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Event Wrap Up: Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium

On December 5th and 6th, over a hundred librarians and academics, from across the Midwest and beyond, convened in a Chicago conference hall to participate in a watershed discussion on video games, learning, and libraries.

Brandon Boyer

December 19, 2005

12 Min Read

On December 5th and 6th, well over a hundred librarians and academics from across the Midwest and beyond, convened in a Chicago conference hall to participate in what many in the room felt was a watershed discussion on the changing role of both the library and the digital landscape. The discussions ranged far beyond simply adding console titles, gaming magazines, and strategy guides to public collections – though all were suggested practices – and into ways gaming might be strategically positioned to bridge the divide between traditionalist views of the institution as a stolid information repository and of libraries as modern civic centers.

In addition, there were discussions on promoting public knowledge through all the technological avenues now available, and providing an official “third place” gathering point for communities. Fittingly, in a room flanked by a number of multi-player GameCube stations, every bit of serious discussion was counterbalanced with daily Mario Kart and Dance Dance Revolution tournaments, giving many attendees their first exposure to proper gaming culture.

Day One - 'New Landscapes For Libraries'

Les Gasser, Associate Professor for Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, summed up the challenges that modern libraries face on day one of the conference, in his keynote entitled “New Landscapes for Libraries.”

The narrow classical view of the library, Gasser explained, is what he would dub the ‘b-model': a box of books, an institution that organizes and stores information as a free service to the community and as a cost effective way to promote knowledge in society, and it's precisely this model that's straining to compete with an ever more rapidly changing society, as technology reshapes how information is gathered and disseminated.

As proof, Gasser pointed toward costs of information transactions throughout the ages, from scribes hand copying illuminated manuscripts, to Gutenberg – all especially costly techniques – forward to the modern day and Google, where transaction costs have not only become free, but now generate money. The proliferation of all these new modes of information gathering has driven people away from libraries in droves, but, despite the challenges, there's pressure to maintain this box of books status quo, and deep historical conflicts to keep “low culture” from invading the institution through battles against adding fiction, paperbacks, children's picturebooks, A/V media, and toys to collections.

Introducing gaming under this model, said Gasser, would surely incur the same battles, and would simply be akin to luring people with gaming candy and closing the book around them. While this literary bait-and-switch might find moderate success in bringing in new patrons, it does little to advance the role of the library.

Instead, he put forth an alternative, more progressive view: the ‘K-model,' with libraries functioning as a community intelligence center, a “university for the people,” through active promotions of resources and knowledge. Under this model, libraries can play a central role in introducing innovation to society, assimmilating the new, and exploring and making sense of the cutting edge. Here, games could be understood as a reflection of emerging cultural phenomena, and promoted as the foundation of a new cultural mythology. The way society is currently transmitting culture is through gaming, he explained, and so a bond must be forged between games and libraries.

As a closing teaser, Gasser looked forward to a future ‘i-model,' one where libraries serve as a “space of extended placeness”: virtual, social, collective interacting webs of services with game models as metaphors for information environments, freely able to hook into and exploit the changing nature of transaction costs to their own gain.

Following Gasser's keynote, the remainder of the symposium's first day was spent legitimizing gaming's place not only as an opportunity for libraries to draw in and retain potential patrons, but as a cultural shift changing and challenging classical views on information, technology, and learning.

The Gaming Landscape, Mapped

Steve Jones, Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois, and senior research fellow at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, was on hand to provide background statistics on the “gaming landscape.” Through data collected and processed from polls given to college students, the Pew project has learned that while 70% students play games “once in a while,” and 65% of them regularly, 100% of those surveyed admitted to playing games at one time or another, a rare statistical finding which Jones concluded was evidence of gaming's utter ubiquity and integration into public life.

He also noted that, to the surprise of the researchers, their polls showed that more women than men played computer and online games (a 60/40 ratio), while console gaming showed a more or less even split.

Constance Steinkuehler, Assistant Professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Educational Communication & Technology program, then took the floor to counter fear, paranoia, and general perceptions amongst old guard academia, who believe gaming is contributing to the “collapse of literacy,” with her research on learning and cognitive behavior in MMORPGs, specifically her time spent in Lineage II.

Constance Steinkuehler's research on learning and cognitive behavior in MMORPGs drew from Lineage II.

Contrary to popular belief, Steinkuehler maintained, games aren't replacing literacy, games are literacy. Aside from the obvious point that many online gamers use text to communicate, she also pointed out the rich “constellation of literary practices” in gaming fandom: the social network of databases storing a game's collective intelligence, often to a greater degree than that produced by developers themselves, forums for clan and guild sites, and especially fan fiction, where gamers aren't just writing in their spare time, but as part of the gameplay itself.

She also took care to discuss gaming as an intellectually rich environment, where young players with no classical training in education were utilizing sophisticated techniques – joint participation, scaffolding and sequencing of activities, repeated opportunites for practice and feedback – to apprentice newer players not only in technical in-game practices, but full enculturation into the ethos of the game world.

Steinkuehler urged libraries to care about gaming for precisely these reasons, that their environments were sites for wide array of literary and educational practices, and that through fan fiction and game modding, they represented a cultural shift toward participatory consumption, where gamers were “not reading, but rewriting the book.”

Games' Rich Tapestry

In the final speech of the day, Walt Scacchi, director of research for the Laboratory for Game Culture and Technology at the University of California Irvine, echoed many of the previous speaker's points. Games, he put forth, are an “immersive, experiential literary form,” with emergent narratives – Doom 3 is a story in progress, with the player at the helm – and a new information-rich medium with entire new languages. Their reach, he said, has spread into a number of diverse cultural forms: the visual and performing arts, the humanities, as graphic narratives for storytelling through machinima, and entirely new alternative game cultures such as LAN parties, game conventions, and “hot rod” game machines, which he likened to the custom car culture of his generation.

