Child’s Play: The Tai Chi Approach

Like early explorers, Jerry “Tycho Brahe” Holkins and Mike “Jonathan Gabriel/Gabe” Krahulik hacked their way into the heart of darkness at the core of the early-era internet. Deep in the comedy jungle, they built an empire and called it Penny Arcade. Penny Arcade[/i] used a simple, powerful combo of an actually-funny webcomic and wandering updates from Tycho, chronicling everything from John Romero’s latest shenanigans to Gabe’s love of Barbie Horse Adventures. The sense of humor displayed in the comic is usually sharp, almost always caustic and frequently crosses into the just-wrong-but-still-hilarious territory that made them famous.

So, it sometimes comes as a surprise when people find out the same guys who run a comic featuring a drunken DivX player and a juicer with a lust for the supple flesh of virgin oranges, also happen to be the founders of a children’s charity. I was able to get in touch with Mike and Jerry, and got the inside story on Child’s Play, how it got started and where it’s going.

According to Mike, Child’s Play started with an idea. He explains, “Originally, we had these old videogame consoles laying around. Everybody has a Super Nintendo or a Genesis, and we sort of thought, ‘Boy, it’d be cool if we could give these old consoles to kids who could really use them, you know, kids in hospitals.’ And after we looked into that, we found out that these hospitals don’t want anything used. The kids are not in the sort of situation where they can have germs or anything like that around them. The hospitals are really, really strict about only accepting brand new toys, in their boxes, that sort of thing. So the idea sorta morphed into, ‘Well, let’s just make Wishlists on Amazon and let gamers purchase brand new toys and games for these kids.'”

Not all was kisses and bunnies and pure philanthropy. The real catalyst for Child’s Play was the media’s wall-to-wall portrayal of gamers as school shooters waiting to happen. Jerry explains, “Well, initially, we were actually sort of mad. I think that we’d seen a few articles around that time that we thought were especially specious connecting violent behavior and videogames and gamers and dangerous activities and so forth.” Just as a refresher, 2003 was the year of the Protect Children from Videogame Sex and Violence Act of 2003, a grandstanding title capstoning a year full of hysterical headlines. Both Holkins and Krahulik wanted to do something positive to counter this portrayal, as he explained.

“And so, we wanted to create something that … sort of like the Tai Chi approach. Obviously, we’d been running the site for a while, and I was more than happy to continue saying bad words. That was going to be how I was gonna change the world. But it occurred to us, if we want people to think differently about people who play games and the companies that make games, well, we need to do different things. It’s a very straightforward idea, but it seemed revolutionary to us at the time. That was basically our genesis.” That first year, Child’s Play donations went on to overwhelm Jerry’s house, as gamers worldwide sent in boxes and boxes beyond what either of them had envisioned.

While anger at the media began it, it swiftly evolved into something greater. He finishes the story, “That really isn’t a part of it anymore. It’s like, after the first year, and it was so successful, it seemed clear to us that people just wanted a focus, that there were a lot of people that wanted to do this sort of thing. But they needed a focus. Sort of like a rally point. And that was just something that we ended up providing. Now, it’s the way something like this should be. It’s a fairly straightforward, almost entirely pure altruism-type effort. But when it started, it came from a place of anger, like many things that we do at Penny Arcade.”

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Speaking of Penny Arcade, I posit it’d be easy to see a contradiction between the guys that drew Jesus throwing up the metal horns and the guys working tirelessly to promote a charity. Are others surprised to find guys known for a twisted sense of humor so focused on doing good?

“The last few times people have asked us about it, that question almost always comes up,” Jerry says, hesitating as he wrestles with the answer. “I don’t really have an excellent retort. It definitely is sort of … there is an incongruity there. That’s true. I don’t have a great answer for it, other than to say that just because we are, you know, bad people, that doesn’t really absolve us of our responsibility in that way. Just because we’re people that have a strange sense of humor, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to do our part in other social ways.” We both observe it’s kind of weird. “Yeah, it is weird. I think it’s weird, too! I think we have to sort of set that aside and try to create positive outcomes, essentially.”

Creating positive outcomes is what Child’s Play does, marshalling an army of fans to get games and money into the hands of sick kids. Mike quotes me a figure of $590,000, which includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in toys from Amazon, as well as $130,000 in cash donations, including some big donations from major corporate donors like Microsoft, Bungie, Valve, Cerulean Studios and Epic. I’m interested in who does the giving on an individual level, speculating they’re probably getting a lot of first-time givers.

Jerry responds, “Yeah, I agree. I think that we must be tapping into something, like I said before. Something that was already there, but just didn’t have a muster point. Because I think there’s a lot of people who give to Child’s Play that don’t give to other charities, that don’t give to charity in general. And I think that there’s a couple reasons for that. I think that it isn’t as anonymous as a lot of charitable giving tends to be. Like you can give to an umbrella organization and then it goes into a pot and other people determine what that money does.”

I observe that seeing a kid with cancer playing a game you bought is much more of an incentive than reading about the head of a charity getting a massive salary for administrative stuff. “I think the idea that there are no administration fees, all the money, all the toys, everything goes right to the kids,” Jerry says. “I think that’s another big reason that we saw so many donations. I think this year was a really good example and sort of proved that idea, because everyone was talking about donation fatigue. There were so many places to give to and so many catastrophes this year that people said this was going to be a bad year for holiday season giving and that just was not our experience at all. This was, by far, our most successful year ever.”

Mike chimes in with a couple more reasons Child’s Play might appeal to the routinely skeptical gamer crowd. “You purchase a specific, a game that you want. You’re buying a very specific item and that’s being sent directly to the organization, directly to the hospital of your choice.” Again, appealing to people who might not be inclined to give a check to a faceless organization. Jerry adds, “And a lot of people can give in their area.”

Both actually seemed intent on keeping themselves out of the spotlight as much as possible, using Penny Arcade to promote the charity, but not using the charity to promote themselves. “We don’t go back for some kind of victory lap” summarizes the discussion on that topic.

Being the guys behind Penny Arcade does have a few downsides. A handful of hospitals have refused their assistance because of Penny Arcade‘s brand of humor. Those that do accept, and more than 20 accepted, aren’t always aware of what they’re getting into. Jerry quips, “They didn’t know it would be a semi,” as we talk, referring to the truckload of gifts – and the full-time person needed to unpack them – Seattle Children’s Hospital received in Child’s Play’s first year.

Their plan for Child’s Play’s future is simple. Keep on adding more hospitals, collecting more stuff and tweaking the system so it works better. They plan to continue letting the charity remain a separate enterprise since, as Jerry says, “I don’t like the idea that the amount of good I can accomplish is limited by JPEGs that I upload. That’s frustrating to me. But in a couple of years, I don’t think that’ll be a concern.” To that end, they’ve been letting the unsung heroes of Child’s Play, like Mike Fehlauer, Robert Khoo and Kristin Lindsay take on the running of the charity, while they stick to using their popularity to promote it and whatever crazy ideas they come up with next.

Talk of crazy ideas and the future brings us to their next enterprise, which is still hazy, but very exciting all the same. Right now, they’re throwing around the idea of a Penny Arcade Scholarship, which should debut this year. Jerry and Mike haven’t worked out all the details yet, but with one of the most popular sites on the Web doing the promoting, it should be a success. More importantly, both seemed pretty pumped to be working on something that was a Good Cause, proving you can have an aesthete’s appreciation for fine dick jokes and still be a good person.

Millionaire playboy Shannon Drake lives a life on the run surrounded by Japanese schoolgirls and videogames. He also writes about anime and games for WarCry.

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