It was March 2012, and the cancer of six-year-old John Hoover had just been deemed terminal.

Various medical conditions limited John’s mobility his whole life, and his mother Carri—a longtime gamer—had the idea to introduce him to the online game Everquest II. In the game’s virtual reality, Carri bought an island for her son to explore, away from other players. Here, John could run, climb, and swim freely—activities he could never enjoy in his own body.

When John’s cancer was declared fatal, Carri took to the Everquest II message boards and posted a humble request. She asked game decorators with spare time to stop by her son’s island and add more features.

Over the next four days, more than 600 volunteer gamers came together to decorate John’s island. They created a carousel, a roller coaster, a tree house, an aquarium, a hopscotch field, a Christmas wonderland, gardens, a pirate playhouse, and more. They spent real money to upgrade their accounts and access more design techniques. And on the last day, they all gathered together and threw a virtual-reality party, complete with fireworks, candy, and music.

“I have never seen so many people just rally like that, ever,” said Carri, “It brings such a huge smile to my face. I am so overwhelmed.”

The Everquest II forums aren’t the only community with such a reputation. Gamer communities are often used as a platform to support meaningful relationships between people who have never met in person. “That is one of the truly amazing things about these sorts of online communities,” explained Eric Cleaver, Community Manager for EverQuest II, “there is such a feeling of love and connection.”

The universe of a game is a place of powerful social interaction, especially for gamers who spend hours gaming every day. Fellow players often become valued companions. In fact, a 2007 study found that nearly 40 percent of gamers “said they would discuss sensitive issues with their online gaming friends that they would not discuss with their real life friends.” The flexibility of MMORPGs like Everquest II and Word of Warcraft has even prompted gamers to design in-game weddings, sometimes as representations of real-life weddings between two lovers who met while gaming.

Unfortunately, online games aren’t always a safe haven. While anonymity can lead to powerful connection, it can also pave the way for unethical behavior. This contrast is perhaps best exemplified by the 2004 in-game funeral of a World of Warcraft gamer. The gamer’s sudden death prompted her friends to host a virtual ceremony in honor of her life. During the funeral, however, an anonymous group of players crashed the funeral and massacred all of the attendees. The event sparked an ethical debate about the role of social codes in gameplay. No official rules had been broken, but the incident made big ripples in the online community.

More often than not, though, the anonymity of game communities is used as an opportunity for unsolicited kindness, respect, and honesty. A 2006 study found that “small acts of kindness or assistance were routinely offered by virtual strangers” within World of Warcraft, the very same game that hosted the fateful funeral. The study went on to find that group activities like virtual slumber parties and conga lines “added an additional air of fun to the game.” In these instances, the goals of the game were set aside to create positive, genuine interactions.

Gamers pool their resources and energy in all kinds of ways to build a better world for real people. Games like Half the Sky and Climate Defense are designed to harness the power of games to make a real-world difference, and gaming charities such as the Humble Bundle and Child’s Play are finding that gamers are a highly generous group of people. You don’t have to look far to find someone whose life is better because of a video game.

If you know about a video-game charity or have your own heartwarming story about a gaming community, please let us know in the comments.

This article was written by

Courtney is Pixelkin's Associate Managing Editor. While working with the Girl Scouts of Northern California, she mentored young girls in teamwork, leadership, personal responsibility, and safety. Today, she spends her time studying adolescent development and using literary analysis techniques to examine video games.