OU student builds game program for soldiers stationed overseas

By Rory McCarty

By Rory McCarty

Senior Reporter

Many people use video games as a way to relax in their spare time and relieve stress.

However, few people are more stressed out than those fighting in a war zone.

Jesse Williams is an Army specialist who was stationed in Afghanistan for a year. Currently, he’s a student at Oakland University majoring in physics and taking a minor in chemistry.

When he was deployed, he saw the soldiers’ recreation room in sad shape. He knew how much the soldiers needed a way to relax in their downtime, and knew just what would work: video games.

That was the beginning of what would become Games For Soldiers, the organization Williams founded to send video games to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Williams’ Arizona Army National Guard unit was providing security for a Navy provincial reconstruction team. The PRT was in charge of building things like schools, roads, water wells and district centers. Williams was one of the infantrymen assigned to protect the construction team. His unit’s MWR room (morale, welfare and recreation) had very little in it to allow the soldiers a chance to have fun.

“We were in a pretty remote location. We didn’t have access to the military stores, so we just had what we [brought] with us,” Williams said.

What they had with them amounted to little more than playing cards and a ping-pong table.

Some soldiers had video game consoles and games that had been sent from home. Williams’ wife sent him his Xbox.

He soon found an enthusiastic community of gamers within his unit.

“There were at least 20 of us between the Navy and the Army,” Williams said.

But with few to go around, the video games were not yet available to everyone. Williams contacted game companies to try and convince them to send free games and consoles their way.

“The response was overwhelming,” he said.

Companies like EA, Microsoft, and Popcap began sending boxes of games to the troops. Within four months, the MWR room had gone from being empty to having enough games to hold gaming tournaments in “Halo 3” and “Guitar Hero.”

“Once in a while, they’d give us a morale day. Those of us who were more into gaming would set up tournaments,” Williams said.

When he returned home, he wanted to spread the video gaming wealth around to more armed forces units so he sent more requests to gaming companies. The donations continued to come in and more companies got involved.

“My unit was pretty well set up, so I wanted to send some to different units,” he said.

Williams operates Games For Soldiers in his free time, when he’s not working full-time at IBM doing technical support or taking night classes at OU.

“I usually try to mail out boxes during my lunch break. I’ll try to contact companies on the weekends or in the evenings when I have a break from studying,” Williams said.

His wife Jen also helps him run Games For Soldiers by shipping out boxes in her free time.

Games for Soldiers has also received donations from the makers of the popular webcomic Penny Arcade, which Williams is a fan of.

“They took some games out of their own private collection and sent them over,” Williams said.

All monetary donations that Games For Soldiers receives have gone towards shipping costs, and Williams makes no money from running the organization. He is trying to get Games For Soldiers recognized as an official nonprofit organization, both so that people who donate games or money may claim tax deductions and to further legitimize his cause.

 “Right now the organization only exists because I say it exists and because people are supporting it,” Williams said.

The responses from the soldiers have been extremely positive.

“Again thank you so much for all your support. The troops and I cannot express our gratitude. Your support will never go unnoticed,” wrote Sgt. Christina Stern in an e-mail to Williams.

“The games you sent are a huge improvement,” wrote Lt. Cmdr. Alexander Harper in another e-mail.

As for his personal tastes in video games, Williams describes himself as a nondiscriminatory gamer. “I play a little bit of everything. It depends on how much time I have.”

Williams is gaining more widespread recognition through his website, gamesforsoldiers.org. From Oct. 1 until Nov. 15, Williams will be running a holiday drive for Games For Soldiers.