While many games like to capture the excitement and tension of modern-military combat, very few face the realities of life beyond active duty. With post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and a higher chance of substance abuse, veterans have a lot going on when readjusting to civilian life. For the past seven years, Stack Up, a 501(c)(3) charity, has been using the power of video games to help make things a little easier for vets, and despite two years of pandemic living, it doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
Stack Up Adapted to the Pandemic
Since 2015, Stack Up has been providing aid to U.S. and allied active service members and veterans through gaming and geek culture. Its four pillars -- Supply Crates, Air Assaults, the Stacks, and the Overwatch Program -- all feed into its mission. However, during the pandemic, half of those pillars were effectively put on hold.
"Our Air Assault program and our Stacks program were heavily affected by COVID in a negative way," said Dave Crouse, Stack Up Program Director. "Our Air Assault program brings deserving veterans out to gaming events and rolls out the red carpet for them. Obviously, that got completely stopped for two years."
The Stacks program, which brings together volunteers for community-betterment projects, unfortunately slowed down as well. While they could still attend food drives and provide some COVID relief in their communities, the pandemic still limited engagement with other people.
"I'd say we all -- all people, veterans or not veteran or whatever -- we all went through that together, and I think that there was a lot of power in that too.” --Dave Crouse, Stack Up Program Director
Luckily, Stack Up’s other two programs only flourished under pandemic conditions. With a mostly unused events budget, the charity could build and send out nearly twice as many Supply Crates, which are essentially video-game care packages.
Meanwhile, its Overwatch Program became a key part of the charity’s support system. Facilitated via Discord, the server provides 24/7 crisis intervention and mental-health support, and it experienced a huge uptick in movement over the past two years.
"Objectively, we saw a noticeable increase in both veterans and civilians even looking to come speak about the anxiety and depression and you're scared and you really don't know what's coming next," Crouse said. "So we definitely saw an increase in folks coming into our communities looking for support."
However, even before the pandemic, veterans often dealt with a feeling of isolation. After spending years in the military, the sudden change to civilian life often means separating from brothers and sisters in arms. The loss of that support network, coupled with the higher risk of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, can take a huge toll on someone’s mental wellbeing.
While challenging, pre-pandemic life offered a light at the end of the tunnel: experiencing everyday life again. The journey isn’t always easy, but just having that goal can do wonders for someone's motivations. When COVID set in, however, that semblance of everyday life was taken away from everyone, including veterans.
"Unfortunately, it brought the rest of the world into the same situation," Crouse said. "What really changed in the veteran community is that there was always the hopefulness of like, 'Yeah, but if I was feeling better, I could go do those things.' And that rug got pulled out from under all of us. I'd say we all -- all people, veterans or not veteran or whatever -- we all went through that together, and I think that there was a lot of power in that too."
"A lot of it was the fact that when you're going through that sense of isolation and loneliness, you're hoping to find that way out of it." --Dave Crouse, Stack Up Program Director
That’s where the increased movement in the Discord server comes in. More and more people came looking for help, and whether it was a casual game night with some like-minded folks or just having someone listen and understand you, Stack Up’s Discord server was there to connect people.
"A lot of it was the fact that when you're going through that sense of isolation and loneliness, you're hoping to find that way out of it," Crouse said. "I think that the pandemic put a lot of additional barriers into that that was definitely affecting folks. Of course, in the midst of the pandemic, with international tensions rising, there was a lot of weight on a lot of people's shoulders all at once."
Stack Up Is All About Fun and Games
As we enter a new normal living with COVID, Stack Up is looking to shake off the cobwebs and do more of what it used to do. However, the hope is to maintain the improvements it saw with its Supply Crates and Overwatch Program while returning to in-person events. Thanks to the increased stream of donations, Crouse sounded optimistic about the charity’s ability to keep up with its new goals.
"So far, it's been really great," he said. "We get a phenomenal level of support from folks in the industry and from streamers and the Twitch community. It's really humbling because people have put a lot of trust in us to be good stewards of these donations."
