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A new wave of diabetes awareness and fundraising continues to grow as national diabetes organizations and companies tap into the video game and livestreaming industries as a way to reach more people and make diabetes more visible.

ICYMI: The JDRF started a new initiative in November 2019 called Game2Give, signing on with video livestreaming service Twitch and digital gaming storefront Humble Bundle. It’s grown from there, raising $2 million for the cause with other partners and even having diabetes industry companies getting in on the gaming action.

At the start of 2022, Insulet Corp. based in Massachusetts — which had coincidentally just days earlier received regulatory clearance for its latest Omnipod 5 tubeless insulin pump system — announced it had created a diabetes-themed aspect within the popular Nintendo video game Animal Crossing, offering players a whole special island where diabetes is represented.

How cool is that?! In a time when diabetes is so often misrepresented in society and culture, having visibility like this in fun ways online is even more powerful for our Diabetes Community.

Alongside the JDRF initiative, the latest development is Insulet’s new gaming area within Animal Crossing: New Horizons for Nintendo Switch.

The promotional materials explain that you can: “Play with diabetes alert dogs, visit fruit and smoothie stalls (complete with carb counts!), take part in a scavenger hunt, perform in a concert, discover a hidden lounge, and visit booths for groups like Beyond Type 1, Children with Diabetes, and Kyler Cares.” And how fun to swim in the so-called “A1 Sea,” cleverly named as a play-on the three-month blood sugar average test known as A1C.

Players can download design codes to get custom outfits that include having their character wear an insulin pump or carry a diabetes supply accessory bag. You can also visit a place called Omnipod Bay, a diabetes-themed island within Animal Crossing where players can go on adventures, find surprises and experiences, and even promote diabetes advocacy organizations such as JDRF, Beyond Type 1, Children with Diabetes, and Kyler Cares Foundation.

Character wearing an Omnipod insulin pump in Animal Crossing: New Horizons game

Watch this 44-second promo video for Omnipod Bay to get a taste of it all.

In announcing Omnipod Bay, Insulet pointed to a recent survey it commissioned from diabetes market research company Thrivable, which happens to be founded by Diabetes Daily founder David Edelman. In the survey, 94 percent of respondents with type 1 diabetes (T1D) said it’s important to see people with diabetes represented in pop culture and society. Yet in the past year, 51 percent of those respondents said they rarely or never saw diabetes represented.

“Representation of people with diabetes is important to us, so we looked for an opportunity to make diabetes part of everyday culture,” Insulet Chief Marketing Officer Lei Mercado said in a news release. “We worked closely with the diabetes community, leading advocacy groups, and gamers to see how we could educate others. Our hope is that the Animal Crossing integration will help people with diabetes feel more included, connected, and seen in a fun and engaging way.”

This sentiment is of course what ignited the JDRF gaming and livestreaming initiative from the outset.

According to JRDF, the video game community at large has donated $1 billion (and growing) to various charitable causes over time, and that’s what encouraged them to launch the diabetes-specific Game2Give initiative. It aims “to capitalize on this fundraising potential by bringing together all types of people with T1D who work and play with video games — including game developers, professional streamers, and gamers — and mobilizing this community to raise money and awareness for diabetes research.”

The effort has been spearheaded by the innovation-minded JDRF Greater Bay Area Chapter, whose members took note of emerging video games in which players show off their diabetes devices and talk T1D, along with a new generation of musicians weaving diabetes awareness, peer support, and even fundraising into their work.

“We think this could be a massive new way to bring philanthropy forward, not only to JDRF and diabetes but other nonprofits,” said D-Mom Karen Jordan, who helped launch this initiative and received a national diabetes award for her work. “This ties in with burgeoning gaming efforts, those gamers and streamers, who are creating a T1D community in a new way on different platforms.”

Echoing that sentiment is California D-Dad Dan Connors, a video game industry pioneer and one of the founders of the JDRF initiative. His 13-year-old son was diagnosed almost a decade ago.

“There are a lot of people in the game industry who’ve been touched by type 1 diabetes, whether it’s developers or business people,” Connors told DiabetesMine. “If we could just get out there to talk and connect with those people, the opportunities would open up.”

When this initiative began, Connors served as volunteer “video game liaison” with the JDRF Bay Area Chapter. But those in the gaming world may recognize him as an industry pioneer. Connors worked at LucasArts back in the early ’90s before co-founding Telltale Games in 2004 and serving as CEO off-and-on until late 2018.

He observed the gaming industry participate in charitable causes and events through the years and saw an opportunity for JDRF to jump in. At one point, he raised $180,000 from a percentage of Telltale Games profits being donated to the org.

The latest efforts materialized after a small group in the gaming universe met and crafted a message to their peers. Soon, lots of other diabetes dads and those living with T1D themselves started signing on. In March 2019, the group hosted a local JDRF event called Gaming & Giving Together that helped widen the net of those wanting to support the effort focused on T1D.

It’s all grown from there.

JDRF eventually teamed up with streaming platform Twitch and digital content seller Humble Bundle to launch JDRF’s Game2Give initiative in November 2019. You can see that streaming event promo on YouTube here.

