The mainstream gaming press isn’t the only group that thinks gamers don’t need to be their audience. This belief appears to have spread to the leadership of a gaming charity that has raised millions of dollars… from gamers.
Today’s veterans rely increasingly on digital technology to rehabilitate themselves when they return from combat. Often suffering profound and life-altering injuries, returning soldiers who have difficulty socialising normally sometimes come to depend on video games as their primary means of reintegration.
But Operation Supply Drop, a well-respected charity established to help veterans ease back into civilian life using video games, and which provided active personnel with care packages featuring consoles and the latest games, is being torn apart. Insiders allege that this is happening at least in part thanks to negative portrayals of games and gamers in the media.
OSD is in crisis after its founder and many senior staff departed this month, citing the incumbent chief executive’s desire to refocus the charity away from video games, using money raised from gamers to fund a shift into mainstream, non-gaming activism.
Ex-Army veteran Captain Stephen Machuga, known online as Shanghai Six, started OSD on November 1, 2010. The charity claims to have raised $8 million since, but Machuga left on 1 November this year after disagreements about the direction of the organisation, and has pledged to launch a new charity called Stack-Up.Org, which will cleave to the original design and spirit of Operation Supply Drop more closely.
Sources close to Operation Supply Drop allege that its chief executive, Glenn Banton, is manoeuvering the charity away from video games, at least in part because recent negative press and a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode dramatising poor treatment of women in the game industry might make corporate fundraising for gaming-focused programmes difficult, given Banton’s grand ambitions for the charity.
Banton denies this, telling Breitbart that he is “frustrated with this concept of gamer-only water fountains and a trend of not letting non-gamers participate in gaming activities.” There is nothing happening at OSD to suggest the charity is not celebrating gaming, he insists: “We have done more in gaming this year than in the previous four years combined. Next year, we will most likely do more than the previous five.”
Yet the fact remains that several senior employees and volunteers have abandoned OSD in favour of Machuga’s new initiative.
A press release issued by Operation Supply Drop, and a Polygon story about Machuga’s departure, claim that OSD’s founder voluntarily resigned. But documents seen by Breitbart Tech show that he was ejected from the company after refusing to sign a non-compete contract. Only after that did he resign his board seat, as reported by Polygon. Machuga apparently saw which way the wind was blowing when presented with the non-compete ultimatum: his new domain name was registered on September 17.
Machuga has been edged out of OSD since 2014, say insiders, as Banton filled the board of directors with advisors sympathetic to OSD’s new direction. Banton counters that the current board members were all in place at the start of 2014. Banton also told Breitbart: “Machuga voluntarily resigned from his board of directors position on November 2. OSD will not comment on the nature of the separation on October 30 in employment as this is a private HR matter.”
Since Banton took the reins at Operation Supply Drop, complaints have sprung up from staff and others. One disabled veteran, former director of partner relations at OSD, accused Banton of “back-stabbing” and “bullying” after he was terminated from his position and instructed not to contact OSD employees, clients, and even potential partners, effectively ending his career in the video game industry.
In a second, even more forthright, video, the former employee, Thaddeus Bender, continues to level charges at Banton and complains that Polygon‘s version of events does not reflect the many serious financial allegations swirling around OSD, the majority of them relating to non-payment. “I was expecting to have my voice heard,” he told Breitbart. It didn’t come through.”
Speaking on the phone from his home in Colorado, Bender was explicit about how Machuga was edged out of OSD. “Glenn was constantly undermining Machuga. I was told, put Stephen in a corner, don’t let him do anything, you’re in charge. If you need anything come to me. Glenn told Steve to sign [the NDA] and told him if he didn’t sign it by a particular date he would be fired. The date passed and Steve got the letter saying, you’re fired.”
Glenn Banton began volunteering for OSD in May 2013, donating $10,619 in 2013 and $13,007 in 2014 before being appointed chief executive. Machuga told Polygon that Banton gradually wrested control of Operation Supply Drop from him since being given the top job in 2014.
Banton believes Operation Supply Drop’s future is as a more general-purpose veterans’ charity, which he wished to rebrand Veterans and Civilian Supporters, abbreviated to XVACS, away from its original core mission of healing veteran trauma with video games, sources close to the charity told Breitbart Tech, in effect deprioritising and ultimately perhaps removing the commitment to video games.
“As you continue to grow,” Banton told Polygon, “and the need is out there, you start looking at the generational relevance and the fact that gaming, in and of itself, is something that a lot of people participate in… When you look at that, you have to realize that what we do is first and foremost for veterans. It’s not just for gamers, it’s not just for gaming veterans; it’s for veterans.”
Banton denies that he is moving Operation Supply Drop away from video games entirely. He told Polygon: “What we put out and what we actually do is more gaming stuff and gaming events and gaming experiences and gaming gear and bigger opportunities. We were the beneficiary of Humble Bundle. We have a very solid and growing partnership with GameStop… I’m not sure where that’s coming from.”
Yet references to video games have already been scrubbed from the charity’s website, a development that is angering many of the charity’s donors, who gave on the understanding that they would be supporting one of the few charities enthusiastic about gaming. Breitbart understands that changing OSD’s name to XVACS would involve removing the console controller from its logo and relegating the name Operation Supply Drop to that of a project underneath the new entity. The supply drops themselves, once filled with video games, are now filled with “digital entertainment,” say volunteersm while OSD’s thank-you deployment program, which used to provide trips for deserving veterans to gaming events, is now described on OSD’s website as: “Trips include sports, racing, outdoor adventures and gaming.”
