The gaming community has seen tons of charities grow over the years as the industry has gotten bigger and the community become a louder voice. Most seem to be benefit children, fight poverty, or similarly un-debatable issues—no one is going to argue that helping sick kids is a bad thing. Some are not as easy to sell, veterans apparently being one of them. Enter Stack-Up, a charity founded by hardcore gamer and United States military veteran Stephen "Shanghai Six" Machuga.
Stephen was originally the founder of Operation Supply Drop but has since moved on to a new charity, which he hopes will keep the focus on connecting veterans and service members with the gaming community. Stack-Up benefits current and former members of militaries across the globe, including NATO and ANZAC troops, and is constantly growing to service more and more members of armed forces. They do this by sending deployed troops care packages with the latest video games and consoles, and letting combat veterans experience the community at its best by escorting them as VIPs to events like PAX. Machuga started both Operation Supply Drop and Stack-Up for personal reasons after he says gaming helped him through hard times when he returned home from deployment in Iraq, and he wants to bring the same joy and relief to his fellow men and women in uniform.
TechRaptor: So tell me a little bit about yourself.
Stephen Machuga: Alright, my name is Steve Machuga, ex-army Captain between 1998 and 2006. I was the founder of Operation Supply Drop, military charity, and have since uh, left the organization, and started fresh with Stack-Up.org. It is a similarly themed video game focused military charity around supporting veterans with gaming, and we're just about getting back to our roots and getting started over again.
TR: Can you tell me a little bit about how Stack-Up works, and about the service it provides to veterans and soldiers?
Machuga: Well again, the ideas that I came up with back in 2010 to support veterans were providing video game care packages to soldiers and veterans deployed down range (by down range I mean combat zones). Also, we've expanded our mission to also cover military hospitals back home, veterans that are suffering in, y'know, in the wings, sitting around, staring at the ceiling of their room all day. And we're also helping out as far as getting onto base and helping with family support groups events such as redeployment ceremonies and y'know, Christmas parties and things like that. And that involves us primarily amplifying whatever event they have in place already. Just uh, they have a picnic or something, or in the case that's coming up, a lot of Christmas parties coming up. So that's uh, we'll go onto a base, and we'll either raffle off a console, and by raffle, we aren't charging, it's a free raffle, we aren't charging anybody anything. But uh, we're there to just help them out and give back to the troops who provide our protection and freedom.
TR: So is Stack-Up more for deployed soldiers or for veterans, or a little bit of both?
Machuga: Originally that was the intention when I first founded it. We were originally planning on doing more uh, focused on deployments forward. But then it kind of became one note. Trust me we're still providing support to veterans down range and deployed to combat zones, but then the question came well what about sailors sitting in the gulf y'know, in support of, or humanitarian mission support like hey we've got guys sitting in Ecuador doing flood relief or something like that. Just random troops deployed globally that have nothing better to do except count the days before they come home. And that's where video gaming comes in, because when I was deployed forward, video gaming was a huge source of relief and mental rest, because y'know you've done that, where you've played a good game or watched a movie, and y'know, it's a three hour movie and you don't even realize the movie's passed by. As gamers, you know the Civilization "just one more turn" rule, and next thing you know's the suns coming up, and it's like "oh what just happened", and it's that great time dilation piece, of being able to just chew through that time as seemingly quickly as possible, and take your mind off things.[caption id="attachment_62321" align="aligncenter" width="407"] Stephen Machuga during deployment.[/caption]
And uh, it's definitely something that's helped me when I got back from Iraq in 2003. I was having trouble with leaving the house on trash day. It sounds weird, but insurgents enjoy hiding explosive devices in the multiple piles of trash that are scattered across that country, along the roadways (people just roll down the windows and throw trash everywhere). And so, on trahs days I would be home and what would happen was, there are piles of trash all over the sides of the roads, and my brain would just be yelling at me like, I would have a lot of problems with that. So I would just not leave the house that day. I would just, even if I had to leave the house, I would start feeling my pulse quicken and my heart rate, y'know, anxiety level just started going through the roof. The thing that got me through it eventually, I uh, got home from Iraq three weeks before the uh, release of World of Warcraft. So, y'know, it was a 6AM I remember standing in front of a Wal-Mart, waiting for that game to release. And as soon as I got it in my grubby little hands I was lost in that game, like I was putting in 12 or 14 hours, and it was that level of...kind of, that's the thing that got me out of my mind and kind of centered me, and made me forget all my anxieties. Because then it got about, "Well I want to get back to the game as quickly as possible. Oh I gotta go out and do something". So I'd jump in the car, and drive to go get food or go run errands or whatever, y'know, and then just get back home as quickly as I could. And that was kind of the prize waiting for me when I got home. And over time it just, those anxieties just took a back seat and went away. Like they're still there, like every now and again I'll have kind of like, that surprise "Oh, I don't know why I'm thinking about that today". But it got me out of my house and got me readjusted with civilian life. And I attribute that to my time gaming. So that is what I wanted to bring when I got out of the service, I wanted to continue to helping veterans and people. And this is how I've chosen to do it.
