Tamborine Panda is the gamer tag John Donzelli created back when he was in college and the first X Box system came out. He had no idea how to go about choosing a name but wanted something “nifty” and memorable.
“My brother said, ‘pick the first two words that come into your head and put them together,’” John recalled.
And so, Tamborine Panda was born. Perhaps John was thinking of the Grateful Dead and their dancing bears, but now, 15 years later, Tamborine Panda is the name of his Facebook and Twitch pages where John streams video games for up to five hours a day to an audience of more than 8,000. And in so doing, discovered a surprising community of those touched by ovarian cancer.
Both of John’s parents worked when he was a little boy, his mom working from home. He didn’t really know what his mother did at the time, but he has distinct memories of her sitting on the sofa stuffing envelopes. His father worked odd hours, often at night, and would sleep during the day. But in the evening, his parents would unwind playing Nintendo.
Soon John began to play, too. And as he said, “I started playing Nintendo a lot more than they played Nintendo.”
John evolved from the Nintendo gaming system to the X Box in college, and then in his early 20’s, he built his own PC. He found gaming an excellent way to decompress.
“It takes away the stresses of the day,” he said.
Where many (parents, especially!) may see video games as something to be wary of or even shunned, John views gaming as a form of therapy. As John grew, so did his mother’s career. Colleen raised two boys and built a company that handled customer service calls for other businesses. When John was old enough, he worked as an agent, answering the phones and dealing with many an angry customer.
“The calls could be brutal sometimes,” he remembered. “There were times I’d get off the phone and I’d be in tears.”
Those were the times he would take a quick video game break, the same way that one might step outside to smoke a cigarette or grab a cup of coffee, and it would clear his head.
“From a mental health perspective,” John said, “videogaming, I think, is severely underappreciated.”
John will also point out the community-building aspect of the platform. “Gaming connects us across the world,” he said. “It’s really a unique experience when I’m streaming a game and someone from Australia comes in, or Japan … you know, Canada or Germany.”
And now during the pandemic, we have all seen the tremendous good that videogaming can bring to people in isolation. “We’re interactive social creatures by nature,” John said. “We have to scratch that itch sometimes.”
He notes an article from the CDC a few years ago that warned against the dangers of playing videogames. And then an article came out this past year, from the same agency, touting the mental health benefits. Of course, John will be the first one to say that as far as kids go, parents should monitor what their children are playing. But he believes that responsible habits can be nurtured.
John streams his videogame play to an audience of nearly 8,000 followers on Facebook. He’s also on Twitch. He enjoys a variety of games, his favorite being those that involve role playing and immersing himself in big, wide, open worlds. As he plays, he muses about the games and whatever else may cross his mind, while his followers engage with him and others through comments.
Over the years, he has used his platform as a way to raise money for a number of charities. It’s easy to tag an organization through his streaming channel, and viewers can donate with a click. Followers can also encourage content makers through a star system on Facebook. So, John’s followers threw around ideas and said, “How much would it take for Panda to dye his beard pink? Let’s make this happen!”
John thought about the pink connection to breast cancer. “Not that I’m about to hate on breast cancer, but it gets a lot of attention,” he said. “When it comes to ovarian cancer, you don’t see a lot of people running around with teal bands and ribbons.”
And for John, the connection to ovarian cancer is a personal one; his mom passed of the disease at the end of 2018. So while he dyed his beard pink, he also dyed his hair teal. And off the cuff, he told his followers that for the rest of the month, he was going to raise money for ovarian cancer research.
He started out with a goal of $3,000, a number he had reached several months before for a different charity. But every day that he and his audience beat that goal, he’d raise it by another $500. And then another $500. Until, by the end of the month, they raised more than $5,600.
“It’s the most I’ve ever raised as a content creator,” John said. “The most I’ve ever raised for a charity in my life.”
The personal connection to ovarian cancer was not his alone. Many people who follow him, or who jumped into his channel when word got out about his fundraising, shared their own personal connections to the disease.
“It was eye opening,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s such a nefarious reason for people to connect. But it brings me back to that whole point earlier about videogaming connecting people across the world.”
John has taken over the business his mother started and often finds himself reflecting on the life lessons she left him. “I grew up as a Catholic. You know the WWJD thing? What Would Jesus Do? I regularly ask myself WWCD?” (His mother’s name was Colleen.)
“I am the person I am today because of her,” John said about his mom, noting that he constantly channels her patience and calm, soft approach in dealing with business issues.
“She was very eloquent, and that came across in her business dealings. And it came across when she would talk to me.”
John remembers her as someone who could quietly walk into a room and command everyone’s attention, simply by touching a shoulder. “Her presence was bigger than anything she would ever say or do.”
Through his mother’s teachings, through the lessons he has learned by running the business that she started, John walks through life with a thick skin, feeling confident in the things he’s doing and saying.
“You’ve got to be ready to go out of your comfort zone, but that’s life.”
And if that means donning teal hair and talking about ovarian cancer while playing video games, John will embrace that challenge.
“If this is going to be the cause that I champion, then, hell yeah! Let’s go!”
You can follow Tamborine Panda on Twitch.