Gaming in the Bronx: what UK educators can learn from the DreamYard experience

Credit: David Flores

Rudy Blanco, director of entrepreneurship and gaming at the DreamYard Project, has been supporting young gamers from underrepresented communities in the Bronx to use platforms such as Twitch and Discord to build inclusive communities, learn digital skills and become entrepreneurs.

Earlier this month Rudy Blanco and Hillary Kolos, DreamYard’s director of digital learning, joined the Connected Learning Centre’s director, Sarah Horrocks, for a conversation about gaming, entrepreneurship, tech careers, digital arts and digital equity as part of BlendEd‘s live webinar programme.

Catch up with the video of the event below or read on to discover how DreamYard supports digital equity, encourages tech careers in creative design and even teaches poetry through Fortnite.

Bringing the world of New York gamers to UK education and blended learning

New York City’s the Bronx and London’s Lambeth and Southwark might be thousands of miles apart but two organisations embedded in those communities are on a very similar mission.  DreamYard “collaborates with Bronx youth, families and schools to build pathways to equity and opportunity through the arts” while the Connected Learning Centre (CLC) supports young people to use digital technologies creatively and critically. 

CLC’s director, Sarah Horrocks, got to know DreamYard as part of a study visit to New York City seven years ago to explore creative digital education programmes. That’s when she first met DreamYard’s director of digital learning, Hillary Kolos. Two years later Hillary and Rudy came to London to present DreamYard’s work on the learning portfolio project at MozFest. Having stayed in touch to share respective programmes in digital learning between the CLC and DreamYard, Hillary and Rudy gave an update on their latest work around gaming, creative design, entrepreneurship and career pathways. 

From ‘gamersitters’ to Minecraft therapy

Gaming and entrepreneurship is central to the DreamYard Project. DreamYard works in partnership with the Bronx Gaming Network (BGN), which acts as a stepping stone for young people attending DreamYard’s programmes. Rudy supports young people into creative careers, guiding young creatives and gamers through everything from content creation to visual arts applied products. They start with children as young as five years old so safe environments are critical. 

“It’s important to find safe communities to play in,“ says Rudy. He’s trained older ‘gamersitters’, employing high schoolers trained in positive gaming values to game with younger children in a safe setting. The programme is also about raising good gamers, making young people aware of the toxicity in gaming. For example, middle schoolers make a pledge around how they want to be interacted with. But, says Rudy, “13 years old is too old to unlearn toxic habits. We teach kids at five or six to call it out and say that’s not nice.”

 The network is also concerned to normalise gaming and show its value to the adults in young people’s lives, including the vast array of gaming-adjacent skills, such as emerging media and visual design. Rudy has been working with Games for Change, a non profit which ‘empowers game creators and social innovators to drive real-world impact through games and immersive media’, inspiring young people to explore civic issues and STEAM skills collaboration. At DreamYard young people have been building Minecraft and Roblox versions of the Bronx and teaching poetry through Fortnite.

Gaming is also used in therapy, with group sessions focusing on mental health in Minecraft, and Rudy is using Casel’s social emotional framework aligned to gaming.

Rowan Roberts leads on Minecraft activities at London CLC and has worked with whole classes in Minecraft. She notes that “it’s interesting to see the community rules children have to come up with working alongside each other. Usually when children are working together in the same Minecraft world there will be some sort of griefing that goes on. But that can be an opportunity to talk about respect and expectations. How to be a civil collaborative community and respect one another in that space. Just because it’s a digital space doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”

The gender divide in gaming is also a factor. “When we talk about toxicity it’s because gaming is usually white male dominated and boy centric in the way it’s marketed despite the fact that half the number of gamers in the world are female,” Rudy points out. “A lot of schools are running esports teams and are finding that the boys don’t want to play with the girls. I say to those educators, before you started an esports team you should have talked about this.”

Mapping career pathways and ecosystems

One of the many synergies between DreamYard’s programmes and the CLC’s has been with CLC’s TechPathways London programme, part of the London Mayor’s Digital Talent programme. 

TechPathways sought to bridge the gap between the digital skills acquired in education and those required by London’s digital and creative industries. It did this by helping educators to develop their digital skills and to increase knowledge of and access to London’s diverse and growing digital sectors. Along with events, online courses and challenge briefs, it  built up a network of industry experts who shared their knowledge and advice with educators. 