TR: And do you think your story applies to other soldiers overseas, and our veterans and servicemembers at home?
Machuga: Absolutely, and we're seeing that more and more. Like gaming has become, like, by 2018 gaming will a $100 billion industry to be, whereas Hollywood right now a $10 billion industry. So that just shows you that, y'know, everybody is gaming and it's just a matter of time before we have a President who has played all the way through Call of Duty or if you've seen um...House of Cards, where Kevin Spacey keeps coming back and y'know he's playing Battlefield or Monument Valley or things like that. And it's just a matter of time before we have a President who's beaten Grand Theft Auto VII.
And that's the way the world is going. It's not longer this kids sitting in the basement of their mom's house with Cheetoh-stained fingers, it's professionals, and just across the board, everyone is doing it. It's no longer just, y'know, unseemly. Like when I was growing up, it was like, "Oh you do that huh", like I was still in, I grew up on Atari 2600 and the first time I saw Super Mario Bros. on 8-bit I was like "This is just like the Pizza Hut down the street! This is amazing!" So I've gone through the whole like, you're a gamer you're a nerd culture. But now that everybody's doing it, and you've got, y'know, it's no longer just nerds and geeks, it's everyone, it's just going to become more prevelant. And I cannot wait for the world to be taken over with gaming. Like, it's getting there, but there's still a stigma about it, and it makes me upset that people don't, y'know. It's still not there. But we're definitely getting there, definitely making strides. And there's just gonna be a time where, y'know, gamers are having kids now. And those kids, boy they're getting Lego games and Minecraft, as soon as they're able to walk. And y'know iPads with...it just excites me as a hardcore gamer seeing something that you love just slowly take over the planet is just, agh. It makes my heart sing.
And then knowing that guys deployed down range, that's all they wanna do. They come back home, they come back inside the wire (and that's when they come inside from patrol). And y'know they'll eat, shower, debrief, they'll, y'know put their kit away, and then it's like "We'll eat, maybe go to the gym, or just go to sleep" and there's just this level of, well y'know, there's nothing to do. So we want to make sure we're providing guys with the ability to get that relief, get that release. Y'know, couch co-op - overseas guys talking shit about playing Madden together. Those guys typically might not be talking to one another, they might not. But if the company has like a Madden tournament or something like that, that's the kind of stuff we're looking for, and that's the kind of stuff we're trying to push down there.
Just keeping morale high and keeping those guys happy to be waking up and not thinking about all the craziness that's going on back home, or this that and the other thing. And that is where this all came from.
TR: The gamers that are not service members, have they been mostly supportive of things like Stack-Up? Have they been mostly supportive of these veterans causes from your perspective?
Machuga: Oh absolutely. Again there was just a giant vacancy in the game space where nobody was taking care of veterans out there. And it's kind of a hot topic issue. Y'know we get yelled out about supporting the "American war machine", and that's, there's no getting around that. Even though we say we support NATO troops, and we support ANZAC troops, which are Australian and New Zealand troopers as well. Still, a lot of people are just like "Oh we don't know, you support the troops". We've had developers come out and say "I would rather live in a box and have my business taken away from me than support veterans". And it's like, okay, I guess. But that's why there's so many other charities out there supporting things like, like Child's Play and other organizations. They do great work, but who's gonna tell, y'know "Hey we have sick kids over here", are you gonna say no? It's a very easy pitch.
And veterans are tough, that is a hard sell for a lot of people. It's not...a lot of game developers have international communities and they do not like the idea of an American who has...started off as an American charity. Uh, it's touchy. It's a very good way too...kind of draw battle lines in your population, in your community. Because we've seen it happen a couple times where a developer will be like "This is amazing, let's get on board!" and then the international community jumps in and says "We're not helping these American pigs and grr" and then it kind of goes and peters off, support. But y'know it is what it is, and we're going to continue to stand proud, proud of our gaming heritage and proud of our military heritages, and we're gonna do what we can to keep helping out everywhere we can.
TR: And then, kind of on the other end—and you kind of talked about this a little bit—has the stigma that kind of surrounds gamers—that they're all nerds, or some of the more recent stigma about masculinity and gamers, and violence—has that been a deterrent in a charity like this or has it not really been an issue?
