By SARAH BELLE LIN
Isaac Espinosa is carving a niche for themself, starting in the former Lehman College student’s home borough: the Bronx. And their industry of choice is one long riddled with negative stereotypes. That’s right, video games.
But as a senior intern and mentor with the New York Videogame Critics Circle, they work closely with individuals one might not expect gamers to be involved with — young people in the borough without homes.
“We’re supposed to play with purpose,” Espinosa said. “When it comes to mentoring kids, this idea (is) we can play games without using them as a time-waster.”
Espinosa’s efforts go beyond the game controller and keyboard, however. They are part of a joint project between the mayor’s media and entertainment office and Lehman to produce videos. The first go at such a venture was a successful one, landing the team a local Emmy.
This time, however, the nets were cast much wider — all five boroughs were showcased.
Nearly a dozen Lehman faculty and students were asked to produce a series on a few ordinary — and perhaps previously overlooked — niche professions, be it a pizzeria and its brick oven-baked feasts in Staten Island. Or, in the Bronx’s case, a critics circle aiming to redefine the video game industry.
In a past life, Ron Bergmann’s work with the city’s information technology department connected him to the media and entertainment office. Now, as Lehman’s vice president and chief technology officer, that same agency arrived at the Bedford Park Boulevard campus with a pitch: A public service announcement video series highlighting five businesses and cultural institutions that not only adjusted quickly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but maybe changed their M.O. in a way that deserves recognition.
‘Shift NYC’ emerged. It included considerable talent found right on Lehman’s campus, including Brendan McGibney, the college multimedia center director who produced the local Emmy-winning “Best in the Bronx” series in 2015. Also on board were students and post-production interns Luisa Sotelo and Curtis Antwi, who split up the five boroughs between the two.
“We always tried to touch upon diversity,” Sotelo said. “That’s one of the things that makes New York City what it is.”
And what could have been darker months brought on by the pandemic turned into enriching ones for Sotelo, who said the project “was so interesting that the time flies.”
The video series finally landed on a video games critics circle in the Bronx, a costume industry coalition from Manhattan’s Garment District, a pizzeria in Staten Island, a group of volunteer storytellers from Queens, and a production training collective in Brooklyn.
“It was just really nice to see that, during a negative time, people were finding ways to do positive things,” McGibney said.
The Staten Island pizzeria, for example, kept its ovens going, delivering some 3,000 meals to hospitals at the onset of the pandemic. And that was just in April.
“We just went with the most compelling stories,” said co-producer and Lehman alum Keren Plowden.
But could a 2.5-minute video capture the essence of a borough?
“I think they really nailed it,” said Harold Goldberg, president and founder of the video game critics circle, featured in the Bronx episode. For one, a different side of video games was featured.
“By and large, the stereotype of video gamers is like an adolescent boy in the suburb,” said Anne Del Castillo, the media and entertainment office commissioner. “Groups like the one in the Bronx really help New Yorkers see the variety of opportunities in that industry.”
The critics circle works primarily out of Morrisania, but hosted the Lehman film crew at a BronxWorks office in the South Bronx, which provides support for vulnerable people in the borough. It was there the critics worked with some of the most at-risk individuals in the entire city — young people without homes.
In the end, the group created several paid internship positions for the BronxWorks teens and young adults.
“They’ll get like $100 or $125 for a story they write,” Goldberg said.
Espinosa wrote about the 9-to-5 hustle so prevalent in New York City culture.
“It’s this corporate feeling,” they said. “How it can sort of drain the life from somebody, and how the 9-to-5 can feel so soulless.”
Interns can more or less stay with the critics circle as long as they want — typically anywhere from three months to five years. Espinosa joined in 2014 while a freshman at DreamYard Preparatory School, and today is being paid for his video game reviews and weekly in-office hours.
“The longer they stay, the more experience they get,” Goldberg said. “What we’re trying to do is get them jobs once they’re out of college.”
Antwi learned the critics circle was intentionally opening career pathways within the gaming industry for many young people in the Bronx, including some experiencing homelessness.
“You can be a story writer for a video game, go into graphics,” Antwi said. “There (are) different jobs opportunities out there for people to pursue.”
The critics circle teaches interns writing and team building through a medium it knows is compelling with teens and pre-teens.
“What we teach is not really shooting games,” Goldberg said. “We try to get students to play with purpose, so they think about what they’re playing. We often show them games that are story-rich, that are on par with any film today, and perhaps on par with some of the better novels today as well.”
Many of the episodes are featured on video monitors found in many taxi cabs, but the series can also be found on local city channels, as well as Lehman’s website.
The crew also paid tribute to Lehman professor Marisa White, who co-developed ‘Best of the Bronx’ with McGibney, but who died this past July while working as a student liaison for “Shift NYC.”
The recent loss, as well as last year’s threat of a second coronavirus wave, certainly added dimensions to the project. And helped shine new lights on subjects in ways people may not have previously considered.
“One of the problems the game industry has is it doesn’t employ enough people from underserved communities,” Goldberg said. “The video game world has a lot of catching up to do as far as hiring enough people of color, and doing that in a vibrant community, like the Bronx.”