Mental Health and Gaming with Abbey Perl

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Abbey Perl started the Diverse Gaming Coalition to help combat online bullying through video games and modern pop culture. In this episode, I talk to her about why she started it, how she went about starting a non-profit organization, and much more.

Show Notes


Intro: Hello everyone and welcome to episode 85 of How I Built It. In today’s episode I talk to Abbey Perl, founder of the Diverse Gaming Coalition. I met Abbey at WordCamp Lancaster and was impressed by what she’s accomplished at such a young age. She started her NPO to raise awareness and help victims of bullying, through the help of the video game community. Such a great cause that We’ll get into a minute, but first….

Sponsor: Today’s is brought to you by Pantheon and Creator Courses. You’ll hear all about Pantheon later in the show.

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And now…on with the show.

Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?” Today, my guest is Abbey Sager of the Diverse Gaming Coalition. Abbey, how are you?

Abbey Perl: I’m doing good, how are you?

Joe: I am fantastic. Thanks so much for joining me today.

I met Abbey at WordCamp Lancaster 2018 and we went on a Chipotle adventure, and after getting to know Abbey a little bit better I decided that she should definitely be on the podcast, so thanks so much for being here.

Abbey: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Joe: Absolutely. Why don’t you tell the listeners a little bit about who you are and what the Diverse Gaming Coalition is, and how you came up with the idea?

Abbey: I’m a current college student, I’m about to end my sophomore year of college at Southern New Hampshire University Online. Everyone always asks me about online school, and I love it, it’s great. I’m currently studying nonprofit management, it’s a business administration degree, and with that degree I work on my nonprofit Diverse Gaming Coalition.

I started that about two years ago now and I started that after my junior year of high school. I dropped out in the middle of it because of a lot of factors, one of them being intense bullying. I received my GED and instead of just getting my GED and moving on to the next step in life, I wanted to create something that I can use to help others.

So, that’s why I created Diverse Gaming Coalition. Now I’m here a few years later, working on Coalition. I go to a lot of conventions and stuff like WordCamps to speak about kindness, compassion, bullying, harassment, other in-between topics.

Joe: Gotcha. Man, so this is a really interesting topic to me. Let’s see, I think we figured out that I’m a whole person of age older than you, at least. So when I when I was in high school yes, there was bullying, but the notion of things like cyber bullying to the scale or anonymity that we have today wasn’t even a thing on the radar. Somebody would pick on me for being like short, and then I would have a friend who would step in who is not short and bigger than the person bullying me. I was bullied as a kid, but I also had friends that always had my back, which it’s not as easy to see online.

I think this is a really interesting and admirable project. I guess my question from here is, you kind of experienced this first-hand, at what point did you decide, “This is a cause that I really need to get behind,” to start the Coalition?

Abbey: Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up, because I grew up with social media whereas you didn’t. Around middle school is when the craze kind of started for me. I’m only 18, so that wasn’t that long ago. With social media, people were learning about it, new features, and it’s somewhat more complex now. But then, the anonymity behind it was, and still is today, just so intense.

Back then a big thing was ASKfm, and now there’s that Sarahah website. I don’t know actually how to pronounce it, but beside the point, those are huge platforms where the point of the platforms is to be anonymous. It’s just crazy how things work, but I realize that this was an issue. I always realized it was an issue but I never saw how serious it was until, I would say, the beginning of freshman year of high school until me and my friends really got into it to the extreme.

You know, we are posting what we were doing that weekend, having fun with our friends or whatever. And when we really got into it is when we really noticed that it could get very intense. People can say whatever they want on there, do whatever they want.

So, the social media bullying happened around that time as well for me. I noticed this was a big issue that I wanted to fix. On my social media I started promoting kindness on my social media, trying not to inflict negativity on there whatsoever. Because at least for me, when I scroll through my social media feed, there’s always something negative on there and I feel like that could get someone off so easily depending on what the topic is.