Similarly, DreamYard has been working with design agencies, universities, the municipality and non profits to map out career pathways into design for Bronx youth. A priority is to create a network of designers of colour in the Bronx and bridge it to other spaces. The programme looks at all kinds of design, including fashion and gaming as well as UX and graphic design. It’s a field that tends to be dominated by white men but the collaboration is shifting culture and hiring practices – and building social capital for young people.

 Hillary says: “There’s an overlap between design and gaming and media and entrepreneurship but whatever field we’re working in at DreamYard we are building an ecosystem, recognising that young people in the Bronx may not have a network because of where their parents work or what the culture is. It’s not just a pathway to some other place but a pathway through that ecosystem – how do you build that ecosystem and bridge it to other spaces, how do we create a network of designers in the Bronx and link them into industry in Manhattan?”

The ’coding’ issue – start with the what not the how!

How does coding fit into the gaming and design pathways? It’s a subject that has received much attention in recent years with numerous projects to encourage coding – and funding to support them. But is it always the right approach?

As Hillary says, “coding is accessible in some ways but you have to be careful with language. The terms coding or computer science can make some people run away. Rudy and I see trends in funding set by the big foundations and individuals. For example, McArthur used to fund the digital and learning field and it was pretty open. What filled that void is coding and computer science, which is necessary and we need that for our young people, but you lose some people immediately when you start with coding. We try to tie coding to something else, for example coding and dance. We start with what and then bring in the computational thinking – that’s similar to what you are doing at the CLC.”

And, as Rudy points out, if you map gaming career pathways you discover that more of the market share of the industry is on the gaming support side than on the coding side. So teach a young person how to edit video tied to gaming and they are now, without knowing it, being trained as a future manager for a gaming company. “The participant is not aware of it and neither are the educators!”

 The value of Twitch

Rudy finds that Twitch, a live streaming platform mostly used by gamers but now also by fashionistas, makeup artists, DJs etc, is a very useful platform in his work.

“It’s the easiest platform to monetise so within a month you can bring in income by making money off the content you produce,” explains Rudy. “Older college students had previously been trying to monetise their content without much success. 

 “When I started talking about careers and gaming on Twitch, people started inviting other people and everyone wanted to be part of this community. They see a connection between entrepreneurship and gaming,” says Rudy.

Discord is also an important communication tool at DreamYard, with Rudy running media production classes on Discord.

Building young people’s hopes and dreams

Ultimately, this is all about young people’s passions – fandom, music, art, gaming. How can young people flourish in these multimodal approaches?

“A lot of it is community building,” says Hillary. “It’s core to what DreamYard does – building relationships. It’s recognising that in every class you’ll have a young person who’s into music, another who’s into dance, another into visual art – and you need all of that, everything everybody’s got. How are you building community wherever you are?  How are you doing that as a class teacher, as a programme administrator, how do you build your own community and connect to other groups? How are you aware of young people’s interests? How are you aware of their interests and passions and what they are good at and how can you bring that into the room?”

Like CLC, DreamYard supports teachers in their professional learning and using digital technologies more creatively in their teaching. Educators leveraging gaming is an important element, as Hillary emphasises.

 “You need people with different roles collaborating – I love that about how Rudy thinks about gaming – you’re good at visual art, you’re good at talking and can banter all day on Twitch: that’s a skillset, and you’ve got the person here doing coding. And younger people don’t always know what they are interested in so how are you giving them experiences to try out? We give them a little bit of everything to help them find their entry point.”

Getting more connected

DreamYard’s hopes for young people in its community in the Bronx are similar to CLC’s wishes for the children it works with in schools across South London.

“I hope the world gets to see the brilliance of the young people of the Bronx,” says Hillary. “In some ways they are cut off but they are so creative; I want the world to see the amazingness of what’s in their hearts and minds. And for other neighbourhoods dealing with the same challenges, I hope that we get more connected, stop leaving people out, stop forgetting about whole neighbourhoods and that we give everyone a chance. I hope that we can connect them to good jobs but also give them agency, give them more power to reimagine new futures and build the tools they need in their communities without having to go somewhere else or fight for access. They can do that in their home and then take that wherever they want.”

 Rudy agrees:  “I want our young people out there telling our stories . By training these content creators up we can lift the entire borough up and their businesses and their dreams.

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