If you’ve ever doubted video games can be about more than playing, just talk to children involved with Gold Star Gamers.
The goal of the new nonprofit is to help children who lost a military parent find hope and healing through competitive gaming. By all accounts, its first team tournament in August was a resounding success.
Reese Pascal, 15, of Laurel Springs, New Jersey, called the experience “absolutely amazing.”
“It was great to go there and honor my dad, and do something I love, that I am good at, and show up and bring competition,” he said. “It was one of the best nights ever.”
Keeghan Roberts, 16, of Carthage, Texas, agreed.
“There are no words I could use to tell you how extraordinary it was for me to get the opportunity to be able to honor my dad in such a way,” he said.
Gold Star Gamers, which officially launched in July, is the brainchild of Martha Laughman, of Colorado Springs, Colorado. She has two sons whose father, a veteran, died last year.
“Gaming is not just a game,” said Laughman, who works in cybersecurity workforce development. “It’s really a culture and a language that these kids communicate in. It’s deep in youth culture, and it’s also deep in military culture. A lot of people who are deployed play with kids back home.”
Laughman co-founded Gold Star Gamers with Tom McAndrew, CEO of Coalfire and a U.S. Naval Academy graduate. He’s a lifelong gamer who rediscovered gaming as a way to connect with his children while overseas.
Laughman said her youngest son, an avid gamer, had been struggling to process his father’s death. When she found out about a soldier who’d won a gaming competition, she reached out to set up a game between him and her son.
The result was incredible, she said.
“For the first time in the eight months since his dad died, I saw a moment of joy on his face,” Laughman said.
She realized that might be a way to help other children who lost a military parent. She made a post on LinkedIn that got 100,000 views, she said, which led to building a network of support ranging from gamers to firefighter associations and business executives, and eventually connecting with McAndrew.
Twelve children participated in the first Gold Star Gamers team tournament featuring the video game Rocket League at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colorado. The event took place alongside a Warrior GMR Foundation adult esports tournament, both hosted during an international rugby tournament at the sports stadium. Gold Star Gamers paid for flights, hotels and food for its young gamers and their accompanying relatives.
Video games allow children to bond organically, through their shared background and love for gaming, the participants and their families said.
Reese’s mother, Sue Pascal, called the experience “unbelievably wonderful.”
“In this day and age, the kids really connect with video gaming. It seems to be the ‘it’ thing,” she said. “The kids connected on an even deeper level than at a normal Gold Star kids’ event.”
“Whenever I play video games, it’s a way of coping and grieving a little bit, and all these kids basically did the same exact thing,” he said. “We had a better connection.”
The tournament also led the parents, mostly mothers, to get into their children’s gaming and bond with each other, Laughman said.
Tournaments are Gold Star Gamers’ flagship program. The nonprofit also offers mentorship, by pairing children with military gamers for one-on-one game time, and virtual training camps that focus on gaming strategy and IQ. Twenty young gamers attended the first camp.
The nonprofit received about $150,000 in sponsorships through August, including from headset maker Turtle Beach and the Gary Sinise Foundation, and personal funding from McAndrew and Laughman.
Gold Star Gamers participants and their families said they would love to see the nonprofit grow.
Caehlen Austin, 23, who accompanied her brother Keeghan to the tournament, said she saw firsthand how much videogames can help kids cope and blossom. She lives in Louisiana, where her husband is stationed at Fort Polk.
“I appreciate this organization so much,” she said.