Because people could talk about anything, on for example, Facebook. The whole thing for me was positivity and trying to avoid conflicts and stuff. But besides the point again, it was a big thing and it’s still a big thing. More so now adults are getting into the back-and-forth aggression, so to speak. It’s just crazy how things have shifted in the past couple of years. I was in middle school like, six years ago. It’s just crazy how things have shifted.

Joe: Yeah absolutely. I mean, I’m 32 years old so I’m not quite a person of age older than you. I just need to clarify that for everybody, I’m not losing my hair.

Around the Super Bowl– So, I’m a New Yorker living near Philadelphia and I made a joke that Eagles fans in particular are the meanest people on the planet, and a sports blog re-tweeted that, and what happened over the next 12 hours was the meanest– Like, they all proved their point.

People told me I need to kill myself, and that I’m not a man. And I’m a well-adjusted adult male, and it started to have an effect on me. I can’t even imagine what me as a teenager or somebody who’s constantly subjected to this goes through. By the morning people were still tweeting me, and I’m like, “I can’t handle this anymore.” I deleted the tweet, I blocked a bunch of things, I just turned Twitter off for the day, and that was over a very short amount of time…

It says on your website that Diverse Gaming Coalition is dedicated to fight for a change in online and real life communities. What are some of the things that you do to fight for that?

Abbey: We’re a very big advocacy organization. So a lot of what we do– Or, go back a little bit. What I’ve noticed with a lot of anti-bullying initiatives is that they don’t really cater to young people at all. Social media is changing, and it’s also fairly new.

For example, when I was in high school we would always have these anti-bullying assemblies, but it would always be older people teaching us about anti-bullying when it’s so versatile. So, we like to say that we’re the “No B.S. Organization,” because really, if you try to teach these kids who are prone to saying mean things, “We all learn from our mistakes, we all do stuff like that sometimes.” These kids are prone to that and when you go around the point and try to make things so easy and say, “Well, just don’t say mean things. Be helpful to one another,” and just make it so dry and boring, it’s not going to get to anyone.

So again, our whole thing is just truthful advocacy. Currently one way we do that is through our anti-bullying comic book called Life On The Outside that just released this month. It’s a story that follows a non-binary teenager in a high school setting going through a couple of things. It follows the regular, typical, high school story on bullying. The point that is different is that one, it focuses on bullying that actually happens. It’s not going to be a story about someone who points and laughs and says a stupid name. It’s going to be real, to-the-point bullying.

The other thing is, that it’s going to grab kids attention. It’s a comic book, that’s something that kids like, at least that’s what I like. It’s implementing things that kids are going to like into a topic that may not be so fun to talk about, is what is going to get kids involved.

So, that’s the whole point behind our organization. We also do a lot of advocacy stuff on social media on gaming platforms, because that’s where a lot of bullying is prone to spawn.

Joe: Gotcha. Yes. I mean, there is the empathy factor. Talking about things that people, especially kids, are actually experiencing and then doing it in a medium which they are most likely to consume. You’re not going to release a VHS tape of cyber bullying, or whatever. Like one of those old school TVs that get wheeled into the classroom.

Abbey: Yeah, and that’s happened before too.

Joe: Yeah, right. Absolutely. I went to a Catholic school and my religion teacher my senior year, who was awesome, he was a great guy. But one of the things that he did was play a tape of a rapping priest who had a song called the Zipper Zone to try to promote abstinence. And it was super cheesy, and I don’t know how well that connected with everybody. They probably had their minds made up about abstinence by senior year, and I don’t think rapping priest is something that would’ve really connected with us.

So it’s cool to see somebody, I don’t want to word this the wrong way, it’s not cool to see somebody who’s gone through this. But it’s cool to see somebody who knows how to empathize, and is being proactive about it. Obviously you don’t want to see people go through it, but people are going through it, and any way to help is obviously a good thing.

Abbey: Yeah.

