Stack Up uses video games to connect veterans with each other and support their mental health

The Stack Up team and volunteers at PAX South in 2018. (Stack Up)

Sometimes amidst the ceremonies, parades and first barbecues of the summer that comprise Memorial Day, it can be easy to forget the veterans who are still alive. Many of these veterans struggle with mental health issues, and while there are lots of organizations designed to help vets, Stack Up is a little different. It helps soldiers combat their challenges with video games.

Clifford Benedict, Seattle Stack Leader

Stack Up, a non-profit founded in 2010, offers a bunch of programs — from gaming supply crates to deployed troops, to local “Stacks,” which help veterans in the area connect with resources and each other through games. Stacks are groups of volunteers who work together in a specific locality to further Stack Up’s initiative, including its suicide prevention initiative called the Stack Up Overwatch Program. This program helps veterans in the community connect with the mental health resources they need.

The first Seattle-area Stack is still relatively new, having only formed in November 2018. It’s led by Clifford Benedict, an ex-Marine who served in Iraq between 2005 and 2009. Benedict is still in the process of building out the Seattle Stack through fundraising and community outreach. He does a lot of this via his personal Twitch channel, where he plays games like Escape from Tarkov and War Thunder. After losing a few fellow Marines to suicide, Benedict decided to get involved in Stack Up to help other veterans cope with the challenges of resuming life after returning home.

“One of the most difficult transitions for me to civilian life was finding a sense of purpose. It’s like you’re disconnected from a hive mind,” Benedict said. “My best way to describe it is, ‘What do I do now?’ Becoming a Stack Lead gave me a sense of belonging, and to help people that go through the same struggles I do. We have already been through hell overseas. No reason to go through that when you’re back home.”

Benedict is not alone in looking for a new purpose upon returning home. The disconnect between active duty and everyday life leads to mental health problems for many veterans. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that more than 6,000 veterans died from suicide every year between 2008 and 2016.  Stack Up believes video games can help prevent these deaths.

The scientific data seems to line up with their vision. A study conducted last fall and published in Social Science Medicine found that gameplay helped with relieving stress and managing PTSD symptoms, as well as boosting confidence and providing different insights into their experiences. The type of gameplay didn’t seem to make a difference on a personal level. Narrative games were just as helpful as online shooters.

But it’s those online games that Stack Up believes can offer a unique way for veterans to socialize in a safe place with others who share their experiences.

Mat Bergendahl, director of suicide prevention at Stack Up (Stack Up)

“A veteran who left the military can still ‘hang out’ and play an online game with friends from their old unit or squadron,” said Mat Bergendahl, director of Stack Up’s suicide prevention program. “Video games can also open the door to having candid discussions about their wellbeing.”

Bergendahl, who lives in Olympia, Wash., served in the Air Force from 1999 to 2005. While Benedict prefers first-person shooters, Bergendahl loves immersive narrative games, reinforcing the idea that any kind of game can provide a means of escape for both veterans and non-veterans alike.

“If I were to choose one game that sticks out above all others (there are several favorites) I would have to choose The Elder Scrolls Skyrim,” Bergendahl said. “The open world, the wonderful soundtrack, and the ability to mod it makes it a great game to get lost in!”

Next up on the docket for Stack Up are two events from their Air Assault program, where they take veterans to gaming conventions, which they wouldn’t otherwise get to attend. They are taking people to both E3 in Los Angeles in June and PAX West in Seattle in August.

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