By Harold Goldberg
Yesterday, members of the New York Videogame Critics Circle recorded a tribute video to former Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé, who’ll receive our Andrew Yoon Legend Award at the New York Game Awards on January 21, 2020. I watched as three senior interns from the Bronx recalled the moments when Reggie traveled uptown to mentor them, and a rapt crowd of others, at the DreamYard Prep School. Reggie was more than gracious, and over a year after his speech, the students have remembered every moment. How these students have grown and matured into brilliant gems of humanity since we first met them! They’re more confident, and yes, they’re far better writers and journalists. I have to confess to becoming inwardly emotional as I watched them choose their words carefully and succinctly before the camera on set at CNET. Their words had empathy, impact, power.
It all made me think of our latest mentoring work on the Lower East Side. This partnership with the Henry Street Settlement has been a bit more complicated for our group as mentors. We were told that going in. But I believe the same brilliance of our Bronx students is there among our Lower East Side students. I believe they just need us to care for them and work with them because they are important, intelligent, valued contributors to society. Of course they are, but they haven’t always been treated as if they are. I started the class this year with the words, “Everyone is welcome here. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you are, black, white, brown, yellow, gay, trans or straight. This is a safe space for you, a place for you to learn about writing and opportunity, a place for you to have fun, a place that cares for you.” I’m not sure they believed me.
Then, I explained why we were in this small back room of a community center on the Lower East Side. “There are not enough people of color in the game industry. There are not enough of you. There are not enough black people. There are not enough brown people. There are not enough women. There are not enough women of color. There are not enough people like you. That’s why we’re here. We want to change that. We want to help you change that. We won’t leave you – until we help you.”
They looked at each other in disbelief: did he really just say that?
Seven weeks in, we’re on our way to changing things in a small way. We have changed things. But it can be difficult. I used to believe that getting threatened online for what I’d written was the most horrible thing. Threats on my life, even though I have a thick skin, have sent me out of town to stay in rural locales without internet. But that is nothing. At the Circle, we’re trying to help young people who have been the subject of discrimination since they were born. As a recent example this week, one of our senior interns took some of our Lower East Side students on a field trip to a virtual reality experience on the Lower East Side. It’s a place where I’ve given my time to keynote for free when they had held a conference.
There, they said they didn’t accept the cash the Circle had given them to get in. One of the young people had a credit card and paid for all to get in, but because of the way they were being treated, our young people decided to only stay for a half hour. Our senior intern called me and I spoke to the person who was acting as the cashier there. I yelled at him, calmed myself and asked for him to give them some extra time with VR. He said he would do just that.
Our young people didn’t get more time.
The idea of discrimination following young people even as they try to pay for admission to a local business grieves me to no end. But still, they are resilient and they still have hope, and they’re expressing it through writing. One young woman sees “Grand Theft Auto IV” as a piece of art that’s about family and justice more than it is about violence. One young man wrote about the game he remembers most. It’s the day he first played “Call of Duty: Black Ops III.” That was the day, he wrote, his father left his mother, his brother, and him, too. And he played and he cried and he played some more and he cried some more. Think about that for a while. If it doesn’t tie you up in knots, you’re part of the problem.
Soon, these essays will be complete, and they will be shared here. Discrimination or not, these young people are trying to fight back, sometimes through writing. And we are there to help them. And so is the rest of the core group of the Circle. And so is Reggie.
It’s not news that the world will try to daunt them because the world is difficult. But the creativity of our young people should never be suppressed. We are here to help them grow. We are here to help them thrive. We are there to help them level up. We won’t wait. We are here to help them level up now. About that, I am adamant. That, I believe, is the true holiday spirit, one that will be present in our group throughout the year, every day of the year.
Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the president of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and founder of the New York Game Awards.