Interview: Stack Up CEO Stephen Machuga at PAX East OnlineJul 25, 2021
PAX East Online saw the massed gamers, who’d usually descend on the BCEC in Boston for PAX East, take to Discord and Twitch, for a weekend of gaming, panels, and interviews.
I had the chance to meet with Stephen Machuga, CEO of Stack Up, to find out more about their work with veterans, how they’ve grown their audience, and how they’ve made an impact with those who need their support as well as within the gaming industry.
CONTENT NOTICE: mention of suicide.
Hello there! People in the UK possibly haven’t heard of Stack Up, but I’m sure there’ll be a lot of support for what you’re doing. For the uninitiated, what’s Stack Up’s mission?
Stack Up is a military charity supporting US and allied veterans, and people often don’t know we work internationally. We support veterans through gaming and geek culture, bringing people together through four programmes of work:
Supply Crates – We send out videogame care packages; consoles to people in combat zones and individuals struggling back home – the Xbox is usually the first thing to get sold when people are struggling for money, and that takes away their ways of relaxing, and even communicating with their friends, so we help fill that gap.
Air Assaults – All expenses paid trips to send veterans to gaming and geek culture events. PAX, comic con etc. Covid has put a hold on that one for a little while, but it’s coming back.
The Stacks – Local volunteers doing community work, to bring together veterans and civilians through a shared love of gaming. Volunteers get to develop their public speaking, teamwork, leadership and do work in their local communities in a fun and positive way.
The Stack Up Overwatch Programme – StOP – a 24/7 365 suicide prevention service via Discord, staffed by fully trained volunteers, available to veterans and civilians.
How did you come to found Stack Up?
I used to work for Sarcastic Gamer. The person who started it, started the gaming charity Extra Life. I was working with them but didn’t have the sick children affiliation; I’m not a parent and while Extra Life is a great charity, I wanted to do something different. So, I branched off and did my own thing. It all started in 2010 when a buddy who was stationed in Iraq got in touch, they were going mad with nothing to do in their downtime. I had built up some contacts in the games industry, so I reached out to and asked if they could spare some consoles or games. They responded by sending pallets and pallets of gear, so I sent it all over to Geoff in Iraq. And then you get one solider an Xbox… I started getting a bunch of emails and had plenty of gear left from the first batch and thought ‘I might be on to something here’.
It snowballed from there and we officially started as a charity in 2015.
Tell me more about the StOP team.
The Stack Up Overwatch Program. Originally this was a Discord server for veterans to get together, play games, and talk shit. When you get a half dozen people playing a game like Overwatch or League then you start get these conversations ‘I feel like shit, I’m on these meds, I’m struggling’ and we realised that if we didn’t do something we’d lose some of them.
So we threw out a ‘hey if you want to talk, we’re here’ and the response was fast and huge. It was meant to be an informal chat and it became important to have real conversations from providing consoles to people who had nothing –
After a while it got noticed and we became partnered with the Centre for Disease Control which recognises veteran suicide as a pandemic, and that really shifted what the organisation does. We have fully trained staff available 24/7
The goal is to get people away from the StOP team – that’s where they’re not doing well and having those conversations to get them to a better place. Having community game night and getting them involved in community is an effort to keep them as part of the community – a key trigger is a lack of connectedness – and being part of something reconnects people.
Almost half of our suicide prevention requests come from civilians – we don’t gatekeep, the StOP team is available to anyone who needs it.
I imagine going from the armed forces to civilian life is a bit of a culture shock, where there’s little camaraderie?
Yeah camaraderie – people go and sign up and there’s no escape, for years they talk about being ready to leave and what they’ll do, and then join the civilian sector – and they don’t care about your time in service, apart from the odd ‘thanks’ or discounted meal. Veterans struggle with being on their own. And having people who have been through similar shows that they are really not alone.
How do you reach your target audience?
Twitch is by far our biggest way of reaching people, God bless streamers, it’s been key to our success. 1000 people stream for us over the year and now we’re seeing more and more non-gaming charities eyeing Twitch up with envy.
But these are real deal gamers.
I appreciate people helping their favourite charities, but it feels a bit disingenuous using gamers as their piggyback. Using gaming as source of therapy. Meanwhile my favourite thing in the world, gaming, became a juggernaut – a hobby that people can use to support others by providing community as well as raising money.
We’ve seen that here in the UK with charities spotting an opportunity but not really understanding it and saying ‘hey kids go stream for us’ but not providing advice and support in how to do it well, or even ethically.
I was at Twitchcon one year – seeing doctors from Doctors Without Borders sat around with absolutely no idea what was going on. Things are improving but charities can’t just expect to benefit without learning what it’s all about.
You must have had some epic wins over your years running Stack Up.
The figure the CDC quotes is that 22 veterans are killing themselves every day and that’s not going down yet. They appreciated our somewhat avant garde attempts at helping veterans with what we’re doing. Getting that recognition, grant and support from the CDC was unreal and really helped us reach more people, provide more training
Matt Heafy from Trivium recently joined the Stack Up Board of Directors. We didn’t know how engaged he’d be but he’s very hands on and emailing in every morning.
A big piece of charity work is maintaining a good public face and having people believe you are a good steward for their donations. When somebody else says that you are, it has a huge impact. Tim Kennedy, the MMA fighter recently asked ‘what veterans charities are the best for working with veteran suicide? ’ on Twitter. Chris Puckett did some work with us in the past and said ‘hey these guys did some work with us, and we saw where the money was going, and they kept in contact with us…’ When I first started out, I was just asking people for donations – reaching out to Activation and EA and was petrified that people thought I was just building my own little GameStop out of my basement, so I documented everything and put pictures out constantly – that level of accountability is absolutely crucial. The Wounded Warrior Project in 2015 fell off the wagon and they’re still struggling to wash the stink off from that. When your entire C-level gets fired for misappropriation of funds, that doesn’t go away no matter how much good work you do. It’s important to take the hard right over the easy wrong – I would much rather do it right and you might not see this up front, but it is a real point of pride.
With us helping so many people it’s getting harder to track the individual stories, but I dip back into ground level and take a look and it’s breathtaking. The things we take for granted on a daily basis – the people who really need our help and saying ‘my PS2 is dying, could I get a PS4?’. A PlayStation 2 and they’re struggling to replace it. I can’t imagine missing a whole generation of gaming, when it just passing you by.
We’ve got lots of national level visibility coming up – IGN is doing a profile on Stack Up, and we’re getting an award from the American Legion for the work with veteran suicide. The accolades are coming in; after doing this for ten years we’re a success.
It’s brilliant to see all that work and effort paying off and the impact you’re having. If our readers have been inspired, how can they get involved?
They can visit Stackup.org, and fill out contact form, become a stream volunteer, volunteer locally, setup a stack, or join the discord.
You can also follow Stack Up on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.
Thanks for your time Stephen, have a great PAX East Online and maybe we’ll see you in Boston for PAX East in 2022!
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