Machuga: No no, that's never been the problem. The biggest problem we've faced is more an international "I don't wanna help the American military" and it's like, well yes I understand what you're saying but we don't just do that. But you can say that, you say that to one person and the other ten people who don't say anything, they don't know, and they figure we're over here just waving the American flag going "Yeah, screw you!" That is not what we're trying to do here. We're trying to help everybody. If you are a servicemember around the globe, and you're working with us, that's who we're trying to support. We've had supply drops go out to female teams down range, and yeah, we are not discriminatory as far as that. We do not get a lot of grief about that.
TR: What kinds of games do you send down, because obviously you can't always have a PS4 and TV set up, so do you send kind of everything from multiple generations or do you focus on the newest stuff that's come out?
Machuga: Uh no, we definitely try to focus newer. Um, right now we're teetering between Xbox 360, y'know last gen, which I guess now we can call 360 and PS3, and current gen PS4 and Xbox One. Primarily because they're more...it's easier for someone to set up a console in the middle of the day room, versus like a PC or somebody wants an 8-bit Nintendo, like good luck finding the...y'know they don't have the cables for that. It's all HDMI now, so you have get a certain this that and the other thing. And it's very much a...y'know, that's more for one person whereas you can play a lot of couch co-op stuff. But we try to keep it mostly newer consoles, newer stuff, because that's what they requested. The guys down range, they're not generally gonna respond very...the whole reason I started the charity in the first place was because I was getting bad care packages when I was deployed. Not bad, but just not...kind of tone deaf.
Like, people back home wanted to help but they weren't really sure how to help. So they were just kind of boxing things up and sending them over, and the original foundation behind this, when I was in Iraq, my company got a crate full of third hand used Harlquin romance novels, for a company full of infantrymen. And it was like, "Okay thanks I guess?" So it was that fifth grade kind of canned food drive mentality, where people were just boxing up whatever they can find and don't want in their lives, and just sending it over to the troops and "I'm helping!". Well next thing you know you've got 26 dented cans of yam in your fifth grade canned food drive and did you really help anything at all? So when guys are asking us for Xbox Ones and Fallout 4 and stuff like that, like that's what we want to be able to provide them. And obviously it's a lot more of an expensive thing to do, but y'know, it's a fine line to cross, because everybody is getting out of 360s and PS3, and they're trading up, so we're getting a lot of those physical donations of those Xbox's and they're happy to get all that stuff. Like we've never heard anybody, no one has ever written back and been like "Blegh, this is crap". Like, everybody is usually very excited to get all this stuff. Because, again, the general level of support that they get is y'know, usually outside of cookie baskets and foot powder, so this literally is a deployment changer.
So we try to keep it as up to date, and interesting, and focused on what they want as possible.
TR: Okay, and I'm looking at your website here while we're talking. And I'm curious about the Air Assault category here. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and who that's for?
Machuga: Certainly. The idea is that um, we are sending deserving veterans, whether combat or other reason...what we've been doing in the past is sending combat disabled veterans to events, like PAX, or E3, or RTX and things like that. And we're doing more of the same there. It's more about sending guys to events, kind of these life changing experiences, because I know...I'm presuming you've been to PAX before and things like that. But the first time I stepped foot on the floor of PAX Prime in Seattle, was my first ever gaming conventions, and it was kinda like "I didn't even know this was a thing. There are all these...80,000 people here, they're all gamers, they're all talking the same language that I do!" It was amazing, it was the first "Oh my god I'm not alone" kind of mentality. And gaming has changed even since then, because back then I was very much a "World of Warcraft", things like that, community oriented. But being able to come together and see all these people with the same just fanatic love of gaming, it was life changing for me. A lot of these guys don't even know this stuff exists out there. So to be able to go "Hey we're gonna send you to this amazing Disneyland experience, and show you that there's all this stuff going on in the game space". Like, everybody we've brought on these events, it just kind of changes their lives. They're literally like, "How can I get involved in this, I love this, can I work in the games industry, can I do this?" I'm like "yeah". Games industry folks, they want to hire veterans. They like working with veterans. Veterans are generally very responsible, can take orders and direction well, they like working with veterans. So we can definitely figure out how we can get you into this game space. It's...it's so much fun. Like being able to share that first experience with these guys, it's amazing. I love it.
TR: A little bit more personal ... I assume you get to talk to some guys and you get to personally meet with some of the veterans and service members that benefit from this. What's the best feedback you've ever heard or the most touching moment you've been through doing stuff like that?
