Sweet Charity: When video games support worthy causes

Gaming can seem a selfish and isolated hobby. But the industry has a long history of raising money for charity, right up to the present day.


Famine was headline news around the world in the 1980s. But as the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia became apparent, Rod Cousens of British publisher Quicksilva resolved to do something about it. “The pictures were harrowing,” Cousens recalls. “To sit idly by was not an option. Watching Bob Geldof mobilise the music industry into action led me to believe the video game industry could be similarly galvanised.”

Thus began his work in launching the charity compilation Soft Aid for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, released in 1985. “There was widespread willingness to help,” says Cousens, “so it became a logistical process involving rights holders, software publishers, developers, platform holders, retailers, distributors, magazines, manufacturers, printers, accounting firms, etc. And in rapid time we were able to get everyone on board.”

David Rowe, known at the time for his eye-catching Ant Attack cover art, was hired to create the artwork for Soft Aid’s inlay. “David was a long-standing friend from my school days who also happened to do artwork for Quicksilva,” says Cousens. “He was very passionate about the project, wanted to help, and created the original artwork – it spoke a thousand words and was truly inspirational.”
Added to the cassette was the Band Aid charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas?, released the previous year. Recalls Cousens, “Quicksilva’s physical distribution was done by CBS Records – now Sony Music – and I asked them if they could help introduce us to Bob Geldof. They passed me on to PolyGram who reached out to him directly. I asked for his blessing, to which he swiftly replied, ‘You got it.’ ”

Rod Cousens

Rod Cousens, formerly of Quicksilva and Electric Dreams, organised the Soft Aid charity compilation.

The compilation topped the charts for 18 weeks, a record that wasn’t broken until the release of Ocean’s RoboCop tie-in three years later. “We were amazed,” says Cousens. “It touched a nerve, obviously, and people of all ages were moved by the disaster. Gamers wanted to do their bit and that came through in the sales.”

The charity work continued, with Cousens and Greg Ingham setting up a trust fund to continue fundraising at industry events. “Having started the industry charity initiative, I thought our efforts should be targeted at young, disadvantaged, and vulnerable people. Those who’d suffered as a consequence of drug abuse and were often misunderstood… The Prince’s Trust was doing great work in this area.” This resulted in Off The Hook, a second compilation of games released in 1986. It also featured striking cover art by David Rowe.

Cousens has continued to raise money for charity through the games industry. “For years, we put together multiple initiatives and we gained momentum, going as far as to form a steering committee including Greg Ingham and Paul Gardner. We targeted raising at least £1m a year for these causes, and we did that for more than 13 years. We supported charities such as epilepsy, blind people, sports charities, schools and academies, hospices, and so forth. We also helped victims of the tsunami in 2004, particularly orphans in Sri Lanka. Larry Sparks, now of Square Enix, and Mark Strachan were both very helpful.”


With its pink and yellow neon cover, the Kidsplay compilation was distinctly 1980s; released in 1987, it bundled ten games together and raised funds for the NSPCC. The following year, controversy hit another fundraiser: Codemasters’ The Race Against Time, with game design by the Oliver Twins. Tying into the Sport Aid ’88 campaign, players controlled Sudanese runner Omar Khalifa, travelling around the globe to light beacons. Gameplay was similar to the Olivers’ Dizzy, with objects needing to be used in the right place while a version of Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers played in the background. The initial cover of the Spectrum game featured a photo of athlete Jesse Owens without his estate’s approval; it was withdrawn and replaced with an image of Carl Lewis. Eventually, the game sold just 25,000 copies and missed its £1 million target.

Off The Hook

The 1986 Off The Hook compilation raised funds for The Prince’s Trust.

In the 1990s, several other charity compilations emerged, all confusingly called Help. The Amiga and DOS collections released in 1994 raised funds for the Prince’s Trust, while the 1996 compilation on PlayStation donated to children’s charities. Help was also the name of War Child’s first charity album, and that organisation eventually moved into gaming.

