Gaming for charity: How AusSpeedRuns raised $100,000 for cancer research

- May 24, 2024 4 MIN READ
Prepping for the run at DreamHack 2024.

Welcome to our new regular column from gamer Harrison Polites on what’s happening in gaming. Each week he’ll look at issues in the sector and dive into games he’s been playing. He kicks off with a fascinating look at the Australian Speedrunning community, which has more than $100,000 in the past three years for cancer research.

He’s an hour past beating Misty, the second Pokemon gym leader, but speedrunner werster announces to the crowd at Dreamhack that he’s mere minutes away from beating the game.

Typically, a playthrough of Pokemon Fire Red can take about 30 hours to complete. While formidable, Misty is far from the final boss. But in front of a live audience, werster is aiming to clear it in just over 90 minutes using every cheat or glitch available to his advantage.

Meanwhile, donations are rolling in: $5, $10. Some come attached with jabs at werster, read out by the host of the event. Earlier, the name of the character, rival, and starting Pokemon—picked by the player at the start of the game—were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

After an hour of watching him meticulously and impressively navigate all aspects of the game, explaining it as he goes, the run comes together.

werster enters a double battle, deftly winning in as few turns — and button presses — as possible. He neatly hands out mail items to his Pokemon, renames some Pokemon storage boxes to what appears to be a random sequence of characters and letters—faltering slightly as he recalls one of the codes. Then, out of nowhere, the game launches into its ending phase.

Credits roll. The audience applauds. It is done.

This kind of event is now a staple at most video game expos and gatherings. In Australia, that’s due to the work of AusSpeedRuns, a group that runs speedrunning events with the aim of generating donations for charity.

Since starting to fundraise in 2016, it has gone on to raise over $160,000 for charities including Beyond Blue, Child’s Play, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The lion’s share, $100,000, was raised within the past three years and has gone towards the Game On Cancer initiative, which launched in 2021.

AusSpeedRuns spun out of a panel at AVCon 2014—a comic and video game event in Adelaide—says Stephen Philp, Director of AusSpeedRuns, who is also a speedrunner.

“The following year was the inaugural Australian Speedrunning Marathon (ASM), which brought together runners from around the country to show off their games over two days. At ASM 2016, we started raising money for Beyond Blue, and have continued raising money for charity at all our events since.”

While it’s not drawing the same level of crowds as some eSports events, the audience for speedrunning is steadily growing among those who appreciate skilled demonstrations of gaming. “There’s a lot of variety in speedruns,” Philp explains.

“For some games, the speedrun will be very movement-heavy; you get to see the runner fly across the map faster than you could have ever imagined playing casually. Others might be heavier on glitches, letting you get out of bounds to skip sections of the game, or even breaking the game entirely.”

“Others might be more centered around skilled menuing and mashing. It’s really impressive watching all the different ways games can be beaten quickly, and the variety means that there’s something for everyone to enjoy.”

Speedrunning for charity has a relatively short history within the gaming community. One of the best-known entities, Games Done Quick, only formally established itself in 2010. It has managed to raise over $46 million over 14 years, drawing from a much larger base audience by virtue of being based in the US.

Philp says the link between charity and speedrunning makes sense given “the sense of community amongst speedrunners.”

“Within the communities for each game, we’re all working together to optimise and drive down each record. I think this ability to unite around a common cause translates well to a charity fundraiser. We all want to work together to raise money for a good cause,” he says.

It’s not just speedrunners gaining momentum; AusSpeedRuns itself is on a roll.

Aside from raising the most it ever has in its history in the past three years, it is getting creative as to how it promotes its events for mainstream appeal.

Last year, the group held a State of Origin-based event, competing for the fastest clear time in Sonic Origins Plus. Its next major event, ASM2024, which will host 130 hours of back-to-back speedruns, is being held in July.

As for those looking to get into watching speedruns, one of Philp’s favorites is another werster run from the major Melbourne expo PAX2023, attempting to beat Sonic Origins Plus in under 25 minutes—it usually takes up to 13 hours.

“It’s a perfect demonstration of the fun and chaos that can come from a live marathon.”

What I’m Playing: Animal Well

To the trained eye, this screenshot is proof that I did beat the game.

Coincidentally, I just finished playing a game that will likely become fodder for speedrunners.

The internet more or less fell over itself for Animal Well when it first came out a few weeks back. I wasn’t impressed at first; only after finishing it am I starting to see why.

This Metroidvania-style platformer harks back to an era before games got accessible (read: easier). Animal Well offers no context, no help, and no mercy as you explore its labyrinthine map looking for power-ups and clues on what to actually do. A nod to its retro but well-drawn 1980s graphics, it’s a game that genuinely feels like it needs an instruction manual.

As such, it’s not the easiest hang for the first few hours. But push past this, and it’s an incredibly rewarding experience that offers a genuine challenge not seen in a lot of titles.

It’s difficult enough to make players feel smart, but not to the extent of being grossly unfair or mean. Then, credits roll, and you see that unlike most games these days, whose casts often span into the hundreds, Animal Well is primarily made by one person, Billy Basso, with a small team for marketing and testing. And the game keeps going for those who are keen.

The true ending is hidden behind a collect-a-thon that presents a genuine challenge for players. (I stopped at the credits.) If you give Animal Well a go, I’d suggest pacing it out. It’s easy to get tilted being stuck on puzzles or obstacles that feel unfair at first, but they do add to the overall experience and sense of achievement.

Worth trying if you like: Metroid Dread, Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, ruthless level design on Super Mario Maker 2.

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Microsoft Windows