Joe: The second question I generally ask here, is what kind of research do you do? This is an outreach program, it’s a proactive thing to help those who are being bullied. There’s a lot of psychology behind bullying, both for the bully and the bullied, but this seems like more of a grassroots organization. Is that accurate? I don’t want to diminish what you’re doing.

Abbey: Yes.

Joe: Do you do a lot of research? Or, are you really like, boots-on-the-ground, talking to people who need help the most?

Abbey: We do a combination of both. Again, we’re very advocacy, so we’re always somewhere where there is always a group of people to talk to about this. But also me, as a millennial, I’ve experienced it and I understand it, so we’re not too keen about the hard facts. Like surveys and percentages, and all that, because I feel like everyone knows that already and is aware of that. So we’re not too keen on that. We still use that research to alter the ways we approach our anti-bullying methods.

But again we’re not too keen on that, just because no kid cares about that. No one really cares about that. A bully is not going to listen to me say all these facts and then change their mind because they heard these facts. They’re going to listen to me because I have this really cool comic book that showcases a person actually bullying someone, and they can see themselves in that, and they could really think about their lifestyle and their choices that they make, and that stuff.

So we’re not too keen about the facts, although again we still use them to help aid our anti-bullying efforts. But again, when I like to talk to people I want it from the heart, and I want to talk about my experience. I want to talk about my comic book character Asher’s experience, because that’s what people want to hear.

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Joe: Gotcha. That makes a ton of sense. Spouting statistics at somebody doesn’t– Again, going back to empathy, it doesn’t help them empathize with the situation. I’m not a math problem, I’m a person. I’m a complex person. There are reasons why.

I mean, I have not been the nicest person in my youth to people online either. I wrote a very mean blog post when I was 18, or 17. And the person I wrote it about, while I didn’t name her, knew it was about her and that hurt her. And I regret that, I regret doing that today, as an adult. That was because I knew how to publish online at 17, where not everybody knew how to do that.

Today everybody knows how to do that. It’s very easy, and we’re seeing it, not just mean-spirited adults and kids, we’re seeing it at several high offices. While this isn’t a political podcast, I can’t help but go into that. I mean, the point being that, there’s a lot to combat today when it comes to cyber bullying, so this is a worthwhile and valiant effort here.

Now to talk about the tech side of things. Because talking about how easy it is to publish online, and say whatever you want online, and that is a double-edged sword. You get the bad. But I suspect that starting this non-for-profit was a bit easier thanks to the publishing tools we have today, right?

Abbey: Yeah. Starting this nonprofit, I can’t say it was too easy, but if I wanted to start it ten years ago it would have been a lot harder. It also wouldn’t have been as viable, because the online world wasn’t really a thing yet. But besides the point, it was pretty easy in the sense that there was a lot of tools out there for me.

A lot of it was honestly thanks to Google. Google is your friend, and you could learn a lot from Google. So Googling things, very tedious things from state and federal regulations for a nonprofit, to building a website, all the way to buying t-shirts that have our branding on it. It’s definitely a lot easier than it was years ago, and definitely really helped me push myself to actually create this nonprofit.

Joe: Absolutely. Let’s talk about the website specifically. Is this something that you did, or you had done, you worked with somebody to do?

Abbey: My website, we are in the process of actually changing it right now, but when we started it I had a little bit of help from a connection I met at a convention. I pretty much said, “This is what I want. Is this possible?” Because I’ve never built a website before, and it to me was like, total “You need to be a coding master to do that,” when that’s not the case at all.

But he pretty much did the basic layout for it, and then I pretty much edit it at least once a week. Whether it’s a little tweak or a big change. That is what my website is today, and again we’re in the process of changing it to a different platform.

Joe: Gotcha. As we record this, probably a couple of months before it comes out, what platform are you on today?

Abbey: Well, you have told the audience that we met at a WordCamp. I actually am on Wix right now, but I am going to WordPress.

Joe: Nice. That is a common path. People start on Wix or Squarespace and they decide, “I need some more flexibility, I’m going to go to WordPress.”