Comic Relief in the 1990s was symbolised by the plastic red nose, and the tomato-shaped red nose from 1993 featured in a game: Ocean Software’s Sleepwalker. Chris Walsh was the programmer on the C64 version. “We got offered the project about five months before Comic Relief,” he recalls. “The design and graphics of the [Amiga] original was done by CTA Developments. We had to make some design changes and remake the graphics.”

Sleepwalker saw Ralph the dog protect his sleepwalking owner by either triggering traps or hitting enemies. Says Walsh, “I liked the idea – I’ve seen a similar thing implemented in FPS games since. The game mechanic makes a change from just shooting everything that moves!”. Sleepwalker scored highly in magazines, and according to Walsh, the C64 version sold around 15,000–20,000 copies.

Regular Steam sales raise money for War Child Gaming.

More gaming charities and foundations were established in the 2000s. The annual Desert Bus For Hope marathon raised funds for Child’s Play. David Miller, head of gaming partnerships, explains that War Child Gaming got its start in 2006 thanks to the long-term support of Sports Interactive CEO Miles Jacobson. “The relationship between War Child and Sports Interactive is entirely down to his enduring wish to support us,” Miller says. “Sports Interactive still donates money to War Child from every copy of Football Manager sold. War Child’s unique in the work that it does: protecting and supporting children in some of the most dangerous and deprived places in the world, like Yemen and Afghanistan – and since February, we’ve been working in Ukraine and its borders with Romania and Moldova. We provide emergency relief, [mental health] support, reintegration, and safe spaces to play and learn.”

There are several annual campaigns from War Child Gaming – the most recent being Game Action, a fundraiser for the charity’s work in such conflict zones as Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Yemen, which ran in late August 2022. Next up is Day Of The Girl, a sale due to run in October. Says Miller, “This sale will feature games with a strong female protagonist or games that come from teams or studios where women are prominent. We want to celebrate the achievements of girls and women in games and raise money for our work supporting victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the Middle East and Africa. We’re actively seeking developers and publishers who would like to get involved.”

The sale coincides with International Day of the Girl Child on 11 October, sanctioned by the United Nations. Miller adds, “I must also give a shout-out here to another amazing partner, Wargaming. World of Tanks has been at the core of the Armistice campaign for several years. Like Wargaming, War Child believes that tanks belong in a game – or indeed a museum – and no longer in our society.”

The Spectrum version of The Race Against Time was designed by Philip and Andrew Oliver.

In the 2010s, the rise of streaming provided a new way to raise money for charity. Speedrunners also do their part, through Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ). And here in the UK, Games Aid became the industry’s major fundraising body. Members vote to decide which causes to donate to each year. In April 2022 alone, Games Aid raised £50,000 from events, including a comedy night and golf day


The UK has several major charities working with and for gamers. One of those is SpecialEffect, an organisation dedicated to providing video game equipment for those with disabilities, and also to making games more accessible to the less able-bodied. The charity was founded 15 years ago by its current CEO, Dr Mick Donegan, and since then, it’s worked with some of the industry’s largest companies. Explains communications officer Mark Saville, “We’ve been involved in many exciting collaborations: working with EA Sports on making games like FIFA more accessible, with Microsoft on creating the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and Logitech on the Adaptive Gaming Kit to name a few. We’ve also produced a freely available dev kit for game developers looking to improve the motor accessibility of their games for players.“

“Accessibility to gaming covers a wide range of issues,” Saville continues. “Every person’s disability is different and requires careful and ongoing assessment if the gamer’s to make the most of their abilities. Along with the accessibility options available within games themselves, our specialist therapists consider a large number of additional factors. It’s very humbling when everything comes together and we learn that our careful planning, advice, and equipment loans have helped a gaming experience to blossom. There are smiles all around here when we hear that someone we’ve supported is having the time of their lives beating their friends and family.”

Ralph can push Lee around and ‘kick’ him upwards in Sleepwalker (C64); Ocean remade the game as Eek! the Cat for SNES.