Machuga: Yeah, it's not even a certain moment. It's just the idea that, it's that buildup the day before when my team and I get to the event and we're getting ready, and we pick them up from the airport, and we just get that vibe like they're excited to be there and we're like "Just wait. It's gonna be amazing. You're gonna love this". And then, they step on the floor for the first time, and they just see that floor open up and there's just games after games, and people in cosplay running around, and watching that kind of "Oh my god". You try to explain it to them and you just don't know until you're there. And then over the course of that event, having them be able to, y'know we go and we set up appointments with the developers and having them be able to skip these two and three hour lines and go "No you're special, you're important, you did this, you served your country, we want to reward you. Check this game out. You're a big gamer, you like gaming. Watch this". And we get them at the front of the line, and they get VIP treatment, and they go to all the parties.[caption id="attachment_62322" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Deployed troops enjoying their loot.[/caption]
And it's such...I am excited for them, and that in turn is the thing that I...because you just don't know until you're there. And it's just so exciting. It is just so much fun watching, to be able to show these guys who may not even know what PAX is - a lot of the time, we go "Hey we're gonna fly you out to Seattle, there's a thing" and they go "What's this Penny Arcade thing" and I'm "Oh here we go, you're gonna love this. Oh lemme tell you brother it's gonna be great". So, and that's usually how it goes, every time we do it. And then the guys that we bring on, military folks have a tendency to do this too, where generally they feel like they haven't done enough.
Like, I know personally I feel I came home in one piece outside of some of the PTSD issues that I have, but I came home, I'm fine. I am a functioning member, I didn't lose any limbs, I'm fine, so I feel guilty, because these guys that we're escorting around usually have missing limbs or have real issues and things like that. I feel guilty. And you talk to those guys and they're like "Well I still have one arm". And it's like "Jesus, really?" Like, okay I guess. They feel guilty because they're still alive, and they lost buddies, or y'know. So to be able to talk, hearing their stories in that kind of humble kind of professionalism where they're just like "I'm okay really, there are people who have it worse than I do". And it's...I don't know how people have it worse, but if that's how you survive with this thing, that's amazing. I don't think I could do it. I honestly...I guess you just have to in order to survive. Watching these guys in action is just...it's inspiring. 100%.
And then being able to afford them this opportunity, they are so appreciative of being able to live this little fantasy world for the weekend and then they come back home, and we're able to interact with them with some of our team leads, we link up with them on Twitter, we reach out to them on social media, we bring them into the conversation. Now there's an entire group of folks that are talking to one another, and we kind of like...we help incorporate them into our family. So they're not...we don't just ship them back to wherever they're from and be like "Well hope you had a good time, see you around". Now they have someone to play League of Legends with or now they have someone to go on a Destiny raid with.
TR: Is that a big part of it—the followup and making sure you have that support network and community there?
Machuga: Yes, it's definitely a learned process. Originally we were just doing that, just "Well hope you had a good time" and we would neglect to follow up with that. But now, we're definitely in a spot where it's like "Hey wait a minute" and I'm still in contact with everybody we're done a supply drop...or air assault for. But every one of those that we've done with them, it very much is, I'm in touch with all those folks and we regularly interact and they're still dyed in the wool gamers, and they love what they do. And now we're able to bring them into the fold, and have them interact with our community, and y'know they're family now.
TR: So just to finish up, does Stack-Up have any events or anything in particular planned that gamers or our readers could possibly help with?
Machuga: We're gonna be...our first major presence is going to be PAX South. We're not sure what they looks like right now, but we're gonna go for it, and we'll see what they looks like in a couple weeks. But that's end of January, and it's gonna be our first major event as an organization. So we're certainly looking forward to seeing how this works out. We've had a lot of people reach out to us and ask how they can support, and y'know if you're coming out there certainly say hey and we'll talk about how we can get you involved if you want to do some volunteer work. Our volunteers are all about having fun and making sure that you're enjoying...there already isn't enough time in the day, I don't know about you, but I'm not getting nearly the amount...my stack of shame back log is getting ridiculous. So the people who are volunteering for us we want to make sure they're having fun while they're doing so. So generally speaking we're doing gamer nights and getting our volunteers together and having fun doing that, and y'know once in a while they'll go out and we'll have them volunteer for a local veterans organization, to continue to give back on a local level as well.
TR: Well, keep up the good work. It sounds amazing what you're doing. Thank you so much for talking to us!
If you're interested in volunteering or donating to Stack-Up, you can reach out to them through their webpage here. You can find Stephen Machuga on Twitter at @ShanghaiSix. You can still donate to Stack-Up's launch campaign, #NoMoreSocks, at this link here.