"Being able to come out here in the industry and roll out the red carpet for these veterans and show them this really cool event where you've got tens of thousands of people who are passionate and nerdy about the same thing you are? That's huge." --Dave Crouse, Stack Up Program Director
Today, the team sends out roughly 12 Supply Crates a month, give or take. While it may surprise some folks, many of these crates often feature copies of modern military shooters. Call of Duty and Battlefield are often some of the most requested titles among veterans and active service members alike. However, there’s also a healthy dose of people asking for games like Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. The common thread here is competition, regardless of whether that comes from bullets or blue shells.
"Gaming is ubiquitous in the military, and a lot of times, it's that little bit of competition that drives us," Crouse said. "We enjoy that, we have fun playing the games, we also like finding out who's the best in the room. So shooters are very good at doing that, much like Super Smash Bros. or Mario Kart, although Mario Kart can be a friendship ruiner."
While the games industry has been trending toward digital for the past few years, Stack Up makes an effort to keep things physical, especially for deployed service members who could have trouble with internet access. However, for those with access to the internet, the Xbox Series S has been the go-to. With how easy they are to get nowadays, pairing one with a three-month Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription is practically a no-brainer.
Gathering all those consoles can be a delicate balance, though. Crouse recounted a story about his local Target, where the employees thought he was a scalper. The misunderstanding was cleared up, but only after he came back to the store wearing his Stack Up shirt and explaining the charity’s mission.
"Honestly, I don't even hold it against them, I get it. We all feel the same way about scalpers," he said.
Additionally, Stack Up often works with smaller developers -- and sometimes larger ones too -- to get digital codes they can distribute to various military communities through entities like United Service Organizations and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Ultimately, it’s about meeting people where they are.
"Sometimes it can be difficult because the bigger the body, especially if it's a government body, the more you have to work through the system and get paperwork done," Crouse said. "There's lots of checks and balances, but we've been very fortunate to be able to work with a wide variety of entities and just trying to get as many vets support as possible."
It’s not all about the competitive video games though. Crouse also mentioned they get many requests from people who just want to get lost in a world, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild coming to mind. The Supply Crates also branch out beyond video games, dabbling in the tabletop world with Dungeons & Dragons and board games.
Back to Business as Usual -- and Then Some
I met Crouse on the floor of PAX East, one of the first major conventions of 2022. In Boston, Stack Up flew out three veterans to enjoy the show floor, which is the usual number when it comes to its Air Assault program. It's the perfect number of people that ensures a VIP experience without bothering other people at the event.
"Being able to come out here in the industry and roll out the red carpet for these veterans and show them this really cool event where you've got tens of thousands of people who are passionate and nerdy about the same thing you are? That's huge," Crouse said.
And that’s an understatement. We all experienced the challenge of physical, social, and emotional isolation during the height of the COVID pandemic, and events like PAX feel like nourishment for the soul after years of loneliness. The same can be said for veterans who experienced that sense of isolation, regardless of worldwide lockdowns and quarantines.
Crouse told me a story about someone who hadn’t left his home in nearly four years aside from the bare necessities. When they brought him out to PAX West in 2019, they were worried it might be too much for him. In reality, the exact opposite happened: This person fell in love with the electrifying convention energy, and it changed him.
"We started seeing him at events, and it became something that -- he really broke out of his shell and started doing more stuff on his own. And I've had stories like that come up several times over the years," Crouse said. "I don't know that we'll ever stop doing PAX or San Diego [Comic Con] or any of that stuff. We want to build on that."
And that’s what’s next for Stack Up: building on their bread-and-butter convention circuits. The charity is in the process of setting up a location in the LA area, and a year and a half ago, it opened its first warehouse in Florida. These physical locations -- and possible future ones -- will act as a foundation for their communities, especially the LA location.
"That I think is what's next for us, is building up to a future where we can have physical representation all over the place," Crouse said. "That's maybe the dream; eventually there'll be a day where any veteran anywhere is never too far from a place where Stack Up can help them out and get them connected with other vets."
After seven years of helping veterans and active-duty service members, Stack Up doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon. When I asked about what’s next for the charity, Crouse enthusiastically replied, "Hopefully 70 more years, that’s what’s next."
If Stack Up seems up your alley, Crouse encouraged people to do their own research, and if it feels like a right fit, you can donate on its website. Additionally, streamers can join its Call to Arms fundraising program. And if you’re in need of support or simply want a like-minded community of gamers, you can join the Stack Up Discord server.