Scacchi's talk then focused on the educational efforts of the modding community, which not only fostered practice-based learning and offered cheap entry into research on educational gaming, but was at the center of career development for a rapidly growing global industry. While woefully admitting that success stories in game-based science learning and technical education were scant, if non-existent, he pointed to the emergence of educational mods, including a Far Cry mod teaching anatomical weight and balance in dinosaurs.

It was also noted that though widespread learning through games may be another 5 years away, there are more libraries that could act as potential venues for such learning in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City alone than the combined number of science museums nationwide.

Scacchi closed with a rhetorical call for library-based games with the player on a knowledge quest, finding and assembling clues from real-world library resources, acquiring all the skill of a professional researcher, with resident librarians as the in-game mentors. As with Gasser's keynote, he also ended with a tantalizing imagining of a future “inter-library gaming grid,” a community oriented site with each patron's own “mygamespace” – a customized web-portal and blog. The open-source technology is there, he said, with an opportunity for decentralized development costs and participation.

Day Two - Theory Into Practice

Where day one of the symposium was spent proving the necessity and viability of gaming in libraries, day two was oriented toward practical advice for freshly convinced librarians to implement their own programs.

In his keynote speech, George Needham, vice president for member services of the OCLC Online Computer Library Center, underscored the need to take ways that gamers and “digital natives” seek and view information into account when planning new library services and programs.

Noting a gamers' natural tendencies to compete, collaborate, and create, Needham suggested that librarians should rethink how they offer their services, trying library “mash-ups” by displaying Harry Potter books, movies and games together, or mixing a Call of Duty display with World War II literature. He offered other practical tips to open up libraries to a newer digital generation by stocking strategy guides, offering services through mobile phone text messages and IM, throwing LAN parties, and involving younger patrons in designing new programs.

Libraries Striding Into Gaming

Following the keynote, Eli Neiburger, Kelly Czarnecki, and Matt Gullett then offered successive success stories with gaming programs in their respective libraries. Neiburger, Information Access and Systems Manager, and crowd favorite with his Triforce tattoo, detailed his comprehensive flagship program at the Ann Arbor District Library which has been successful enough to inspire similar programs elsewhere.

The Ann Arbor library currently offers “seasonal” Super Smash Bros. Melee, Mario Kart, Madden, and Dance Dance Revolution gaming tournaments for patrons, with giftcard and gaming hardware prizes for championship winners, and offers, via a Drupal module on the library's website, extraordinarily extensive information on each player, clan, and tournament. Players can also leave comments through the system's messageboard to help plan and shape upcoming tournaments.

Super Smash Bros. Melee is one of the "seasonal" tournament offerings at the Ann Arbor library.

Czarnecki and Gullet of the Bloomington Public Library discussed their similar program, which began with quarterly networked PC “Game Fests.” The two have more recently expanded the fests into Mario Kart and Dance Dance Revolution contests, modeled after Ann Arbor's program, and have helped in creating the library's own exclusive World of Warcraft guild called Rex Libris. Bloomington also offers more comprehensive game-culture programs with PSP rewards for its summer reading contests, a twice-weekly “next-generation computer club” with classes teaching children about multimedia, and CyberSchool's online videogame design courses.

Both groups shared similar views on the importance of the programs to their institutions, noting their essential role as part of a “holistic approach” to lifelong learning, their strategic fit into a larger technology program, and most importantly, establishes the library as a place of purpose and value in a young patron's mind. "If you don't offer them something that has value to them now,” said Neiburger, “you're going to be irrelevant to them for the rest of their lives. It's not a risk we can afford to take."

Conclusion - Embracing Your Inner Game Geek

Heading up the final section of the symposium, Beth Gallaway, Youth Services consultant for Metrowest Regional Library System, gave more advice to staffers less familiar with the gaming culture. Her "to-do" list stressed embracing their “inner technogeeks” by getting an IM screenname and reading tech news, presenting themselves as strategy guides rather than “level bosses” by making support interactive, and offering greater flexibility to younger patrons by giving them control over the layout of the environment with modular furniture, and, as many before had stressed, making better use of web trends and innovations: blogs, RSS feeds, and adding social bookmarking and tagging to library catalogs.

Gallaway's most pertinent suggestion for librarians was to more adeptly tie literature and games together. When younger patrons ask for book suggestions, she said, instead of asking which authors they like, or which books they've read last, ask what three games the patron has last enjoyed, and work from there. As a thought exercise for a groggy post-lunch crowd, she threw out game genres and titles and asked what might be relevant to each: the gamer likes World of Warcraft or EverQuest? Try fantasy or Arthurian legend. The Sims? Suggest some sociology or romance novels. Katamari Damacy or Pokemon? Suggest manga or books on Japanese culture.

The Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium may well be, as the palpable energy in the room suggested, the first measured step in an ever closer bond between the old guard and the new, or, as George Needham coined them in his keynote, the digital immigrants and the digital natives. With both theoretical fodder to convince board members of a gaming program's intellectual cognitive worth and practical springboard advice toward starting such a program up, participants left with everything they needed to go forth and re-shape their library's landscape.


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About the Author(s)

Brandon Boyer


Brandon Boyer is at various times an artist, programmer, and freelance writer whose work can be seen in Edge and RESET magazines.

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