Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gaming in Libraries

Gaming in libraries has come a long way since the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (otherwise known as “The Early Eighties”), when the media focused on Dungeons & Dragons and portrayed the hobby as the realm of misfits, geeks, and sociopaths.

Even then libraries were among the first to provide a public meeting place for gamers, especially when gaming was relegated to kitchen tables instead of gaming tables in forward-thinking hobby and game stores. I often regret not getting into D&D until the end of my time in junior high, since the school’s activity program offered a D&D club that used a library meeting room for games once a week (though in later years it was the focus of controversy about D&D in schools). Like many other kids, I didn’t quite know what D&D was all about; my ignorance and the social stigma associated with D&D kept me away from pursuing the hobby in public.

In high school I fully engaged my geeky game hobby and overcame some of that social stigma (I have no recollection of any D&D club there…); but the high school library, even its quiet group study area, did not welcome games. I’d designed a rudimentary roleplaying game of my own (a bit simpler than D&D for the uninitiated I sought to recruit to the hobby) and I enjoyed developing simplistic board games we tested in the library’s small group study area…and we were promptly kicked out by the British librarian for “gambling” because our game used dice (a cultural nuance I more fully appreciated later in life). We adjourned to the cafeteria, a social gathering place for students during free periods outside of lunchtime.

I recall the high school library had two boxed war games I somehow found combing the card catalogs (now relics of ancient information technology); both had the small bits like dice and counters removed, with no notation as to where one could find them for reference or play. Books about games or game design did not exist in the library’s collection.

The town library was somewhat more open to Dungeons & Dragons; it hosted a summer program for pre-teens and teens, organized by the two established gaming geeks who, despite their snobbish attitude toward other people running D&D “their” way, somehow convinced the library to let them organize the program and let other dungeon masters run games. My involvement was an interesting exercise in hosting game events in a more public venue with complete strangers (rather than around my dining room table with friends).   

Libraries Today

Since then libraries, especially public ones, have shifted their focus; they no longer exist as repositories for books to lend, but as community hubs offering a vast array of services and experiences. Libraries have adapted to mainstream media: while they still hold collections of books and magazines, many now acquire and circulate music CDs, film DVDs, and some even digital games. They offer experiences based on their collections: book discussion groups, story times, summer reading programs, writers’ groups, opportunities to explore new careers and apply for jobs online, lectures and performances, book sales, and workshops on topics from doing taxes and navigating the internet to writing grants and researching genealogy.

Gaming has also found its way into the public library experience through gaming programs for teens, adults, and seniors. According to a 2006-2007 survey by Professor Scott Nicholson -- noted library science scholar at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies and the Library Game Lab of Syracuse and one of several prominent voices in a growing gaming in libraries movement -- in 2007 only 35% of 404 libraries participating in the survey used board and card games in library game programs, compared with 64% using console games in such programs (and only 9% of libraries actually circulated board and card games). No doubt these statistics have changed over the years since Professor Nicholson conducted his survey, and I’ll assume that these numbers have increased slightly given the efforts of those advocating games in libraries, the growing popularity of high-quality board games, and libraries’ efforts to evolve their roles in a changing world.

Many libraries involve traditional games with educational applications, like Scrabble, backgammon, and chess; but more are exploring the growing analog board game field. (Many also offer digital games, especially ones with physical interaction that are particularly good at keeping seniors active). I’m within about an hour’s drive to several public library systems; a casual survey among them shows weekly Scrabble meets (for both youth and adults), monthly teen gaming programs hosting both analog and digital games, and even occasional board game events exclusively for adults. Lately I’ve volunteered to host games (Pirateer and Forbidden Island) at the local library’s monthly teen gaming events; of the average 20-25 teens who attend (a good showing), a handful try the digital games offered, while everyone engages in the analog board and minis games.

Game events provide teens with a safe environment with an activity focus, whether analog or digital games, where they can find a temporary respite from the constant pressures of teenage life (including the constant issues of bullying, gangs, suicide, and abuse). Similar programs also give seniors an opportunity to socialize and exercise their mental faculties, and other adults the chance to enjoy new experience and check out family gaming options.

But how can libraries move games beyond the occasional programming event and into the more mainstream collection for circulation? Some might argue that games, as a form of “entertainment,” don’t belong in a public library; but with CDs and DVDs and fiction available in public stacks, that argument falls short. Finding diversions at the library remains a valid use of its resources, especially when it can offer opportunities to learn and broaden one’s horizons. The library enables patrons to more closely examine materials they could potentially purchase for their permanent home use. This applies especially to CDs, DVDs, video games, magazines, and games. Making analog games available at the library encourages subsequent game purchase and further repeat play, not only at home but at library programs, further reinforcing the library’s role as a community hub.

Games offer some practical challenges in the context of the library’s usual lending paradigm. Books, CDs, DVDs, and digital games have few components; analog games have many components in the box that, if lost, often render the game unplayable. I’m no librarian (as I have been told in no uncertain terms that without an MLS I shouldn’t even consider applying for a part-time library job); but from what I’ve seen and read, perhaps the best method might involve treating a library game collection like reference works: lending them within the library only -- not for outside circulation -- and providing a welcoming environment in which to read and play them (a meeting room or other area for group study where more vocal interaction is acceptable). In some cases libraries separate the more fiddly game components into separate, re-sealable bags, allowing patrons to examine the box, rules, and board before checking out the game components for in-library use.

Game stores sometimes employ similar “limited circulation” models. Many keep opened store copies available to borrow, unbox, examine, and play in the gaming area (which also provides a generally welcoming atmosphere that encourages people to try new things and talk about games, much like a gaming “community hub”). On a recent visit to my Friendly Local Gaming Store, the owner found an opportunity to explain to me the store’s board game loan policy (one I wish she’d posted somewhere so more folks might take advantage of it): patrons can “check out” a game with a $5 deposit, redeemable toward the price of the game should they eventually purchase it. Both models show that, with a little respect and responsibility, board games can enter limited circulation to the public.

I’m sure I’m missing some of the more nuanced arguments about various “Gaming in Libraries” issues: whether games belong there, how to integrate them into programming and circulated collections, how to find funding to acquire relevant games, creating an acquisition rationale for building a collection. I’ve not yet had a chance to read some of the more academic literature on the subject (Professor Nicholson’s Everyone Plays at the Library is out of stock at Amazon.com…), but I know forward-thinking librarians out there are dealing with the issues of expanding their role and relevance in the community, and I like to think gaming plays some part in that.