Gaming and libraries luminary Professor Scott Nicholson of Syracuse University's School of Information Studies has recently been exploring and discussing “gamification” -- “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” -- especially its relation to increasing usage of library services. His musings on the subject come at a time when I, as a parent and gamer, am finishing up my son’s first public library summer reading program. I admire Nicholson’s examination of the subject -- I follow his scholarly activities about gaming as part of a self-edification kick and because the intersection of gaming and other elements of society interests me -- and while I agree with his general theory that gamification alone doesn’t guarantee development of an independent motivation and interest in a rewarded behavior, I myself haven’t seen overuse of gamification to boost participation in programs at my own local public library.
I think public library summer reading programs strike a balance between far too much gamification of library services and making an honest and effective effort to keep kids reading outside the school year. No matter how many “prizes” libraries offer for children reading a certain number of books, I’d wager such programs mostly attract kids whose parents take an active part in their education and have already instilled in them some affinity for recreational reading. (I have no hard-and-fast data to support it, though I’d love to see some from the ALA or scholars like Nicholson; I’m no librarian and I have been told in no uncertain terms that without an MLS I shouldn’t even consider applying for a part-time library job, so my opinion on this matter carries little weight.) At least in suburban and rural areas without decent public transportation kids participating in the program need parents or guardians to drive them to libraries to sign-up, select books, participate in events, and redeem their rewards. Participating in library programs that interest me and my family remains the true prize (as Nicholson has pointed out in some discussions), and one not viewed as a reward for participation but as part of our own worthwhile self-edification.
Lifelong Interest in Reading
I myself don’t recall participating much in summer reading programs as a kid, and had (and continue to have) a love/hate relationship with public libraries. Yet I still have a hearty appetite for books across the fiction and non-fiction landscape.
I have one memory that stands out. When I was a kid the local library summer reading program offered a free poster with great Dragonriders of Pern artwork to kids in my age group who read a certain number of books. All the neighborhood kids loved fantasy (I can’t recall if we’d discovered Dungeons & Dragons yet). One kid I knew boasted he’d get his mother to sign off that he’d read the required number of books just so he could get the poster without much effort (I have no idea if he actually read any books or simply carried out his scheme). To me this exemplifies the ineffectiveness of “gamification” of such library programs (at least for children) and reinforces that its effectiveness lies with parents.
I’ve been a voracious reader most of my life, so I really never felt the need to be driven to read by library summer reading programs. I was terribly proud the summer of 1977 when I finished reading my first “novel” in a week, the novelization of Star Wars. Let’s face it, this young geek spent the summer before his senior year in high school consuming every Larry Niven and Michael Moorcock paperback he could get his hands on and then some -- probably a book each week all summer long -- without any summer reading program incentive.
The Little Guy’s Experience
I registered the Little Guy for the local library’s summer reading program despite my skepticism…kids his age had to “read” 20 books to fulfill the requirements for receiving prizes. My wife and I regularly read to the Little Guy every night as part of his bedtime routine, and we have a variable but standard litany of titles to choose from, usually ending with Teddy Jam’s Night Cars, which we find far more lyrically hypnotic and engaging than Goodnight Moon. So we logged in the titles as we read them, often seven or eight a night, and didn’t note how many times we read them. We signed up in mid-June with a deadline of July 29; after a month we’d read 25 different books.
After a summer storytime session we stopped by the summer reading program table where a young teen fellow (heck, he called me “sir”) checked the list and loaded us up with prizes: a summer reading certificate, a star on which we wrote his name to paste to the bulletin board (the Little Guy was upset because he wanted to keep the star…), a plastic bracelet that’s too big for him, and wads of summer reading program-themed stickers, coupons, a ticket to the “after party” for the program, and a free book. Let’s face it, my two year-old toddler doesn’t really care about the coupons for free chicken nuggets, Italian ices, and curly fries (though ultimately he will enjoy most of those treats). He may go to but probably doesn’t care much about the ice cream party for successful participants at the program’s end (though we might see if he has a clown phobia…). He’ll lose the stickers after about a week. But the Little Guy really cares that he got a free copy of Clifford the Small Red Puppy. He also enjoys most of the events associated with the summer reading program: the goofy magic show, wild animal showcase, and participatory music program. Those and the summer storytimes go on our menu of late-morning excursions we take to get out of the house and expose him to more of the world. Those are the real rewards.
In another aspect of my fractured life I volunteer regularly at the library’s teen gaming events, hosting board games and trying to foster a sense of good sportsmanship and a positive experience. The teens for these once-monthly events -- and those at the one associated with the summer reading program since it occurs in July -- don’t have to reach goals to participate; they attend primarily because they enjoy games with their peers (and oddly enough, more play analog board games than the digital games offered). While attendance throughout the year varies due to a number of factors, it’s usually well-attended, if not packed. No gamified library incentive there other than playing games and having fun.
I’m not aware of any other library programs beyond summer reading that gamify services. The local library offers a host of resources beyond the ability to browse and check out books and other media, from children’s storytimes and teen gaming events to job search coaching, computer classes, and grant seeker training, not to mention special programs throughout the year.
The Hidden Prize: Numbers
But there’s another, hidden, gamified “prize” in library patronage. Visiting the library -- to check out books, enjoy kids’ storytimes, volunteer or play in gaming events, or enjoy other programs -- benefits the library by adding to the tally of people using its services and programs. The library’s annual budget report to the county includes numbers for usage of library services and programs; if the library can show it’s serving more people, the more it’s justified in asking for and getting a larger budget…or, in these Great Recession days, asking the county to hold the budget at previous years’ levels and not cut funding further. Additional funding circles back to benefit me and others in the community with more offerings from the library to entice us to use its services and enjoy its programs.
Like many of us, public libraries are trying to redefine themselves according to today’s constantly changing technology, balancing well-established programs with new innovations while striving to remain relevant in local communities. Gamification seems like a tempting means of drawing more patrons to use library services and thus increase numbers for the bean counters (both in library administration and local government). I’m happy to say if there’s any gamification at my local library, it’s limited to the summer reading program. I’ll continue reading to my child for as long as he’ll allow it, and plan on encouraging him to read on his own when he’s ready. If we get a few prizes for that beyond the sheer joy, knowledge, and satisfaction of reading, that’s nice, but not required.