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Stephen Machuga credits video games for saving his life. In dark days as an Army Ranger captain in Iraq, Machuga escaped being harmed physically. But mentally, it was hard for him to stay focused and keep from panicking.
During his 13 months in Iraq, he narrowly escaped a suicide bombing. After that, he ordered a $5,000 Alienware gaming laptop and started playing The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. He lost himself in that game, as well as World of Warcraft, and was able to hide from the horrors of war.
In 2006, he left the military and spent a decade in Washington, D.C. as a government counter-terrorism analyst. But on the weekends, he worked for charities, and discovered Extra Life, which provides video games for sick children and has raised $56 million since 2008 (and funds 170 children’s hospitals in North America). He wanted to do something for veterans, and he helped start Operation Supply Drop. After differences with that group, he started a second charity, Los Angeles-based Stack Up, which provides video games and consoles to active military personnel and veterans.
As Memorial Day approaches, the group is gearing up to draw attention to how video games can help with mental illness and suicide prevention. I spoke with Machuga about his own background, starting his charitable work, and how others can help.
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Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me about your own background and what led you to start this organization?
Stephen Machuga: I was deployed overseas twice, and both times — gaming has always been a huge piece of my life. Whether it was as a kid growing up — I’d come back home after a hard day at school, and I’d be playing video games. In the military, I’d come back from hard training and sit back on my couch and play video games. Whenever I wasn’t working I was gaming.
Back in the day it wasn’t as prevalent as it as now, where everybody games. You’re a nerd, you’re a geek, you’re sitting in your mom’s basement, all that stuff. You still get some of that stuff. But now it’s more mainstream.
GamesBeat: What was your favorite game or platform growing up?
Machuga: I played whatever. I grew up near a rental store, so it was whatever new shiny box art was on the shelf from Nintendo, and when they started renting out game consoles like the Genesis. I had no real allegiance, like I had this one game for four years. Now it’s a different conversation, where you have games like Warcraft and League of Legends that you sink days and months of your life into.
GamesBeat: Were you into more military or shooter games?
Machuga: Surprisingly not. You’d think — growing up, again, it was whatever came down the pike, whatever had the shiny box art. Let’s try that out for the weekend.
GamesBeat: When did you go into the military?
Machuga: I graduated from college in 1998. I was commissioned into the Army as a second lieutenant. I went ROTC out of Purdue University.
GamesBeat: And you eventually reached the rank of captain?
Machuga: Yeah, with time in company. I was promoted to captain, I think, in 2003, right before I went over to Iraq.
GamesBeat: You were a Ranger at that point?
Machuga: Yeah, I had been pinned as a Ranger in the first graduating class of 2000, the new millennium. It felt like a joke. 02-00, the first graduating class of the year 2000.
GamesBeat: How would you describe all of that, that period in your life?
Machuga: I grew up as a nerd and a geek. The military was the fraternity I didn’t know I needed in my life. I didn’t have strong bonds. I was a drama geek growing up. I played video games. I was not a jock, not into sports, not into any of that stuff. And then the military got hold of me, and boy, I drank deep from the well, so to speak, of military culture. As they say in the Army, I was very hoo-ah at the time.
And then the reality sets in as the years start to stack, as you start to lose that youthful exuberance and enthusiasm. Life kicks you in the shin a couple times. Eventually I had had enough.
GamesBeat: You spent 13 months in Iraq. I guess that was plenty for you?
Machuga: Yeah, that’ll do it. The thing that — I had had a close call in June of that year. And then finding out we were going back in nine months to replace the guys who were replacing us at the time — nah. I had no desire to go back to the same spot and take over where we left off nine months later. Nope. We had already been extended over there.
GamesBeat: Did you go in at the very start of the war, or some time after that?
Machuga: Yeah, it was the second iteration. The first ground troops went over in 2002 and we went over in 2003. We still rolled across the border from Kuwait into Iraq. It was still a nerve-wracking experience. We didn’t just fly into Mosul. We had to roll across the border there.
GamesBeat: How did that shape who you are today, as far as helping you figure out what you wanted to do?
Machuga: I got lucky. Things could have been way different. I might not have made it back. I made it back okay, relatively. There are PTSD issues and other things around that. But I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I did my time. It’s kind of like climbing a mountain or running a marathon. It sucks while you’re doing it, but you always have that experience that you can fall back on. You have this thing that you’re proud of, that you did. My service was one of those things.
I interact with a lot of individuals who almost have to explain why they didn’t serve. You get the story about how they were going to join up, or they joined Junior ROTC and it just didn’t happen for them or whatnot. I’m glad I did my service and I’m glad I don’t have to have those awkward conversations with people. “I was trying to go in and I just didn’t.” But you don’t need to explain yourself. I’m glad I had that experience, being able to serve.
GamesBeat: You said video games really helped you. Do you remember any particular moments about that, games you were playing at the time?
Machuga: My big thing was — the suicide bombing that happened two days after my birthday, I ran back and got online and ordered, more or less, a $5,000 Alienware laptop and had it shipped to me. I said, “Well, why am I saving this money? Things could go bad tomorrow, so I might as well enjoy it while I’m over here.”
