Considering how massive video-game franchises such as Call of Duty and Battlefield have become, the connection between gaming and the military is nothing new. But since 2015, Captain Stephen Machuga and his charity, Stack Up, have brought the two closer than ever before.
What began with a simple request to send an Xbox to a deployed soldier quickly grew into a full-time career and passion for the Army veteran. These days, Stack Up does everything from sending gaming-related care packages to those deployed overseas to helping disabled veterans build gaming PCs to running a Discord channel on which veterans can hang out, chat and get help whenever they need it.
“This really came naturally to me,” Machuga says. “I’d come home from school; I’d play video games. I’d come home from work; I’d play video games. I’d come back from Iraq and Kosovo and places like that; I’d play video games. It was just a part of my life, so I continued that focus with the charity.”
When Machuga gave up his career as a government counterterrorism analyst in Washington, D.C., and later moved to SoCal to be closer to the gaming world, it almost seemed as though he was living in a parallel universe. Now in his 40s, the Stack Up founder and CEO recalls that a few decades ago, his geeky passions were frowned upon by much of society—but these days, it’s hard to find a service member who didn’t grow up with a joystick in his or her hands. From both a personal and business perspective, the boom of video games (and other nerd culture) over the past five to 10 years has been an unexpected blessing for Machuga.
“As someone who grew up as a full-on Dungeons and Dragons nerd, it’s fascinating to see the thing you love become this presence in the world,” Machuga says. “The fact that it’s now a $100 billion industry and bigger than Hollywood or the music industry or sports—it’s as if I took up fly fishing, and then, in 20 years, the entire world decided there should be fly fishing everywhere. It’s very weird.”
Once the gaming industry got wind of what Machuga was doing with Stack Up, companies began offering their assistance in taking the charity to the next level. These days, the nonprofit works to not only keep active military personnel and veterans healthy and entertained, but also ensure they have a way to keep in touch and enjoy time with their military brethren after they leave the service.
“The one thing you find out when you’re in the military is what you want to do when you’re not in the military,” Machuga says. “It becomes ‘When I get out of here, I’m going to take on the world’ or ‘go back to school’ or whatever. They’re in such a hurry to get out of the military that they don’t realize what they’re leaving behind. There’s a family unit that’s there, and—love ’em or hate ’em—they become your family, and you can get disconnected from them. Gaming becomes a great way for guys to stay connected with their family there who may still be serving or deployed overseas.”
With veterans at a particularly high risk for suicide, Machuga started the Stack Up Overwatch Program (STOP), turning the popular gaming chat client Discord into a suicide-prevention network staffed by trained volunteers.
“We have a gaming clan for Stack Up, and if you get a bunch of salty vets in the same room together, it’s going to get real dark over time—like a VFW or American Legion, [with] a bunch of Korean War vets sitting around smoking and drinking, except it’s a video-game chatroom. Eventually, you’re going to have someone in there saying, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m tired. I can’t sleep.’ There are some guys with real problems that start to bubble up to the forefront. I realized that if we didn’t do something, we were going to lose one of those guys in our community. Now, we have a 24/7 suicide-prevention program not just for veterans, but for civilians as well.”
Josh Chesler used to play baseball for some pretty cool teams, but now he just writes about awesome stuff like tattoos, music, MMA and sneakers. He enjoys injuring himself by skateboarding, training for fights, and playing musical instruments in his off time.