Mike Krahulik explains the inspiration, execution, and how you can help the biggest gaming charity drive. Also: could Penny Arcade Adventures be coming to WiiWare?
It's been a long time since we last interviewed the guys from Penny Arcade. We finally tracked one of them down again, not to shoot the bull but to get some exposure for their fantastic charity drive, Child's Play. Mike Krahulik, the comic artist represented by alter-ego "Gabe", took a few minutes from his very busy holiday schedule to tell us more about this unique charity.
Nintendo World Report: Thanks a lot for talking to us about this. We have been supporters of Child's Play for a few years, but I really wanted us to do something bigger this year and maybe next year we can go even bigger. So one thing I really wanted to do is make sure that our readers know about it because Penny Arcade is kind of, as you call it, a multi-platform thing and we're strictly Nintendo, so sometimes our audiences may overlap, but not completely.
First off, I wanted to ask: where did you guys get the idea to do a charity by gamers for kids, because I know the official story is that it was a response to this negative article that some guy had written about videogames. Was that really the inspiration or was that a catalyst for something you had brewing?
Mike "Gabe" Krahulik: It's sort of a combination of things. At the time, four years ago, we were trying to do two things: we were trying to look for a way to harness the power of what we knew was a pretty massive community, even at that time, to do something good, and also looking for a way to maybe provide a counterpoint to all the negative press that was sort of swirling around about games at the time. And so we sort of put our heads together and came up with the idea of creating a wishlist for the Seattle Children's Hospital, posting that online, and giving our readers the opportunity to purchase toys for our local hospital here.
And at the time we really had no idea how it would grow. Really, that was the extent of our vision. In fact we originally had all the toys being shipped to my house; I just thought that I'd take a car load over when it was done. It quickly filled the garage and my living room and my kitchen and we ended up having to get some warehouse space and so we realized almost immediately that we were onto something. And I think since then as we moved on with the charity and added more hospitals, that original idea of the charity as a way to counter act bad press really fell off to the side and now I'm sort of actually embarrassed that that was ever even a part of it. Obviously the charity never really got much mainstream press. That first year it got a little bit but it they almost always misrepresented us, so we didn't get the sort of response that we were hoping for but it didn't matter. And it was such a great event anyway that that part of it really hasn't bothered us since, and even to this day it really isn't covered by any of the mainstream press.
NWR: But now Child's Play is an official non-profit organization and you guys have administration for it and everything right?
MK: Yeah. Right away we were an official non-profit and we set up all the paperwork and everything. But we do, you're right. We have Kristin Lindsay, she coordinates the whole charity for us, she's the one that hospitals deal with in order to get put on the list, and she organizes the wishlist and she's really sort of taken it as her main priority. She does that and she also is the volunteer coordinator for PAX.
NWR: I know that in addition to the wishlist that you guys have up on Amazon, people can donate cash, and you also have this charity auction/dinner up in Seattle. And I think a lot of Penny Arcade readers would love to go to that but we can't because we don't live anywhere near Seattle. So for those of us who can't go can you kind of give us an idea of what that event is like in person and what do you do personally to prepare for something like that where you're sort of the star.
MK: Well, for the first question, it's really a sort of an opportunity for a bunch of dorks to get together and pretend that we are not dorks. And it's fun because I'm wearing a tux, Jerry's in a tux, everyone wears suits, the girls all go out and buy fancy dresses, we go to this incredible venue and have an awesome dinner and there's hors d'oeuvres and people walking around with champagne... it's not the sort of thing that we normally do as gamers. It's not the sort of event that we normally attend. But when you're there and you know that everyone else there is just like you, it's all... I don't want to say pretend... but it's all in fun, everyone's having a good time.
Really it's just great. So you show up, there's sort of a mingling period at the beginning where you have a drink and have some hors d'oeuvres there's a silent auction with a lot of items out that you can bid on, after about an hour or so we move into the main hall and everyone sits down at a table, dinner is served, while Jerry and I MC a live auction. And that's where the things like an appearance in a comic strip or like this year we have a fully paid trip to Harmonix and a tour of the studio, copy of Rock Band, all that stuff.... that's where the big ticket items go. And then we also usually have a speaker from a children's hospital come out and start talking about what the charity actually means to a hospital which is always really nice. And that's pretty much the evening.
As far as what we do, honestly, compared to PAX, this doesn't even stress me out at all. This is something I look forward to every year. I'll spend the 3 weeks before PAX not sleeping, sweating... that still makes me nervous. But the Child's Play thing doesn't bother me at all. I can do that easy.