Abbey: Wix is a good starting point because I tend to notice, like me, I didn’t know anything about building a website at all. I tend to notice that the interface when building a website is a little bit more easier. Now that I know so much about building websites, I see what WordPress is and I see, “Oh this is easy because I’m used to Wix, and I know the Wix tools. I could learn WordPress pretty easy.” But Wix has a handful of problems that we’re trying to get away from, that’s why we’re going to WordPress.

Joe: Gotcha. Yeah, again that’s a story that I hear a lot. Wix, out of the box, is easier. There’s a lot more guided setup with Wix and Squarespace than there is on WordPress, where it’s like, “Here it is! Do whatever you want now.”

Where Wix is like, “You need to do this, now you need to do this. Now here’s your content.” So, absolutely. I think anybody who says WordPress is easy has been in WordPress too long. Or at least doesn’t, let’s say they don’t speak to new users on a regular basis.

I have the opportunity to do that as an educator and you’re absolutely right, Wix is easier. But I think you’re going to enjoy WordPress, so I’ll link to the website in the show notes,, and hopefully by the time this comes out you’ll be on a brand new shiny platform.

Abbey: Yeah, hopefully. That’s the goal. We’re pretty busy the next couple of months with conventions, but that’s the goal. Because honestly I’m so excited to switch to WordPress so we’re probably going to have it out by then. Again WordPress is just so much nicer now that I know a lot more about building websites. It’s just going to be a piece of cake.

Joe: Nice. Very nice. Let’s see, we have about 10 minutes left, and I want to ask you about something else that I don’t often have the opportunity to ask my guests about.

I noticed that you have a icon on your website, and you are called the Diverse Gaming Coalition, I assume that gaming is a part of the stuff you do. You mentioned that you reach out to people on gaming platforms. A lot of bullying obviously happens there. I think that the bullying evolved when I was a kid from just smack talk, to being very mean-spirited stuff now. How are you using Twitch? Maybe we can start with, for those who don’t know, explain what Twitch is, and then how are you using Twitch for outreach.

Abbey: Yeah. Twitch is basically a streaming platform where people can stream anything from games, to where they recently added they could string people doodling their art, or knitting, or whatever it may be. It’s so versatile now. It used to be just strictly games, but it’s very versatile now. They also have talk shows on there.

What we do on Twitch, we actually have a project called Streaming for Good Initiative. And what we do on Twitch is we basically host Twitch streamers that are using their platform for good. There’s a lot of negativity on Twitch, especially since it’s a live broadcast. There’s almost no filter on that because people could broadcast for hours. So we like to showcase people using their platform for positivity, diversity, and that’s what we do. We’ll host their streams on our Twitch, and we’ll tweet about them here and there, and promote them on our social media, and our blog and stuff.

We also are trying to roll out a weekly podcast/talk show that’s still very, very in the works. That’s probably not going to be a thing for a while but that’s our goal. To have a show that promotes positivity, and inclusion, diversity. Because there’s not a lot of that on Twitch, and there definitely needs to be some of that on there.

Joe: That’s fantastic. I actually just came across a gamer today, @ninja, I think is his handle.

Abbey: It’s a big one.

Joe: Yeah, I just heard about him today because he was on CNN Money. That’s a statement that makes me feel so old.

Abbey: Yeah, he just streamed with Drake and Travis Scott, so he’s all over the news. And now he’s all over the news not just because he was streaming with these famous people, he also broke a milestone for the most-viewed Twitch stream ever, with like 600,000 views, and now they’re bringing up his salary and how much money he makes as well.

Just in subscribers alone, I think his subscribers are $5 dollars a month, depending on where you are on Twitch the percentage of that money that you get changes. It’s usually half, but I would assume he gets a little more because he’s a popular streamer. He makes like $250,000 dollars– Or no, $25,000 dollars a month just on subscribers. And that’s like my whole salary right there.

