By Harold Goldberg
This column is Part II in our New York Videogame Critics Circle series of newsworthy updates regarding our nonprofit arts education mentoring and scholarship activities.
Many of you know that we have had an ongoing partnership with the Bronx’s excellent DreamYard Project. In their 25-year history, we are the Obama-lauded nonprofit’s longest continuous partner. Through the DreamYard, we offer students our journalism and games course along with our social justice-oriented narrative game design scholarship contest. Our courses were the inspiration for the new Bx Start game and learning space. And most of our paid interns are from the DreamYard.
One of the classes we provide is something really quite important. Last year, we began our daily summer journalism class for high school students, the first ever in the New York City. Not only did our Imad Khan join DreamYard educators for this project, we offered unprecedented field trips. For instance, CNET Managing Editor Dan Ackerman guided students through a narrated tour of CBS Studios. Simon Ramsey from Rockstar Games traveled to the Bronx to talk about the sometimes fraught relationship between journalists and public relations pros.
This year, however, we encountered a conundrum of the highest order with the pandemic. It wasn’t simply that courses had to be held virtually. The Summer Youth Employment Program, the coffers of which help to fund the course, was being shut down by the mayor because of the pandemic. It didn’t seem right. Students need our course not just to play games. They need to learn – through what our original DreamYard educator Rudy Blanco and I dub “Playing With Purpose.” Students think, discuss, write and, perhaps most importantly, learn about themselves as they play.
Suddenly, the Summer Youth Employment Program was reinstated, and we scrambled to get our ducks in a row. The DreamYard Project hired Marcus Del Valle to work with our journalism curriculum. In fact, through his knowledge of journalism and writing, Marcus was able to enhance the course. Not only did he bring enthusiasm. He brought one idea that will continue. That’s the idea of free writing each day. Free writing helps writers get into the groove of working. It can help anyone with writer’s block as well. The concept? Just write: it doesn’t have to be about games or your life. It can be about anything. Just get some words down on paper daily and you’ve succeeded.
As we prepared, I got on the phone to bring game developers and journalists of color to speak to students. I interviewed folks like Shawn Alexander Allen (“Treachery In Beatdown City”) for a half hour. Then Marcus and the students would interview the guest as well. Sometimes, the interviews and talks ran for over two hours. But the kids’ interest was held, and they asked questions borne of preparation. That’s the power of playing with purpose.
We decided to have everyone review InkStories’ “1979 Revolution” as their final project. We asked the studio’s founder, Navid Khonsari, to speak to students. Navid talked honestly about the many ups and downs of indie gamemaking. The kids asked tough questions, too. One believed the game should have had better graphics. Navid responded that the graphics’ quality ultimately came down to budgetary issues. He only had so much money to make his project a reality. However, everyone agreed the deep story about a young photographer during one of the most difficult times in Iran’s history was brilliant.
At the end of the course, many of the Circle’s core members attended presentations by the students. Finally, the Circle looked at student work online and made suggestions. Once the students finish with their edits, we can pay them for their stories and publish them here online.
I can speak for the Circle at large and say that are so glad we were able to continue our mentoring with another thoughtful daily journalism course. Not only did young people benefit from Marcus’ daily teachings. We backed it all up with real-life stories from the world games and criticism. The writers that helped the kids with edits had a collective 150 years of writing experience. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is no other entity in the world that could have made this happen underserved high school kids. In fact, there’s no other course like this for young people anywhere. The pandemic has rocked all of us. But one thing is certain: we are so excited to keep our programs going into the fall and into future.
Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the president and founder of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards.