Character Creation: How an NYU Student Would Like to Change the Faces of Video Games
Isiah Rosa, a 20-year-old Brooklynite and ESA Foundation Scholar, is intent on learning all he can about the video-game industry.
By Rich Shea
If 20-year-old Isiah Rosa were offered a job tomorrow, and told he had six months to design any video game he desired, “it would be a New York game,” he says. By that he means a game not only set in his hometown — and favorite place in the world — New York City, but one with, as he puts it, “the aura” of the city.
“When I’m playing a game now, sure I can be on like 23rd and see the Flatiron building, but it doesn’t really feel like I’m in New York,” the Brooklyn native explains. “It’s not easy to create that kind of game. It would take a lot of time. You want the nuances. You want people in bodegas asking for bacon-egg-and-cheeses, with the bodega cat walking around. It’s not something you can do easily in a short amount of time, and I haven’t found the right time to execute it.”
He is working toward it, however. Isiah is a game design major at New York University. He’s also one of 35 recipients of a 2019–20 ESA Foundation scholarship, which is awarded to minority college students who show great promise in pursuing a career in video games.
This is Isiah’s second year in a row as a recipient. And as he did last year, he’s using the funds to help pay tuition costs. “It’s amazing to receive another ESA Foundation scholarship,” he says. “I am grateful to the Foundation for helping me to continue my studies at NYU. I plan to enrich my talents in writing for games and use the Foundation’s networking resources to connect with professionals.”
This past year, he was one of the scholars who qualified for all-expenses-paid participation in E3, the industry’s biggest trade event, in Los Angeles and the Foundation’s Nite to Unite fundraising gala and the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. All three events afforded Isiah and his fellow scholars innumerable educational opportunities as well as a chance to rub elbows with their idols.
“Meeting president of Nintendo of North America Doug Bowser was phenomenal,” he says. “What I enjoyed most was he talked to me like I was a colleague instead of a fan. That kind of respect resonated with me. It was also a bit surreal because my dream is to work at Nintendo. Meeting him and exchanging contact info is the potential connection that can lead to my break into the industry.”
So what, exactly, does Isiah hope to bring to the industry?
A second-generation Puerto Rican, and the oldest of three siblings, he’s been playing video games since the age of 3. “I was playing Mario 64 and a Winnie the Pooh game,” he recalls. “Since then, video games have always been a significant part of my life.”
Not until he was 15, however, did Isiah realize he could work in tech. At school, he was told about All Star Code, “an organization,” he says, “that empowers young men of color — black, Latino, Asian — to take initiative and teaches them to write code as well as become entrepreneurs.”
While attending the summer program, he learned of yet another program — NYU’s Future Game Designers, which introduces high-schoolers to game design, specifically. “I was like, ‘Whoa, game design? What the heck is that?” Isiah recalls.
He soon found out. Going to the NYU campus every Saturday, he and other students would take classes and “learn the basics of game design,” he says. “That was one of the best experiences I’ve had. It was just exciting, and I made a ton of friends and ended up making a game.”
All of these experiences led him to NYU’s Video Game Design program, where he’s learning all he can about the industry. “I want to have a strong portfolio,” Isiah says. “I want people to see I can be a developer, a project manager, a jack-of-all-trades.”
He has other goals as well. For instance, he hopes to design games featuring characters who resemble him. “Your Tomb Raiders, your Mass Effects,” he says, “the kind of more-realistic games like that — I’m like, ‘Cool, I get to play a muscular white man, but where’s me?’
“Games where you create your own character I enjoy because I get to personify myself however I want — like in Skyrim or Fallout 4, games with robust character-creation systems. But if the only way to see yourself in a game is by your own hand, it’s weird that developers aren’t acknowledging me.”
Just how Isiah will do that, he hasn’t worked out yet. But he has a role model: Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and star behind the Broadway hits In the Heights and Hamilton. “Especially since we’re both Puerto Rican, he’s an inspiration,” Isiah explains. “He didn’t try to become a big name overnight. He just worked on what he loved, and eventually people recognized and appreciated it. His work is beautiful, amazing, full of heart. I want my games to be like that. I don’t want to make a game that’s specifically Latino-Puerto Rican; I want that to come up because it’s me who makes it, something only I can do.”
With the ESA Foundation and its many donors supporting him, he knows he’s not alone — as was evident in San Francisco. “The fact that the Foundation, in partnership with GDC, was able to give me access to the conference means the world to me,” he says. “It feels as if my efforts and hard work as a student studying game design have been recognized and commended. It also serves as proof that I have the potential to make a splash in the games industry. I am very grateful to have been given this opportunity.”
Isiah, in turn, would like to give back, by delivering this message to younger video-gamers who may think they don’t have a shot at getting into the industry: “Everyone’s telling you who you’re supposed to be. The most important thing to ask yourself is, ‘Who do I want to be?’ If you want to work on video games or play them professionally, go for it. Don’t listen to what anybody says. The people who support you will support you no matter what.”
Rich Shea is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.