Beating games for charity

Meet the gamers speedrunning for a good cause - and smashing a few world records along the way.

Red Bull
© Red Bull

A windowless conference room in a hotel next to DC’s Dulles airport. Scores of gamers are crowded inside watching two men play GoldenEye, tearing through the single player mode, dividing moving and shooting duties between two trident controllers.

It looks like any ordinary convention, packed to the proverbial rafters with fans eager to meet like-minded souls, except this is one meetup with a twist: everyone playing is doing so for a good cause. And everyone watching, inside the room and around the world online, is paying for the chance to see a world record broken.

Today they’re in luck. Speedrunners RWhiteGoose and BassBoost clear the Nintendo 64 classic, breaking the record for a co-op run on Agent mode with a time of 24:01, just minutes off the single player record. The crowd goes wild - so do the fans watching online - and the donations come flooding in.

Welcome to Awesome Games Done Quick, the event that’s all about completing your favourite games as quickly as possible - and doing it for a good cause. Set up by Speed Demos Archive [http://speeddemosarchive.com/], the online repository for gaming world records, this January’s week long event at the Crown Plaza on the outskirts of Washington pulled in a record number of attendees - over 400.

“The amount of participation was absolutely staggering compared to previous years,” PJ DiCesare, a speedrunner from Rochester, NY who ran several Nintendo classics at the event, including ActRaiser 2 and Rad Raygun, tells Red Bull.

All told, the world’s fastest gamers raised a staggering sum for the Prevent Cancer Foundation: more than $700,000. Not bad for the opportunity of playing classic video games all day long.

The event is simply an extension of a gaming cult: the speedrun. Sites like SDA act as a hub and record book for fans who try to complete games in the fastest time possible, making use of muscle memory, glitches in games and hundreds of hours of practice to turn 8-bit sprites into Usain Bolt. The best speedrunners - Mario 64 legends like Mike ‘Siglemic’ Sigler, and Cosmo Wright, a gamer able to complete Ocarina Of Time in little over 19 minutes - already pull in hordes of spectators online for their record breaking attempts, so why not ask them to donate to charity while they’re at it?

“The original idea came from other charity marathons back in 2009,” AGDQ marathon co-ordinator Mike Uyama tells Red Bull. “One of our main influences was The Speed Gamers [thespeedgamers.com] who did online charity marathons based on game series such as Mario and Zelda. We watched one of their events and thought we could do better and held our first charity marathon, Classic Games Done Quick, in January 2010. Afterward we realized it's a lot harder holding one of these events than we thought, but at the same time it turned out it was a lot of fun.”

Hard is the right word. The infrastructure for live streaming video of vintage consoles built before the web browser is more than a little intimidating: getting set up for the event was almost as much of a feat as a speedrunning record itself. “I built a computer for the purpose of streaming this event, an i7 4770k processor with 16GB of 1866 MHz DDR3 RAM crammed with five capture cards. Setting up the stream itself wasn't complicated, what was complicated was getting various PC games and setups such as the Super Metroid 4-way race to work. However, in the case of the Super Metroid four-way race, it was definitely worth getting it to work!”

© Nintendo

And then there were the cameras. “There were television studio-quality cameras lent to us by Gamespot set up to capture the audience and runners in high quality,” says Russell Wright, a six-time GDQ veteran. “We had an array of professional recording equipment to capture commentary and the audience in good balance. A projector was set up in the main marathon room with hundreds of chairs to accommodate a live audience comfortably. The stream was managed with several dedicated PCs, with professional artwork used for overlays, custom software to manage the layout and track hundreds of concurrent donations, as well as HD video splitters and recording devices to simultaneously output video to TVs, the projector, the stream, and digital video recorders to capture the video for high-quality download later.”

It paid off though - audience levels destroyed previous years. Even graveyard shift oddities like Jazz Jackrabbit drew donations: in the middle of the night, viewing figures rivalled peak figures from previous years. “Our viewer peak was around 110,000 viewers, and we had 18,393 donors and 28,090 donations,” Uyama reveals.

“The most amazing thing about this is that everything is volunteer-driven, from the equipment itself to the coordination and management of everything during the entire live broadcast,” Wright adds.

And in between making sure everything stayed online, the volunteers actually had to play the games everyone came to watch. Over the course of a week, speedruns of everything from Diddy Kong Racing to Portal pulled in the punters keen to see what they were capable of in front of a live studio audience.

Awesome Games Done Quick
Awesome Games Done Quick© SDA

You see, speedrunning doesn’t just require talent and reflexes, but patience. A single slip up can cost you an entire run - miss a move by one frame and you’ve wasted hours. It takes a certain kind of passion to treat these failed attempts as practice, to be willing to hold out for when everything finally clicks. Only one run in many will be pixel perfect, but you’ve got to have the dedication to keep on playing until you manage it - and hope you recorded it for posterity.

Speedrunning live in front of hundreds (and hundreds of thousands online), in other words, adds another level of pressure. You’ve only got one shot to pull it off - there’s no Reset button to smack in frustration when you miss a jump by a split second and slam into a wall.

“Running at a game at AGDQ is definitely challenging,” says DiCesare. “It's a very high-pressure situation because you need to not only speed run your game competently on the first try, but you also need to make that run accessible and entertaining for people who might not necessarily know about speed running or about the game you're running.”

“In the end though, I like to think that I'm just playing my game for a group of friends. Over the course of the week, many of us become good friends even if we hadn't known each other beforehand. Playing a game with a room full of people who are there to support your run and the event as a whole makes things a lot easier. I think that is more or less what makes attending this event so powerful: we all have common interests and a common goal, and we're all genuinely pushing for each other to succeed.”

Wright agrees - the thrill outweighs the pressure, no question. “Playing my favorite games in front of a huge live audience is one of the most exciting things I have ever done. Even at Summer Games Done Quick 2011, where the average concurrent viewer count during my run was around 4,000, was an adrenaline rush. Three years later at AGDQ 2014, having an average viewer count of 70,000 with cameras and lights pointed at you and a room full of eager spectators, it was more exciting than ever. In the hours before the run is scheduled, your nerves set in as you anxiously await to step in front of thousands of people to play your best. Once you finally get in there and make it a few minutes into the run, it becomes much more comfortable.”

Awesome Games Done Quick: Halo 2
Awesome Games Done Quick: Halo 2© Bungie/Microsoft

The speedrunners were up to the challenge. Over the course of the event, four records were set including Minecraft, Metroid: Zero Mission and GoldenEye. Uyama, who is now full time on the initiative, hopes to see even more broken at the next event, Summer Games Done Quick, scheduled for June 22-28. “My day job is now running Awesome Games DoneQuick because it takes up fair deal of my time, and on the side I've been trying to think of other online fundraisers outside of streaming video games. We're still deciding what the beneficiary charity is, but we're getting pretty close to a decision”

Even if you can’t complete World 1-1 in Super Mario Bros without wasting a few lives, be sure to tune in - or have a go yourself and get involved. Gaming for a good cause is the best type of buzz, says Wright.

“For me, the run itself is always a blur - it's over before I can even catch my breath, and I struggle to remember how well I even performed. Then, your final time gets shouted out, and the audience erupts into applause. It's definitely one of the best feelings in the world.”

Time to get training.

You can donate to Awesome Games Done Quick here.