Streaming has provided a valuable means of raising funds, according to Saville, as have efforts outside gaming, including sporting events and sponsored runs. All of this helps the charity remain up to date with its equipment, which is often expensive. “We’re constantly being asked to explore the capabilities of cutting-edge technology in unique ways – eye control for example – and much of the technology involved can be expensive,” says Saville. “Demand for our help is continually rising. Every year presents big financial challenges, but we’re committed to providing lifelong support to the people we help. It’s why we’re immensely grateful to everyone who has raised funds for us.”

Gamers can get involved in fundraising too, Saville adds. “We don’t charge for any of our support, so we’re so grateful to the gaming industry and community for the imaginative ways that they’ve helped us. There’s our annual GameBlast streaming event every February that involves sponsored gaming marathons, speedruns, forfeits, and giveaways, and throughout the year, individual gamers and their communities support us through their own online and offline events. The industry’s involved in these events through sponsorship and participation, and there’s our flagship One Special Day in October [7 October 2022], where we invite the industry to pledge one day of revenue to support our work.”


A more recent charity related to mental health issues is Safe In Our World – an organisation aimed specifically at those working in the games industry. According to communications officer Rosie Taylor, the idea for the charity first emerged at a 2017 gaming event in Shanghai. Recalls Taylor, “A group of people who became our Trustees identified the need for a mental health charity to focus on gamers and those who make our games and got to work.”

Safe In Our World was officially launched on World Mental Health Day 2019, and since then, wider discussions of mental health issues have given the charity a key role in the industry. “I think we’re on our way to having a more open discussion through the medium of games regarding mental health,” Taylor says. “There is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness, and games have more power than we think to help steer the narrative from damaging stereotypes and toxicity. Because so many people play games, and mental health has grown in discussion especially since the pandemic, it’s an ideal platform to introduce awareness around potentially life-saving resources that gamers might not be aware of.”


Specially adapted controllers and switches are loaned out free of charge by SpecialEffect.

Support from the industry has come through the Level Up Mental Health campaign, says Taylor. “Level Up has been a fantastic success in the two years it’s been running, and we’ve over 100 Partners dedicated to creating more supportive workplaces for their employees’ mental health. Games companies can and do so much to support our mission in destigmatising mental health within games, simply through engaging with their audiences and approaching these topics with care and resources. It’s fundamental that we continue to work alongside companies to make tangible change within the mental health culture of the industry and make it a safer space for all.”

Streaming has raised awareness of Safe In Our World, Taylor adds (“We have an incredible community of fundraisers who use gaming to raise money for the charity”), while such events as marathons and bowling competitions have also helped raise awareness and bring in more funds. Another way to contribute is through Seven Squared, the company specialising in retro-themed T-shirts and hoodies, donating proceeds directly to Safe In Our World.
The people we spoke to for this article widely concur that gaming should get more recognition for its charity work. As David Miller puts it, “I can honestly say that this is a very kind, generous, and inclusive industry with which to be partnering.”

Get Well Gamers UK’s Stu Ower (see box) adds, “There are so many companies and communities taking part in fundraising activities that are vital. The amount of support we have seen across the Twitch streaming community is unreal, and you only need to look at events like GDQ to see the positive impact gaming can have on the world.”

Stu Ower (right) and a pile of donations to Get Well Gamers UK.

Rosie Taylor agrees. “Gaming has played an incredible part in raising money and profile for charities. The industry itself is massive and has contributed to so many incredible causes through the compassion of its player base. The power of gaming is truly amazing in raising awareness and support and I’d love to see more recognition of the positivity that has come from it.”

Let’s give the final word to Rod Cousens, who kicked things off years ago with Soft Aid. “When we supported Band Aid, the games industry was very much a minority piece, but as a percentage of funds raised, [Soft Aid] punched above its weight,” he says. “The industry also benefited from the support of platform holders. With the standing and value of the games space now, we can raise ourselves to even greater heights”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More like this