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The Solution to Stagnant Games? Librarians!

Clearly, the best to improve the game industry is to hire more librarians.

I often find myself reading comments here at Gamasutra about how the games industry has become stale, how the big companies just put out clone after clone, how innovation seems to have been sidelined by the focus on safe business ventures, and how an industry that is ostensibly fueled by creativity seems to be less and less creative by the day. To be sure, indies and small studios are striving forth with the ideal of novelty that once gave rise to this incredible industry, but the giants in the playground have stopped playing: they’re sitting around and getting fat and forgetting what fun is all about.

And now that’s starting to go wrong. Sales are down. Customers are increasingly fickle. The future of “the triple-A game” is in peril. Is there any quick fix these giants can adapt to once again become nimble and successful?

I was inspired by the words of a librarian, one who had to tackle the seemingly impossible task of bringing information reform to the medical industry when there was no precedent for the types of services they needed to survive.

“Perhaps this goes without saying but I will say it anyway: this particular alchemy is only possible in an environment where change is welcomed (however difficult it almost always is for everyone involved, even when said change is known to be positive), where creativity is fostered and unconventional solutions are encouraged. You may be surprised by the fact (I know I am, having studied both fine arts and creative writing) that, perhaps by necessity, health professionals and librarians are some of the most creative and unconventional thinkers I have so far encountered, and amazingly willing to take risks.” – Francesca Frati

What struck me about this was the stark contrast drawn with the games industry: whereas hospitals are hardly thought of as places of exuberant creativity, game studios are. Yet when working in video game companies, I’ve experienced a hostile opposition to change, a crushing oppression of creativity, and downright refusals to consider unconventional solutions. I have to wonder if these sentiments are pervasive throughout the industry; if they guide hiring decisions to merely recycle the same employees over and over and over again.

The Gamasutra staff recently debated the controversy over a job ad that included a Metacritic requirement, but I want to take this discussion in a different direction and talk about a requirement that more game companies should include in their job ads:

A Master’s Degree in Library or Information Science (MLIS, MLS, MI, or equivalent) from an ALA-Accredited University.

Yes, you read that right. I’m suggesting that game companies should hire librarians.

What good are librarians in a company that has no books, you might ask? Librarians do more than shuffle books around on shelves. Librarians are Information Professionals. They are experts in organizing, maintaining, and facilitating the use of information repositories. Librarians are the cornerstone of the information management and knowledge management fields of practice, are frequently experts in project management and digital records management, and are often the core of corporate learning centers. Wherever there is information, there should be a librarian.

There can’t be many industries more reliant on information than the games industry. But what do they do with it? Do they know the best way to use it? Do they even know what they know?

Countless times I’ve seen companies throw tools at problems and expect those problems to go away, without hiring an expert to wield that tool properly. I’ve seen companies with four different information management software suites and beleaguered IT techs struggling to interconnect them all. I’ve seen companies with massive content management deployments that hand out Superuser status willy-nilly, only to have nearly every document's permission level set to “public.” I’ve seen companies that try to solve disorganized shared network drives (906 folders? really?) by adding more shared network drives; and then give everyone access to everything because it’s too confusing to handle access privileges.

Librarians are facilitators: they make sure the right information gets to the right person at the right time. They understand the flow of knowledge, the interconnected relationships, the work processes. Librarians may not do the work needed to make a game, but they make it possible for everyone else to do that work.

The lack of librarians in the games industry shows up in my mailbox with startling regularity: right in Game Developer Magazine’s post-mortems, in the “what went wrong” sections. Consider this example from Volume 17 Issue 9, October 2010’s post-mortem of Final Fantasy XIII:

“The biggest problem was that the project became bloated with the increase in staff within each department. And because roles were so specific, the communication flow became faulty and information was not being shared properly. One specific example was that updates or confirmations regarding specs would not get through to every team members, and at times, the staff would continue to create data without knowing the most up-to-date status.”

“Departments that communicated very closely would actively share information, so there were no problems there, but these cases were based strictly on individual communication skills. For example, when we looked collectively at our in-game locations, which are basically what each level of the game could be broken down into, there were instances where what the artist and the game designer had initially agreed upon would somehow shift due to the effects of another section’s progress; and it was apparent that information was not being transferred properly.”

Square-Enix was working on an ambitious project and hiring lots of extra staff; and in the process was running into a lot of problems. But, to think, hiring just one more person – a librarian – would have alleviated their problems tremendously and would have saved them thousands of hours of wasted work due to poor information exchange.

A lot of people think that information exchange is a personal problem: if people communicated better, information would be exchanged better. But that simply isn’t the case. For one thing, that leads to information overload: too much communication, too many emails, too many forum posts or comments. No one can digest it all. Thus good information exchange is a more complex science of information collection, information transmission, information filtering, information delivery, and information storage and retrieval.

The key to good information exchange is “store more, find less.” In today’s world of Googling, people are becoming more and more complacent in their information searches: they put in a fairly generic keyword, hit search, glance at the top ten results Google suggests, and be satisfied with one of those as long as it’s kinda close to what you want. But that goes in the opposite direction from a solid library search. A librarian’s goal is to build a sufficiently complete system such that a properly formulated search query returns very few or, ideally, just one result: the thing you’re actually looking for.

Modern document and content management systems used by many companies with Knowledge Management offices (staffed by librarians) allow employees to access corporate knowledge in this manner. After taking the time to set up comprehensive queries relating to the specific information needs of each employee, everyone ends up knowing everything they need to know and nothing else. It saves time and money and enhances productivity; all those jazzy keywords business people love to hear.

So I can’t figure out why I don’t see video game companies looking to hire librarians for Knowledge Management positions. Do they feel like all those information technology people already know how to handle information exchange? Or is it because they think good information exchange would impinge upon their creative and organic way of doing things? This can’t possibly be the reason though, because good information exchange greatly enhances creativity and makes it possible for everyone to make meaningful contributions without overloading designers with overlapping feedback.

Really, if we want to see more creative and innovative games, game companies need to be willing to tap into their entire workforce of creative minds, not just those few with “lead” designations. And that sort of creative collaboration in a massive workforce of hundreds or thousands is simply impossible without a solid information exchange infrastructure operated by – you guessed it – librarians.

So if you’re working for a video game company and you feel the need for better creativity in your workplace, take a moment and pass on this suggestion to your boss: Hire a Librarian!

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