One of the games I ended up spending the next six months with was Morrowind. That was one of those games you can’t just play a little bit. It’s an Elder Scrolls game. It was obtuse as hell. It wasn’t nearly as user-friendly as what we have now. I decided to really invest in it, learn it, figure this game out, all the mechanics. That was the game I would come back to every night, coming back from patrol or whatever we were doing. Just randomly wandering the countryside to see what I could see.
World of Warcraft was another big one for me. I got back three weeks before the original World of Warcraft launched. I was not having a good time being back home. I was kind of struggling with the cold-water bath feeling of getting dumped back in the states after being overseas for 13 months. Just struggling, having some issues.
My big thing was trash day, on Tuesdays in Seattle, which is where I was at. On patrol, one of the things you would look out for was — it’s not like they had the sanitation department in Iraq. When people got done with trash they would just throw it on the side of the road. You’d see piles of trash everywhere, and that was generally where insurgents would hide explosive devices. When I came home, trash day would happen with piles of trash everywhere, my brain would just sweat on that. For no apparent reason. It was dumb. I knew I was home. But it was like being afraid of heights and staring over the side of a tall building. Your heart starts racing. I know I’m not gonna jump, but I have this feeling that I could.
I got home three weeks before World of Warcraft. World of Warcraft ended up being this huge time sink for me. I was using it to get away and escape from my brain that was kind of torturing me at the time. It worked as this great thing to calm me down when I was panicking. I don’t want to necessarily say I was triggered, or having panic attacks, but it was along those lines. “I’m struggling to leave the house right now. I know I need to go somewhere, but….”
It ended up working itself out over time. My brain started calming down. I wasn’t scanning the skyline for guys on rooftops or looking for wires coming out of piles of trash anymore. Things went back to normal, so to speak. But a big piece of that was World of Warcraft and being able to hide behind this game.
GamesBeat: Was it interesting that these games had almost nothing to do with the modern world, with the combat experience? You’re just going to a completely different world.
Machuga: I’m sure. Some people really dive into those kinds of games, where it’s very military, a lot of realism, your Call of Duty or Battlefield games. Those games are still some of our most requested games when we get supply crate requests. They’re some of the biggest games out there. It’s not just that they’re military shooters. It happens to be that they’re the games that the dollars are are getting put into, marketing and all that. There’s a slew of games out there where people are shooting each other in the face with assault rifles for some reason. That’s a thing that people enjoy.
GamesBeat: You were doing counterterrorism work when you got back, and you mentioned on the site that you were doing charity work on the weekends. Was that how you got back into civilian life?
Machuga: Originally I went down to D.C. to become a government contractor, and that’s where I thought my life was going to end up. Making good money and doing the post-military officer thing. But I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing. It wasn’t where I wanted to be. I was just going through the motions, so to speak. I had a job, but at the time I was also the admin in charge of a group of writers for an organization called Sarcastic Gamer, which is the crew that was behind the start of a thing called Extra Life, the charity organization that really kicked things off in the space. That’s for, obviously, sick children, supporting them.
While I was helping out there I got my first taste of video game charity. I didn’t have that connection to children, though. I didn’t have any children of my own. I don’t have the love for kids that a lot of people do. I just felt like I didn’t have a connection there. About that time, in 2009, one of my guys who was with me in Iraq re-enlisted, and was immediately sent back over to Afghanistan. He reached out to me and said, “Hey, can you get us an Xbox or something? We have nothing to do over here. We’re in a new location. You have connections to the game industry. Can you see what you can do?”
I reached out, started asking on my own, and sure enough — it was Dan Amrich, over at Activision at the time, when he was still in his sports phase, he said, “Yeah, we’ve got all kinds of stuff.” Suddenly a pallet worth of donations showed up. It was something — to know that developers and studios just have this stuff laying around in closets, okay, there’s something here. Let’s dig a little bit.
We ended up sending over a bunch of DJ Hero, Guitar Hero bundles, Xboxes, all kinds of stuff. Of course we got back these great pictures of guys in DJ Hero competitions using briefing projectors to put the game up on the side of conex shipping boxes. It was nice. Word got out over there that there’s some crazy guy back home who’s sending all this stuff. All you had to do was reach out to him and see if he could hook you up.
It turned to this cyclical loop of people sending requests. I had more than enough demand to go around for a while. It started there. Hey, wait a minute, we have a thing here. So I started pushing. What if we could do something like Extra Life for troops? To this day I’m surprised that nobody else has really tried to emulate it at all. I would think there’d be half a dozen charities popping up around me trying to do what we’re doing. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. But it’s been good for us, obviously.
GamesBeat: By 2015 that morphed into your own charity. Did anything directly precede that?
Machuga: There had been another charity prior called Operation Supply Drop. That was my original charity. I was removed from my position at Operation Supply Drop on the five-year anniversary of its founding, ironically. But it all worked out. It was one of those things that — at the time that was devastating, putting five years into the organization, the branding, all the work we had done. But it worked out for the best.
GamesBeat: Stack Up began in 2015, then?
Machuga: Yeah, in November 2015. We launched on Veterans Day. We’re going into year four now.