are pictures of this if you google it, but I refuse to inflict that upon you all.  This past year, the beard got dyed pink and green, and Rick said he'd considered keeping it awhile. 

While Rick is the first Extra Life Community Manager, he pointed out that communities tend to exist whether you want them to or not, and Extra Life had always had a community.  The goal here was to help bring them all together and in the darkness bind them, no, wait, that was his previous job.  Here, the intention is to network Extra Life's participants together in a single place so they can share advice on fundraising year-round.  Some folks might not be aware that Extra Life isn't just a one-day gaming marathon, each participant's account can be donated into anytime of the year.  Typically, the final tally is done on or near the chosen gaming marathon day (this year, the marathon date is Saturday, October 25th).

One of the bigger changes in the charity's work since it was founded was the increasing advent of video streamers via Twitch or YouTube who were streaming their marathons.  Last year, Heaton had promised that once his donations hit a certain amount, he would go to a particular LotRO server and play some of his 24 hours in the Ettenmoors as a freshly-rolled creep character and let players find him and kill him (which they did, repeatedly), and he'd stream it on Twitch.  I asked him how he planned on approaching the number of professional streamers who would be at SOE Live, many of whom already do charity work for other worthy organizations.  He said that last year, Extra Life had reached out to a number of the more well-known streamers who were participating in Extra Life and offered to feature them.  He also said that one of their immediate goals was to network these streamers or perhaps get them to do other Extra Life-related streams even before the official marathon day in October.  With Twitch's new hosting feature, this would be relatively simple for them to do.  Rick also offered his attention to any game studio wanting to make arrangements for official streams or other promotion work, which was why he was at SOE Live, to begin that sort of legwork. 

For those folks who might be struggling in their fundraising efforts, Heaton wanted participants to know that there would be places both on Extra Life's website and on their forums once they're launched to provide that sort of support.  He was gratified to see during his own marathon last year that when he was fading in the middle of the night, the viewers in his Twitch chatroom had taken up the task of answering questions for other folks watching.  He wants to provide that sort of ability to crowdsource this help via the forums and stated that there's a whole slew of tools already available.  He also mentioned that Extra Life has guilds in 25 cities in the United States and Canada and that participants could organize meetings and real life activities.  The guild page on Extra-Life.org provides the list and locations of each guild. 

Heaton went on to cite one of his favorite parts of Extra Life, which was how it really has been a grassroots campaign.  One gamer hears about the charity and then tells his or her friends, and then they tell their friends and it sort of snowballs from there.  He mentioned how he and his former colleagues at Turbine were invited to their local CMN hospital, Boston Children's, to do arts and crafts with the kids, and he got a little misty recalling helping a little girl make a penguin out of a paper cup.  For those few moments, he said, she wasn't a patient hooked up to tubes and medical equipment, she was just a little kid, and he and the other Turbine folks could see how their efforts were helping these kids. 

I pointed out to him that Rick is not a parent himself, so this calling wasn't as intensely personal for him like it would be for someone who was a parent.  He replied that he was raised in the notion that if you had the ability to help someone, you helped them.  He realized that he had this ability to help children in need and felt that it was what he had to do.  Heaton continued by adding that children were innocent, they didn't do anything to cause the illnesses they were inflicted with.  There was nothing more terrifying in his mind than being nine years old and watching your parents freak out over words you didn't understand and that caused them great stress.  He added if there was anything he could do to help in any tiny way to alleviate that child's terror and stress, he was all in. 

Speaking of being all in, his pledge this year should he complete his ultimate goal of raising $100,000 is going to be getting his first-ever tattoo, the Extra Life logo, despite his deep dislike of needles.  Heaton also pointed out that Extra Life's founder, Jeremy 'Doc' Adams, shook hands on the agreement that Doc would be matching that tattoo as well.  In more seriousness, however, Rick made a point of stating that one of the best parts of Extra Life is the simple fact that 100% of the money raised goes directly to the Children's Miracle Network Hospital that each participant designates as their home.  The money stays local to the fundraiser if they so desire, and it goes directly to helping the children who need it the most. 

It is also worth noting as well that while Extra Life's official marathon day is Saturday October 25th, participants can choose another more convenient day to do their marathon, or they can even break it up into multiple sessions, just as long as the 24-hour goal is reasonably fulfilled.  Flexibility is key.  When Heaton himself transitioned from working for Turbine one week and working for Extra Life the next, Turbine was gracious enough to promise that all of the goodies on his current campaign would still be given out as promised once the goals have been reached.  When it comes to how the event goes on, what Rick made clear in his final statement was that the details weren't the most critical thing, the actual fundraising was because it was for the kids themselves, and they were what's most important of all. 

If you or any of your friends, guildies, family members want to join Extra Life, please visit their website and sign up.  Many game studios have official teams you can join, so ask around!

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