One of OSD’s donors contacted Breitbart Tech after learning about these changes. “Wanting to run a charity like [Banton wants to] is his right. Doing it with money raised from gamers to help other gamers through gaming is not,” she says. “[Banton] wants to run a major charity, not be stuck as a small one, to compete with established charities like Wounded Warrior Project and raise hundreds of millions of dollars from major corporate donors that want nothing to do with gamers.
“In his eyes, the only way to do this was to abandon the gamers who donated millions, using our donations to run programs that have nothing to do with gamers, and change the organization and its message into something generic and watered-down, something a major corporation would not worry about donating to.”
“It started out as diversification, a former OSD volunteer told Breitbart. “It didn’t start as, we’re shifting our focus. Then gamers started being pushed aside full force to the point where they just looked at gamers as a revenue stream and didn’t care at all about gamer culture. It was like, gamers can raise money for us to do the stuff we really want to do. They were looking at gamers as cash machines.”
Stack-Up.Org, Machuga’s new venture, wears its love of video games proudly on its sleeve, explaining on its website: “We assemble care packages filled with video gaming and nerd goodness, delivered to veterans deployed to combat zones, humanitarian missions, recovering in military hospitals, or even to bases stateside in support of any number of family readiness missions.
“We strive to change a deployed service members experience while they are deployed: instead of focusing on how many days they have left in theater, we want them thinking about setting up an upcoming Madden or Call of Duty tournament with their battle buddies.”
Banton explained OSD’s logo change during a telephone interview this week. “When I approach larger organisations, such as Intel, they will see Operation Supply Drop, with the video game controller, and their immediate reaction is, we are not a gaming company, we don’t know how we can help. We then have to tell them we are a veterans’ support organisation.
“If we want to remain small and not grow and not listen to our beneficiaries, that’s fine. Maybe it’s me, but I know our board believes the same way. We’ve been given the opportunity to support veterans in a unique way. We have a duty, with this bigger challenge. Some people would rather see a tiny organisation that does a few things. I’m more interested in growing because it’s our responsibility to do so.”
OSD’s name change to XVACS, instigated by Banton, is currently on permanent hold after a staff revolt. Meanwhile, almost all volunteer staff have departed to join Machuga’s new venture. Critics continue to level serious charges at Banton, who has attracted an ususual level of ire, often focusing on his personal manner.
To the uninitiated, say former colleagues, Banton looks like an Army veteran, posting pictures of himself in a US Cavalry-style stetson online. He also refers to himself as “Commander.” There is no suggestion that Banton has ever explicitly described himself as a vet, but former colleagues say he has never minded when people mistakenly get that impression. “He represents himself as though he could be a veteran,” says Bender. “People have come up to me who didn’t realise. I have had to correct them.”
Breitbart Tech spoke to several people interviewed by Polygon who say they have unresolved financial grievances with Banton. None of their stories appeared in Polygon‘s report. Breitbart will return to their stories in future reports.
Critics of the video game press have complained for some time about ginned-up allegations of “misogyny” and poor conditions for women and minorities. That a gaming charity would effectively seek to distance itself from video games entirely perhaps demonstrates just how bad a public relations problem video games still have – the irony being, of course, that public perception is largely driven by a games press that ought primarily to be celebrating, rather than caricaturing, its own industry.
The crisis currently engulfing Operation Supply Drop is, suggest some critics, merely one casualty of a media narrative ungrounded in fact, which is having real consequences outside New York newsrooms. Of course Polygon, which failed to cover this aspect of the story and which many see as one of the worst offenders when it comes to vilifying gaming and gamers, has nothing to say on this tragic but entirely unavoidable consequence of shoddy, narrative-led reporting. Polygon has already revised its original report multiple times to correct factual errors.
Glenn Banton is keen to point out that veterans are just as much of a fundraising liability as gamers. “We’ve had some organisations where the bigger liability is veterans,” he says. “We spoke to one medium-sized indie game studio who told us, ‘I would rather go bankrupt and live in a cardboard box on the street than support veterans.’ We hear that kind of crap all the time. It’s disgusting, in some cases.”
Banton is not a gamer, and while his impression of gamers may be unfairly shaped by the media, the larger problem is that, apparently, big corporations Banton wants money from also unfairly see gamers and gaming as toxic. Unfairly attacking the games industry and its fans because you like the sound of what one wacky feminist critic says about Grand Theft Auto is not a victimless crime: it leads to real harm for real people.
“I mean, I get it,” a former OSD volunteer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Breitbart. “Gamers can’t bring in the kind of money for the sort of multimillion dollar empire he wants. And game developers just don’t have that sort of money, to cut a check for a quarter of a million dollars.”
A second former longtime volunteer was more explicit about the pressures on Banton. “I believe the general perception of gamers in the media is exactly what Glenn is concerned about. That’s the perception he doesn’t want for OSD. He buys into the vision of gamers as kids living in their parents’ basements.
“I definitely believe that has a lot to do with his decisions, like the name change and removing the controller from the logo. They say they’re doing plenty in the gaming space still. Well, maybe. Until something better comes along.”
Beyond answering questions about the chronology of events, Stephen Machuga declined to comment on the contents of this report.