This is Part III in our series about the New York Videogame Critics Circle’s nonprofit mentoring work in homeless shelters.
By Harold Goldberg
Recently, I wrote about the challenges and joys of working with young people in Bronx shelters. Over the summer, the Circle worked tween and younger girls during the time of the pandemic. It’s not easy for them, certainly not right now. They can move from living with relatives to a shelter and back again. It’s hard for them to have a sense of place. As we detailed in one of the Talking Games With Reggie And Harold podcasts, as many as eight people can live in one small unit together.
It wasn’t until well into the COVID-19 crisis that the shelter in which we worked was properly wired for WiFi, thanks in no small part to Gateway Housing. Ted Houghton, the CEO of Gateway, is also our New York Videogame Critics Circle Board Chair. That connectivity helped a lot.
Where it’s usually high school boys who sign up for our courses (or boys and girls), this group was all girls from the ages of nine to 12 years old. As a mentor, I had never worked with young people of that age. So all of our coursework had to be rewritten or edited.
During the first class, we taught two pairs of sisters and two girls who weren’t siblings. When playing the latest version of Mario Kart on the Nintendo Switch, two girls became competitive, and began arguing with each other. One of the sisters had experience with the game and won the race easily. And then she began to trash talk.
I said, “We’re here to play with purpose and think about the games we are playing. That’s the main thing: to learn about games while being kind to each other.”
After the free play, we asked our students to write about the games they had enjoyed. Taniyah, a nine year old, wrote, “I have played video games a lot in my past and now I try to play new characters. Also, I learned that we have many different games, not just Mario Kart. The thing that I like about games is the racing, mostly because I love to race. I like the car that I picked out because it was fast, but it did not let me win. But today, I realized it is not about winning. It is about having fun with people.”
Taniyah learned quickly. She’s smart.
Later, we had a Kobe Bryant In Games day with a slideshow, games and videos including those from the NBA 2K series. Kobe is still universally loved and admired, and the girls enjoyed hearing about the legend’s history in games. A few sessions later, Taniyah showed off a photo of Kobe that hung in her unit. Less popular with the class was a history of Black and LatinX people in journalism presentation. Yet it was important to talk about the brilliance of Ida B. Wells and others. They changed things for the better.
Yet it wasn’t the topic that didn’t hit home. The kids were dealing with other things: at that point in time, someone had gotten COVID-19 in the shelter, and the kids were in lockdown in their units. It was difficult for them to focus with other family members around. They missed the game room situation that we had created in the common area downstairs.
Probably the game we taught which garnered the most feedback in terms of writing thoughtfully was “Florence,” the award-winning mobile game about a young woman of color and the ups and downs of a relationship. Here below are selected portions of these young girls’ work.
I liked how it is a real-life story. Also, I liked how it goes in order (of their relationship). I liked how the girl falls in love because of the guy’s music. It’s interesting about them together. At the end, the girl was an artist. But I did like all the kissing. And I liked the ending, that they’re not together.
There is a lot of drama in this game, and I want to keep playing. And the end of the story, the girl moved on from the breakup. Then, she became an artist.
I like the ending because the girl moved on and she wasn’t stuck on some boy who wasn’t worth it.
What I liked about this story is that it was sad at the end of Chapter 1 and Florence was lonely. It seemed real. Then, she liked a boy and she fell off her bike and the boy she liked helped her and gave her his number.
I think they are going to have a baby and because of that they might break up and split up.
I feel that this story, Florence, is very good for people who want to learn about love. I think that most people in relationships are always going to fight. Some relationships don’t always end. And some relationships don’t really end well. (In Florence, the girl and her boyfriend broke up, but she became an art girl.
Beyond playing games, the girls had learned how to think critically about games, and to write about them. You can learn more about the complexities of educating homeless students in this WNYC radio piece by Mirela Iverac.
Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the founder and president of the New York Videogame Critics Circle. He’s also the executive producer of the New York Game Awards.