NWR: So that's a pretty, as you say, a really high class event, and from what I can tell it seems like it's pretty expensive to attend that, especially if you want to bid on the items. Most of the items are going to end up going for a lot of money. For everyone else who can't go to Seattle and can't afford to go to something like that it seems like there are a lot of spin-off events. We just saw the conclusion of Desert Bus for Hope which I was checking out every single day: it's really addictive just to watch those guys play the worst game ever made.
MK: That game is horrible! (laughs) And to think if you mess up, if you get pulled over you have to start over back at the beginning, you get towed back in real time!
NWR: You get towed back in real time? I didn't know that.
MK: Oh yeah, yeah you do.
NWR: That's amazing. So I just saw that that event just ended and they raised over $22,000 for Child's Play.
MK: Yeah, they played for 4 days and 12 hours.
NWR: And there's also a party that's happening in about two weeks in Denver and Brooklyn called Funde Razor that's started by Brian Crescente and Joel (Johnson), the guys from Kotaku. So what do you make of these events? Have you ever been able to attend one of them?
MK: You know, we haven't attended anything like that. We really just sort of focus on the charity dinner we put on here and we also do a Poker tournament to raise money. Obviously I'm really sort of blown away and humbled that people are taking it upon themselves to start up events in their area. I hate to use the word proud because it sounds like I'm... I'm not their dad, you know. But I am. There are times when that's the right word, when I'm really proud of the community. And I don't mean that to belittle them.
NWR: Yeah, totally. And for people who are interested in starting up a similar event to support Child's Play in their local community, do you have any random ideas for how they might do that? I mean, obviously Desert Bus is really creative...
MK: Super creative... I mean, honestly... a fund raiser is really just a get-together to play games and have a good time. A LAN party is fine, just getting together at some local LAN center to play games, that's really all you need to do. I don't think you have to be as creative as the Desert Bus guys, although it's certainly funny.
NWR: (laughs) Yeah, and pretty effective.
MK: Oh yeah, definitely.
NWR: But if you do something like that you might have to play the worst game ever made for a hundred hours. So, there are drawbacks.
MK: Yeah I don't think they knew exactly what they were getting into!
NWR: I don't think so either!
MK: You also have people who are doing their own private eBay auctions. I don't know if you saw the keyblade that's on eBay right now?
NWR: No, from Kingdom Hearts?
MK: It's a cosplay Kingdom Hearts blade that somebody handmade that's just gorgeous. There's all kinds of stuff like that. There was a girl there for a while who was doing portraits of your WoW character, she's a really talented artist. She would draw WoW character, and the donations, that money would obviously go to Child's Play. People are just coming up with all different sorts of ways to support the charity, it's really impressive.
NWR: So with all this cash being donated through various things including directly to Child's Play at the website, how is that cash used to supplement the things that are bought directly through the Amazon wishlist?
MK: A couple different ways. Usually what will happen is that at the end of the year we'll take a look and see which hospitals maybe didn't receive as much support as others, and we'll take the cash that we got and just go in and fill out that hospital's wishlist ourselves. But there's also things like last year where we sent a pretty sizable donation to Project Hope, which was a doctor who was trying to prove that kids who play videogames while they're on dialysis machines will ask for less pain medication. And he was trying to set up a network of hospitals so kids could play on Xbox Live together while they were in hospitals. So when we see a project like that that seems to be in line with the goals of Child's Play, we support that with the cash that's come in.
MK: We're super careful about it. Most of it ends up just going right back into the hospital's wishlist. But occasionally, like I said, there will be some projects that just seem like a no-brainer, like it just fits too well with what we want to do.
NWR: I don't know what the timeline is for this, but around Christmas or even after Christmas do you guys get a chance to go to at least the hospital in Seattle and check out the physical results of what you've done and what everyone else has done?
MK: Well, you know, we haven't done that since the very first year when we had to take the toys to the hospital ourselves; we weren't smart enough to figure out that it would be easier just to ship them there. So we had them in a warehouse and we actually filled an entire semi truck. We had a bunch of Penny Arcade readers show up at six in the morning, and we filled the semi truck, and we drove it over to the children's hospital. We got to unload them there, they actually had a room that was like a swimming pool room that was empty, and we filled that room with toys. And that was really the only time we actually went to the hospital.
In our heads we always sort of imagined ourselves going there and playing with the kids and seeing the play rooms and that sort of thing, but it turns out that these kids are in pretty bad shape a lot of the time and contact with outside people is strictly prohibited. You really just can't get into these areas, and it's for the kids sake, you know. You walk in there with a cold and it would just be horrible.
We don't go now but a lot of times hospitals will send us pictures. I posted a bunch of pictures last year of kids playing the DS's that they got sent and that sort of thing. That's always really fun to see. But we did get a tour of the hospital and we saw the play rooms where the kids get to play, and we saw how they're furnished, and it was neat to see our stuff filling up these play rooms.
NWR: Oh yeah. Well, speaking of the DS's last year, didn't Nintendo donate a pretty massive number of DS's for Child's Play?
MK: Yeah. I don't know the number, but we have a room here in the office that is, was, our ping pong room, and it was floor to ceiling filled with boxes of DS's. It was crazy.
NWR: That's pretty amazing. Especially considering they really need all the stock that they can get in stores this time of year, because they're going to sell out of anything that hits the store shelves.
MK: Yeah, it was ridiculously generous of them.
NWR: So, one thing that some of us were wondering is how you guys get involved with these hospitals that are literally around the world like in places like Egypt. Child's Play started with just one hospital and then it just seems they expand every year.
MK: Yeah we really rely on our reader because in order for a hospital to get on a list and get a wishlist generated for it, they have to contact us. And so we rely on our readers to find their local hospitals, tell them about Child's Play, and then we get contacted. So any hospital that you see on the list is either because someone at the hospital physically heard about Child's Play and contacted us, or more than likely a reader in that area told them about us. That's the way it seems to happen most of the time.
NWR: You're going on the fourth or fifth year of this and obviously it's working pretty spectacularly. Do you have any ideas to expand it in an unusual way in the future? I mean, do you have any ideas to really go crazy with it? One idea that one of our staff members had was maybe somehow integrating this with PAX. Do you have any ideas in that vein?
MK: Well right now, just sort of adding hospitals to the network is really our main goal. And the charity as it is right now works so well because we're really able to do it without any kind of overhead costs. Child's Play I think is one of the few charities where we don't actually take any administrative fees. Any time that we put into the charity is just donated and it works that way because a lot of it is so automated. Once the wishlists are generated people click on the toy they want and it just gets shipped right to the hospital. So, as far as expanding in any weird ways, it works now. I think we're just going to keep going and keep adding hospitals.
We're hesitant to connect Child's Play too much with Penny Arcade, just because there are certain hospitals and there have been hospitals in the past that are hesitant to work with Child's Play because of Penny Arcade. I mean obviously we're not a kid-friendly site and there's some questionable content on there. We try our best to really distance the two brands. If you go to the Child's Play site there's really no mention of Penny Arcade. There's no link, certainly, back to our site. We could do something at PAX, and we may end up doing that eventually, but we're going to be very careful about it and make sure it's the right thing to do and it doesn't alienate any of the hospitals.
NWR: I can't imagine any hospital having a problem with "Daddy two peepees."
MK: Yeah, you know, different strokes, different folks, right?
NWR: So it seems like we always hear a lot about Child's Play around the holidays. Are there any operations that go year-round. Is this what Kristin works on most of the year?
MK: Technically Child's Play is a year-round event. I mean those wishlists are live all year, and honestly people are always buying stuff. I mean it's not much, you know, but things get bought year round for the various hospitals. We only choose to focus on it and promote it between November and January just because if we tried to do it year-round I don't think it would generate the kind of support that it does when it's more focused. I think people might get tired of it. This way when it comes around every year I think it's more exciting and people get into it more. And people are just more open to giving at this time of year, for whatever reasons they have this is the time when people feel like being charitable.
NWR: So what is the number one best way for people listening to this or reading this to get involved?
MK: The best thing to do is to just go to childsplaycharity.org. Find the hospital, either one in your local area, or pick a hospital at random off the map, and you'll get their wishlist right away. The way I do it is I buy the stuff that I would want if I was a kid in that situation, so, you know, DS, Pokémon game, books... go ahead make your order and it then gets shipped right to the hospital. That's the easiest way to do it and honestly that's the best thing to do I think.
NWR: Cool. So, one last question. Because we're a Nintendo website, I had to ask this. Do you guys have any plans, or have you thought about bringing your game Penny Arcade Adventures over to WiiWare, since it's been announced for Xbox Live Arcade?
MK: It's definitely something that we're investigating. I don't think I can say anything more than that... I'll say I would love to, I would love to do it, man. I hope we can.
NWR: Cool. Okay, well thanks so much Mike.
MK: Yeah, no problem.
NWR: We really appreciate what you're doing and hopefully everybody who hears this is going to try to help out.
MK: Well honestly, it's what everybody is doing, you know?
NWR: Everybody's doing it! Get on the bandwagon!
Please visit the Child's Play website to learn more: http://www.childsplaycharity.org
Discuss this interview in our Talkback forum.
Thanks to Mike Krahulik for participating. Interview conducted by Jonathan Metts, with questions from the NWR staff and transcription by Carmine Red.