Michael Mairs knows vividly the fear that comes with a cancer diagnosis, and the strength it takes to fight the disease.
Now, the University of North Texas freshman from Flower Mound is using his gaming skills to help youths in their fight against cancer.
Mairs recently competed in the St. Jude Play Live annual event. The monthlong event in May helped gamers raise funds for children’s cancer and research. It is sponsored by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
In his senior year of high school, Mairs was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. While treatable, the experience opened his eyes to children with diagnoses of other dangerous cancers that require multiple rounds of treatments.
“This is so important to make sure these kids don’t die of cancer, and that those families don’t ever have to pay a dime,” Mairs said.
Families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food. On their website it states, “because all a family should worry about is helping their child live.”
Founded in 1962 by entertainer Danny Thomas, the hospital takes about $2.8 million a day to operate.
Mairs used a platform called Twitch to live stream himself playing video games. Viewers could donate to his cause and chat with him in real time.
Dubbed “Smirky” online, his primary game of choice is Toontown, a multi-player, family-friendly game that’s earned him 13,000-plus followers.
“That’s the random name that popped into my head,” he said of his nickname.
As for Toon Town being his game choice, he said, “It’s simple and a lot of fun to play with other people, and it’s nostalgic. A lot of people remember their childhood through this game. If you remember the movie ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ this game is kind of like that.”
In his first year of competing in 2018, Mairs raised almost $1,500, enough to earn an invitation to this year’s kickoff Play Live Summit at St. Jude. It was a chance to meet some of the patients for whom he was playing.
“You look at children like those at St. Jude and you see leukemia, brain tumors, and more. It’s very eye-opening,” he said.
This year Mairs upped his game, so to speak. He did even more to get folks to participate and donate. For example, if someone wanted to see him hit himself in the face with a pie, it cost them $100.
“I pied myself a lot,” he said with a laugh.
In all, Mairs raised over $10,000. As a prize for himself, he raised enough money this year to win himself a deluxe gaming chair with the St. Jude logo on it as a prize.
“My original goal was to raise $5,000, and we crushed it,” he said. “I’ve never had my own gaming chair, so that’s pretty cool.”
“I like that Michael is using a platform that communicates to an audience of younger individuals. It’s a great way of aligning the communication platform with the audience,” said Dr. Brian Richardson, chairman of UNT’s Department of Communication Studies. “When young people hear of someone who’s using video games to raise awareness of childhood cancer research and care, they can relate to that on their level.”
Mairs recalled receiving his own diagnosis and how it will continue to be part of his life.
“What hit me is when the doctor said, ‘This probably won’t be the only skin cancer you have in your lifetime,’” he said. “Hopefully I won’t get a case of melanoma. At first I had to process it. This is a thing. It’s cancer in my body.
“I can’t ever go out in the sun the same way again. That doesn’t mean I live every day of my life in a long sleeve hoodie and jeans, but I have to always be careful.”
Mairs is a communications major with a minor in music. He wants to enter public relations and do community outreach work. He also wants to do more charity work in life, including continuing to be a part of the St. Jude project for many years.
“Especially after visiting the hospital I see myself doing this for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s quite incredible to see how gaming can be a great way to help with their mission.”