Shuttered middle and high schools have put video games at the center of many isolated teens’ social life across the city. But at two Bronx homeless shelters, gaming is opening the door to in-person collaboration for young people desperate for it.
Makeda, a senior studying drama at LaGuardia High School, is one of them. She’s not much of a gamer, but in late August a flyer inviting teen residents at her South Bronx shelter to join video game writers and creators for after-school writing sessions got her attention.
“It was in-person and you could actually interact with people which, you know, you don’t really get to do with COVID,” the 17-year-old said. At the encouragement of shelter staff, she said, decided to join.
Nearly 30 young people in the shelters, run by the group BronxWorks, have participated in the after-school mentorship program, shifting to remote sessions in November and December as the city Department of Homeless Services restricted gatherings in facilities.
They can improve their writing and critical thinking skills in a way that doesn’t feel like homework: by playing with and then discussing video games, from Mario Kart and Minecraft to epics like Metal Gear Solid.
When the Writer’s Circle resumes in the coming weeks, some contact will be remote but COVID-cautious in-person contact, in keeping with evolving city Department of Homeless Services guidelines, will remain part of the mix.
“You get to interact with people, write reviews, and meet new people, which you barely get to do anymore,” said Makeda. “That’s what drew me in.”
The workshops are led by members of the New York Videogame Critics Circle (NYVCC), a trade organization representing video game writers and reporters. The president of homeless shelter developer Gateway Housing, Ted Houghton, is on the videogame group’s board and brought the idea to BronxWorks after the pandemic shut schools last spring.
It provided an outlet for students to participate in a relatively socially distant after-school activity — writing and reading — that didn’t feel quite like a study group, said Houghton.
“They have the opportunity to learn how to write critically, and they learn about journalism, but it’s about video games so it’s fun for them,” Houghton said.
During weekly hour-long sessions, middle and high school students gathered in their buildings’ recreation rooms to write and discuss different video games alongside video game writers and even some industry executives.
Bronx native Reggie Fils-Aimé, a former president of the North American division of Nintendo, has been among the speakers.
Each session involves a different writing prompt, and the program favors “games with stories that are social-justice oriented,” NYVCC founder Harold Goldberg said. Many stories published on the organization’s website, he noted, and the organization also helps the students get scholarships.
By focusing on games with plot lines that veer towards narratives, like the dystopian world of the Metal Gear Solid series or the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe, students have an opportunity to write critically about their own hobbies and interests.
“We try to get them not just to talk about games but about their own experiences,” Goldberg said. “The key is to find kind of diamonds-in-the-rough who need a little break, and we’re happy to grant them the experience.”
One particularly popular session revolved around Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Miles Morales,” an action-adventure game that debuted in late 2020. It stars Morales, a Black and Puerto Rican teenager from Brooklyn, one of the characters known as the legendary superhero in an alternate universe.
The Videogame Critics’ Circle also has a mentorship program with Dreamyard Preparatory School in Claremont, along with a long-running educational program with Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
When the Writers Circle launched during the first throes of the pandemic, children throughout the city were suddenly isolated from their social lives, said Scott Auwater, BronxWorks’ assistant executive director.
“The struggles that kids all over the city were having — adjusting to remote learning, seeing your after school programs disappear — that was especially hard for a lot of kids in shelters,” Auwater said.
For Makeda, it meant sharpening her skills at a time she was preparing her college applications. It also provided a creative outlet when all her other after-school programs and clubs shuttered because of the pandemic.
She credits the program to her success so far: she’s gotten into five schools, and is waiting to hear back from two more — including her top choice, Fordham University.
She said that she intends to pursue a career in social work. She landed an internship with the NYVCC that starts this month, and had the opportunity to virtually present an award at the organization’s annual New York Game Awards gala last month.
“The writing circle was the highlight of my week,” said Makeda, whose program cycle ended in December.
“I never thought of myself as a good writer, but being able to write a review every single week and meeting successful people was really encouraging and helped me with school.”