Joe: Yeah, they were throwing around a pretty huge number. They weren’t just talking about subscribers, they were talking about, I think, total everything. And it’s quite a bit of money.

Abbey: Donations and everything, yeah.

Joe: I will link that in the show notes as well. But I mean, you mentioned positivity in gaming, and I guess it was a bit serendipitous that I watched that this morning. Because he was, I feel, a very positive influence. He said, “I made sure my grades were good in school, gaming was a bit of a reward to me and now I’m pursuing it.” And just a few other things, a lot of philanthropy and stuff like that.

So if you know where to look you can definitely find that positivity, and it sounds like Diverse Gaming Coalition and Abbey are bringing more of that to the forefront which is always nice. Because even I play with my friends, I’ll play Halo which I guess as an older one, but they weren’t always very nice to me. So I can see how– And I know my friends were joking.

Abbey: But sometimes, it’s always different. Especially when you’re in the zone, and in gaming sometimes you can get too much as well. I know that firsthand. You’re playing Halo, and it’s very intense combat, so it can get out of hand sometimes but I definitely understand that.

Joe: Yeah absolutely. Great. We’re coming up on time here, and I want to ask you two questions.

I think you touched on this a little bit, but what are your plans for the future, as Diverse Gaming Coalition evolves?

Abbey: For the future we are planning to talk in more schools and organizations. I brought up how assemblies can be boring and just utter trash, but we want to change that. We’re planning to do more school assemblies, we’re also doing libraries and summer camps. We’re very versatile with that.

We’re also doing more conventions as well. This will be out after we’re already done with this, but we’re going to PAX East in Boston in two weeks, and middle of May there is Wizard World comic-con in Philly, and then in June there’s Wizard World comic-con in Columbus. So again, we’re just very versatile, we do a lot of that.

Also planning on, again, rolling out podcast in the future and also getting more partnerships. We currently have a partnership with a big gaming organization which is set to roll out pretty soon, we’re doing an anti-bullying campaign. That is hopefully going to be out by the time this podcast is out.

Joe: Fantastic. Well it sounds like you’re doing a lot of excellent work. So, I will ask you my favorite question which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?

Abbey: Like, secrets for my organization?

Joe: What’s the, let’s say, the best piece of advice that you could pass on to the listeners?

Abbey: Yes. Since I started this on my own by myself, I pretty much started with nothing and on a clean slate. I mean, I had some volunteer experience in the past, and I’ve had some connections with organizations. That was about it.

So, my secret is, say it’s like a campaign or something you want to get more organizations on board with, utilize a mass e-mail. Email is also going to be your best friend. Create a couple paragraphs that you could copy and paste into an e-mail and just e-mail as many people as you could think of. Because in reality, only like 10% of people e-mail you back. So when you do get that someone that does e-mail you back, it could it could really help out.

I’ve made so many connections through e-mail, especially starting out, e-mail has been my best friend. Utilize Twitter to find these people, Facebook, just a simple Google search can help you find people with similar interests that might be interested in your organization.

Joe: Fantastic. Use e-mail. I think I think there was another unstated nugget in there, just ask. Get out there and just ask people.

Abbey: Don’t be scared to ask, because a lot of people are. If you ask, it could open so many doors for you. Even if that person can’t help you, it could create another connection with someone else.

Joe: Yeah. Awesome. Well, that is a great note to end the show on. Abbey, where can people find you?

Abbey: You can find our organization at, all of our social media links will be at the top-right of our page. You can also find me on Twitter, @abbeysager.

Joe: Fantastic. I will link that in the show notes, and I will say one more note about the website. If you like the job and the mission of the Diverse Gaming Coalition, there is a link for how to get involved. Make sure to check that out..

Abbey, thanks so much for your time and thanks so much for joining me today, I really appreciate it.

Abbey: Thank you so much, I really appreciate you having me.

Outro: Abbey’s doing a great thing out there and I encourage you to check it out. Support a cause!

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Thanks for joining me, and until next time, get out there and build something!

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