Zoom virtual backgrounds fundraiser

Pixel art backgrounds

Last week, I ran a small fundraiser to encourage people to part with their money and donate to a cause or organization of their choice. To sweeten the deal, I offered to create a custom pixel art illustration (formatted for use as a Zoom virtual background based on remixed art from existing retro Nintendo videogames. All they had to do was send me a receipt of their donation.

The goal was simply to encourage giving, but to meet people where they were at. As such, the suggested donation ran on a sliding scale:

  • $1+ if you lost a job
  • $20+ if you’re doing okay
  • $50+ if you’re still gainfully employed in tech/design/finance/etc.

This scale encouraged a socially responsible mindset and acted as a signal that folks who have the means to donate more should. It worked in this case, as a handful of people donated double or more than the top tier amount.

Constraining the art style to remixes of existing, retro videogames was a calculated choice. Re-using existing visual assets would drastically reduce the amount of time required to produce a custom background image, and play on my years of experience in illustrating pixel art. The constraint also kept the conversations between me and the donors relatively short. People either had games and game character in mind, or I would pick for them. And everyone understood that this wasn’t a request for original, highly-personalized art, and I’m happy to say that the process was a smooth one with every single donor.

In fact, one anonymous donor even wanted to share their background with the world. We’ve placed it below, in case anyone wants to hop on a Zoom call with a remixed Zelda II: The Adventure of Link as their backdrop:

In the end, I managed to raise over $1900 (USD), plus some handsewn face masks, from twenty donors. People from all over the world participated and donated to national organizations, local food banks, and various other non-profits. Lastly, it is probably no surprise that the most frequently requested videogames were from the Pokemon franchise, of which I fulfilled a total of four requests.


5 fun facts I discovered while running this fundraiser:

  • Other apps also support virtual backgrounds: Microsoft Teams calls theirs customized backgrounds and Cisco Webex supports it on their iOS app. Unfortunately, Google Meets doesn’t, unless you wish to run Meets on top of Zoom, as this intrepid Youtuber has done.
  • Zoom has a bad track record with its security and privacy features, though most have been resolved because its under such public scrutiny. As this Citizen Lab report about its flaws notes, “we discourage the use of Zoom at this time for use cases that require strong privacy and confidentiality… [but for] those using Zoom to keep in touch with friends, hold social events, or organize courses or lectures that they might otherwise hold in a public or semi-public venue, our findings should not necessarily be concerning.”
  • Zoom is one of the most accessible group video options. See @ChanceyFleet’s Twitter thread about this topic. (I wasn’t able to find an article or resource listing out the details unfortunately.)
  • A few people have started selling Zoom backgrounds. Zoom Studios has some abstract ones, while VirtualZoomBackgrounds.com is going for the serious office look.
  • Brands have also jumped on board, offering free backgrounds. This thread by Melanie Deziel on Twitter collects up works from Netflix, Pixar, Hinge, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and numerous others.

About the author

Jason Li is an independent designer, artist and researcher. He is a co-author of the forthcoming Hanmoji Handbook, an editor at Paradise System, and a member of Zine Coop.

Visit his personal website or email him.

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