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Building Community Through Online Gaming

By Taylor Mabrey, Content Manager

In today’s society, technology can isolate individuals, but online gaming has emerged as an unexpected way for individuals to build community with one another.

For Jonny Saldana and Zach Smith, online gaming was their way of staying connected with friends during the pandemic, and Charlotte Gaymers Network (CGN) was born. Saldana and Smith founded CGN in July 2020 after identifying a need in the LGBTQ+ community to stay connected to one another during a challenging time. 

“We had this idea to grab a few of our buddies and play online games. At the time, Call of Duty was very popular, so every day, four of us would hop on for an hour and talk about our day and things like that. Well, what was four people turned into eight, which turned into 16, and very soon, we were hosting dozens of games at one time because we all couldn’t play in the same room,” Executive Director and Co-Founder Jonny Saldana said. 

“From there, Zach and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘we’ve got something here.’ This could be something that is really special.”

Charlotte Gaymers Network is a First Year grantee in Unite Charlotte, an initiative founded in 2016 to provide unrestricted funding and capacity-building programs to local grassroots organizations.

By leveraging the power of gaming, CGN fosters unity, inclusivity and support within the LGBTQ+ community, providing a safe space for people from all walks of life to gather. CGN members enjoy board games, tabletop games, video games and social events. 

Each month, CGN hosts their signature Gaymer Gathering event at Tabbris Innovation Center. Gaymer Gathering is the largest networking event in the Carolinas for the LGBTQ+ community, boasting between 200 and 300 people each month. Gaymer Gatherings provide people access not only to gaming and networking, but there are also live performances by local artists and more.

“Gaymer Gathering has become a one-stop shop for people to find housing, find their significant other or find jobs. It’s also a place where we offer resources to our community as well,” Saldana said. 

“We’ve partnered with Avance Care, and Avance has done flu vaccine clinics at Gaymer Gatherings. So you can come to a Gaymer Gathering, play games and get your flu shot for free. We’ve done monkeypox testing, HIV testing, as well as all sorts of other things.”

Not only does CGN organize social events, but they also provide support in the community through four philanthropic efforts: Project Blue Shell, Project Horizon, Project Saturn and Project Paperclip.

Project Blue Shell is a partnership with Ridge Road Middle School, where CGN adopts 12 middle school students who are excelling academically, but are facing adversity in their home life. This initiative awards customized boxes containing a Nintendo Switch, games, essential school supplies and prepaid visa, grocery and home renovation gift cards totaling $500 to the student to support them and their family. It’s more than a gift; it’s a tool to celebrate academic achievement and support through tough times.

“What’s really cool about this is that we’ve gamified learning,” Saldana said, “So these students are all competing with one another to win this box. What we have seen in just one year is that school suspensions due to violence are down 70%, attendance school-wide has increased by 30% and standardized test scores have increased over 15%.”

Saldana also mentioned that while students are improving academically, they are embodying the Raven (Ridge Road’s school mascot) spirit and showing character growth as well.

“We are seeing the students be genuine, be authentic, be kind and they are inspiring their friends and students around them to perform at a higher level,” Saldana said.

Project Horizon is CGN’s partnership with Novant and Atrium Hospitals, where they are creating bespoke gaming rigs to donate to the hospitals’ pediatric wards. 

“We want kids who are going through a hospital stay to enjoy being a kid again. What’s really cool with that, too, is that they are able to play with other kids in the ward. They’re able to meet  friends, other kids who are dealing with similar things that they’re going through, and are able to make their own little community,” Saldana said.

Project Saturn is an eight-week STEM learning course that takes place in the summer for Title I high school students, empowering them to dive into the world of video game creation. This program covers a variety of skills — from coding to marketing, to video editing, to live streaming. The project is designed to unlock possibilities and ignite future careers in tech. 

Lastly, Project Paperclip is CGN’s effort to help bridge the digital divide for economically disadvantaged LGBTQ+ individuals here in Charlotte. Through Project Paperclip, CGN is able to give away 250 laptops, mobile hotspots and ongoing technical assistance to recipients. By providing access to these tools, CGN is opening doors to education, employment, community connection and more to LGBTQ+ individuals, allowing them the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

As a Unite Charlotte partner, CGN receives unrestricted funding as well as capacity building training to help them improve internally so they are able to expand their external efforts and increase their impact in the community.

Unite Charlotte funding has helped Saldana and the team at CGN purchase more equipment and has opened new pathways for them to get the word out about their work. 

“United Way funding has completely revitalized our organization, especially as it pertains to the programs that we are doing. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to embark on the critical life-changing projects and missions that we’ve been able to accomplish in a very short time,” Saldana said.

“Without United Way’s support, we wouldn’t be able to have had the impact that we do today.”

Saldana dreams of expansion for CGN, as he and his team have a goal of opening several more CGN chapters across the country in the next five years.

“CGN has been very, very blessed to be able to travel the country providing a lot of the events and activations that we do. From Carolina to California, we’ve been producing large scale gameroom activations, where we’re building in LGBTQ+ hospitality,” Saldana said. 

“We want individuals to understand that wherever we are, whether it’s a convention or a seminar, that LGBTQ+ people are just as normal as everyone else, and that we’re here to provide a service and be a resource for them.”

Learn more about the Unite Charlotte initiative.