In just the first month, the campaign that included a weeklong fundraising drive on Twitch raised $35,000 for JDRF to support T1D research and awareness. More than 60 people signed up to stream on those platforms, with gamers doing live broadcasts as they played games or even sang or played instruments on their respective channels. All the while, they offered commentary about their own lives and experiences with T1D, and what JDRF has meant to them.

Not only did it raise money, but importantly it also created places on these digital platforms where people in the D-Community could gather to connect and share.

“We have a 21st century infrastructure here, with games and streaming… these ways that people entertain themselves now, these are taking over as how the next-generation operates in the world. So we’re building out tools and technologies to become part of the conversation within that ecosystem,” Connors said.

The JDRF told DiabetesMine in February 2022 that it had held a handful of big livestreaming fundraisers and have had a few hundred people participating in the gaming/streaming community, as well as players embracing the in-game integration of diabetes. Partners have included not only Twitch and Humble Bumble but also Roblox, World Golf Tour, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The diabetes organization is also planning for a Madden 22 e-sports tournament nationwide.

Many in the Diabetes Online Community responded positively to the Omnipod Bay development — and not just parents of children with diabetes but also adults with T1D as well.

“I loved the idea of creating an island dedicated to all things diabetes,” said Stacey Divone in New York, who’s been living with T1D for about four decades since her diagnosis at 5 years old. “The little details like A1 Sea and the carb counts at the food spots were awesome! I also loved the clothing options from some of the well-known organizations. Having my character ‘wear’ a Pod is amazing.”

Some emotional testimonies have also come from people who shared that they never knew anyone with T1D but were able to learn about the condition by finding it on a gaming platform. Others were grateful to be able to share aspects of their challenging life with diabetes in ways they’d never been able to before.

One example is a Nashville-based woman diagnosed in 2015, who goes by the name Resurrection Fern online. She’s plugged into the gaming community, but her online presence is largely focused on her work as a singer/songwriter and musician. You can often see her wearing a Dexcom CGM on her arm in the videos on her YouTube channel or when streaming her music during live broadcasts.

She creates diabetes-themed music like her (not-from-“Frozen”) song “Let It Go” made just after her diagnosis and her newest piece “HiLo” inspired by her daily T1D struggles.

Fern participated in the JDRF Game2Give initiative in November and raised upward of $5,000 with two livestreams. She was also able to share her own T1D diagnosis story, connect with peers, and help support a broader audience of those who found her by way of the campaign materials and searching “diabetes” on the Twitch platform.

“I think livestreaming channels are so powerful in the T1D community because we get to see, in real time, people who are going through what we are going through, and who understand and empathize,” Fern told DiabetesMine. “It makes you feel less alone knowing that another person is in a similar situation and is still thriving and connecting to others in a positive way in spite of T1D.”

“It’s amazing how so many of us on Twitch have found support, encouragement, and community through the platform,” she said. “The fact that the JDRFG2G campaign was even possible is proof that T1D awareness is spreading and connecting people within Twitch.”

Over the years, we’ve seen several examples of groups trying to “gamify” diabetes management itself to motivate a young crowd:

  • the Captain Novolin game on Super Nintendo in the early ’90s that was sponsored by Novo Nordisk
  • GlucoBoy that turned an actual glucose monitor into a gaming experience that integrated with a Game Boy or related Nintendo system
  • the ninja app created by pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Jennifer Dyer in Ohio years ago

of these have seen significant success, but with advancing technology and new multimedia platforms now thriving across the internet, the possibilities seem ripe.

Connors told DiabetesMine that he sees a future where game characters could have T1D themselves — such as sports games with players who are actually living with diabetes in real life. He believes that making health conditions relatable in this context could become more mainstream as more interested people get connected to each other.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the quote goes… but the opportunity is there for us,” he said. “This is a new way to fundraise and offers a whole other possibility of bringing people together.”

While this question is not a current focus of JDRF’s new effort, it certainly does come to mind. It has been explored with some limited research but remains a controversial topic over the years.

For example, a 2017 study that found people participating in an online game with diabetes management and education components actually saw improved A1Cs and overall blood sugars.

Dr. Joyce Lee at the University of Michigan, a proponent of the “health maker” movement and gamification in health, has been part of multiple efforts to involve T1D kids and young adults in their own care via gaming and design. Her results found these efforts to be empowering and help build problem-solving skills for the participants.

A few years ago, a Bay Area diabetes dad actually built a special version of Minecraft to motivate kids diagnosed with diabetes and is still evaluating the impact of that, as reported by Beyond Type 1.

But some parents worry that too much video gaming could have the opposite effect, causing kids’ blood sugar to run high from too much sitting and the stress of trying to master the game.

In one online Q&A, a parent who expressed those concerns about her 12-year-old is told by the responding certified diabetes education specialist (CDES) that the same rules apply to all kids, diabetes or not. Moderation is key, and a good rule of thumb is to limit screen time to a max of 2 hours per day.

With that being said, it’s great seeing diabetes representation within the video game universe and having that be used to benefit our community, be it raising awareness or advocacy.