Video Gaming and Veterans: Fostering Community, Improving Mental Health

with Stephen Machuga of Stack Up

According to a RAND study, approximately 18% of U.S. military personnel who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq live with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

Stephen Machuga, Founder and CEO of Stack Up, explains how video games can be used to improve mental health and well-being.

Posted on:

Nov 04, 2019

Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: 60% of Americans play video games every day. And while some behavioral experts have raised concerns about gaming addictions and disorders, video gaming is being embraced by the military and veteran community as a tactic to ease the transition to civilian life. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Joining me to talk about the benefits of gaming for veterans is Stephen Machuga. He is the founder and the C.E.O. of an organization called Stack Up. Stephen, thank you for being here.

Machuga: Thanks for having me on, Tetiana.

Anderson: So this program is pretty large. You work internationally.Tell us how it works, what you're sending, and who you're sending these gaming consoles to.

Machuga: Well, one of our programs is called a Supply Crates program, where we send boxes of games and gear to units deployed forward, individuals recovering at military hospitals, or even folks back home who have transitioned out of the military and see gaming as a luxury for them that they can't afford. We want to make sure we're keeping them in that mix and keeping them in the community. And so we send these boxes overseas, usually about $1,000 worth of games and gear, a console, a headset, controller and a bunch of games and whatever swag we can get our hands on to. Anderson: So it's not just this sending of the crate that you're doing. You're also doing three other very important things as it relates to gaming and veterans. Give us the highlights.

Machuga: Yes. So we have our Air Assault program, where we fly disabled or deserving veterans [to various gaming events, like E3 or Comic-Con or studio tours. We have our Stacks program, where we have 30 to 40 teams nationwide that get out and do community work, getting guys out from behind their computers and interacting with the population. [And then we have our newest, and I feel almost most important program, our Overwatch program, which is our suicide awareness and prevention team online supporting veterans all hours of the night.

Anderson: So this isn't just about having fun and games. This is really about dealing with much deeper issues that veterans have. Explain how this is helping and what it's helping with. Machuga: When I first started this back in 2010, it was -- it was fun. It was about, "Oh, we're sending Xbox's to Afghanistan. That's adorable, that's cute." Over the years we found that gaming acts as a way for individuals and veterans who are either struggling with their transition period out of the service -- They find they're in such a hurry to get out of the military that they find they leave their family -- their military family behind. And a key trigger for suicide or veteran suicide is a sense of loneliness and a sense of disconnectedness. And multiplayer gaming can act as a great way to keep veterans who maybe they've left their base, they no longer had that family and it gives them an opportunity to stay connected. And it gives the civilian population a great way to get involved, too. They may not speak military, but they can talk about a raid that they're getting ready to get into with someone] who doesn't speak civilian very well. But it acts as a way to bridge that gap between those two populations. Anderson: So that's really important because I think that a lot of people think that gaming can be very isolating, that you're sitting in a dark room somewhere, you're doing something by yourself, but you're saying that's actually just the opposite. This is really a way for veterans to reintegrate.

Machuga: It absolutely can be. There's definitely times when it's great to just unplug your brain and sit at 3:00 in the morning and play games and just get away if you can't sleep or you're having trouble. You know, your pain medications are keeping you up and you have nothing to do. [And it's a great way to distract you from that. But multiplayer games and things like that is a great way to connect people who generally wouldn't interact with one another with a common shared goal and that keeps people in a community. It keeps people feeling like they're a part of something bigger than themselves such as the military. And that's, yeah, that's where we're coming from.

Anderson: And how did you even get involved in this? I mean, this was a personal mission. Yeah? Machuga: It was. I was doing charity work on the weekends and this was something -- I had a buddy of mine who was deployed overseas. And he knew I had some contacts in the games industry back in the day. He asked, "Hey, could you send us an Xbox? We're losing our minds over here. Is there anything you can do?" And so I reached out to the games industry and I had -- My contacts went above and beyond. And once you send one Xbox to one guy, people start figuring out like, "Oh, hey, we can get an Xbox. Can you send us stuff, too?" And it turned into this loop where now -- And here we are 10 years later.

Anderson: Given the community that you're dealing with, veterans and active service members, do you give consideration to the kind of games that you send?

Machuga: You would think, but some of our most popular games are -- And that's the most popular games out there right now, all involve military-age males and females shooting each other with assault rifles. You have your "Fortnight," you have "Modern Warfare," you have "Battlefield." You have a lot of those games and those are some of our most requested games. And it's always been this weird anachronism of how does this work, but it's -- They're also the most marketed games as well, and they're very well put together, so it's kind of like summer blockbuster, popcorn games for folks.

Anderson: And the important thing is that it is working. Stephen Machuga, thank you so much for joining us.

Machuga: Thank you, Tetiana.

Anderson: And thanks to you for joining us as well. [For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit] I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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