Taking Games in Libraries Seriously

by Andy Burkhardt 

“Games are unquestionably the single most important cultural form of the digital age.”

-Cathy Davidson[1]

What do aggravated avians and wandering warlocks have in common? Aside from their potential to cause mayhem, they are characters in some of the most popular games today. With over one billion downloads across all platforms and editions, Angry Birds has become a cultural phenomenon. Similarly, World of Warcraft has over ten million subscribers, making it the largest massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). These games are entertaining and fun, they sell t-shirts, and they have colorful characters, but make no mistake: these games are serious business. Games are now an integral part of our society in business, entertainment, and increasingly, education.

The reason these games have made millions of dollars is because they are engaging, challenging, and fun. However, instead of being mere entertainment, there are also numerous educational aspects to games. Games let us practice skills like solving complex problems, collaborating with others, planning, and learning from failure. This is why a growing number of scholars are studying games and more educators are integrating game play into their classrooms. Games are swiftly becoming an invaluable tool for teaching in the digital age.

Because of their importance as a cultural form of media, and their promising potential in teaching, librarians need to be putting serious thought into games. Librarians, as information experts, need to be thinking about how to best preserve and provide access to this essential cultural content. As educators, they also need to examine how games can be used to enhance their teaching and allow students to practice information literacy skills. Libraries have the opportunity to help invent new interactive and participatory learning experiences for students. Luckily, there are already some initial models to look towards in terms of both building game collections as well as using games in library instruction.

Collecting Games

Librarians have always had to adapt their library collections to meet the changing needs of their faculty and students. These needs are changing with increasing rapidity though, and in order to continue to meet them, librarians need to be aware of cultural trends as well as trends in their faculty’s research and instruction. Because of the popularity of games in our culture, researchers in disciplines as diverse as gender studies, sociology, economics, education, and others are all identifying games as a subject for study. Faculty are also increasingly using games as pedagogical tools and seeing their value as learning objects. At Champlain College, their electronic game design major is one of the most popular offerings.[2] Students study how to actually create games, including everything from game theory, to level design, to programming, to art and animation. In order to support the research and instruction of faculty and the changing learning needs of students, some libraries should be considering games as a meaningful part of their collection.

A number of libraries such as DePaul University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of California at Santa Cruz have already built significant game collections. At the University of Michigan, librarians collaborated with several faculty members in 2006 to build an initial collection of games that continues to grow.[3] They now have a large Computer and Video Game Archive space dedicated to supporting this collection. Their professors place games on reserve and assign games as “course reading” in some of their classes. Faculty members in various disciplines also use these games as primary source materials in their research. An additional benefit is that this collection gives the library the opportunity to design programming around games, education, and research as well as attract student groups to the library.

When building a library game collection, especially when starting from scratch, there are considerable challenges that need to be taken into account. Some of these challenges include:

  • Funding – With library budgets often stretched, it may not be easy to find funds for a game collection. Some libraries have purchased initial collections through either internal or external grants. Also many game collections rely on donations of older games to supplement their holdings.
  • Buy-in – Even though games are an important part of our culture, not everyone will agree about their inclusion in the library’s holdings. Partnering with interested faculty members and pointing to other library game collections and best practices are useful strategies in making the case for a library game collection.
  • Access – To make use of a game collection students and faculty need to be able to first find the games. Cataloging games will be different from other books and media. These games also require many different specific devices (console, handheld, PC) to play them. Will the library provide access to this hardware as well?
  • Space – Games, if collected in a physical format, have to reside somewhere, and space on college campuses is often at a premium. Are the games going to be in an area that is open and browsable, or will they be behind a desk or in a locked cabinet? In addition, if the library decides to offer equipment and hardware needed to play the games, those space issues will need to be taken into account.
  • Scope – The number of game titles is immense, and libraries don’t have unlimited space or funds. Which genres of games should be collected? Will classic games be included? Librarians need to be selective and design a collection development policy that takes into account the specific needs of their institution, their faculty, and their students.

Despite the challenges, building a game collection allows librarians to build closer relationships with faculty and students. It also allows them to position themselves as key resources and collaborators in this growing field. Games are being studied as the important cultural objects that they are. But they are also “being investigated as a next generation educational platform.”[4] Libraries can support this research, and as in the following examples, begin to explore alongside teaching faculty how games can meet their own instructional goals.

Games in Library Instruction

Learning is fun, but it may not always seem that way for students when they are writing ten-page papers and pulling all-nighters. In college, learning can be viewed as a chore, but does it have to be? The Dutch historian Johann Huizinga in his study on play and culture implored, “Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing.”[5] Students are asking for the same thing, and educators should be paying attention. Using games and game elements in education can be a way to bring fun back into learning.

Librarians as educators are recognizing this need to connect fun and learning. To meet this challenge, they are coming up with creative ways to integrate games into their teaching. One way involves designing games to familiarize students with the library and give them a basic understanding of the resources and services the library has to offer. These games usually take the place of a traditional library orientation, are very focused, and are tailored to the institution. The other way librarians use games is in teaching information literacy concepts. These games go into more depth about things like the research process and evaluating sources for quality and credibility.

A perennial challenge in libraries is familiarizing first-year students with the library, librarians, and the wealth of resources available to them. Librarians at The Ohio State University have come up with a creative solution to this problem. They developed an online game called HeadHunt in which players are trying to find the missing head of Brutus (the Ohio State mascot), which was stolen by “some mischievous Michigan fans.”[6] In order to solve the mystery, players must collect clues and solve a series of mini-games that have to do with the Ohio State Libraries system. If players complete the game, they are entered into a drawing for prizes including gift cards and electronics. Through incentivization, levity, challenges, school spirit, and fun, Ohio State librarians hope to inform students of all the value their libraries offer.

Another example of a game designed to orient new students is Fairfield University’s Library Scene: Fairfield Edition. Inspired by the popular mainstream game SceneIt, Library Scene mixes multimedia clips, questions, matching games, and word puzzles to learn about different areas of the library.[7] Librarians collaborated and built relationships with members of the university’s Media Center for help with the more technical aspects of designing the game, which is integrated into required library instruction classes in student’s first year. Feedback from student surveys has been positive and students report that after playing it they are more aware of library offerings.[8]

In addition to orientation games, librarians are also developing games focused on information literacy competencies and more in-depth research skills such as assessing relevance and avoiding plagiarism. One simple example is Goblin Threat from Lycoming College.[9] The premise is that goblins have taken over the school and in order to defeat them, the player has to answer questions about plagiarism. The game mainly makes use of static animations and free sound effects and was created by only two librarians. The questions asked are mostly practical “how to avoid plagiarism” questions, though some ask about why it is proper to cite. Professors can require students to play the game as part of their class. When a student successfully completes the game they prove their mastery to their professors by printing out the completion screen. With the true/false, multiple choice, and matching questions, it is similar to a quiz on plagiarism, but the gameplay elements add a bit more fun to the experience. One of the forward-thinking aspects of this game is that the questions are not specific to Lycoming College. This allows other librarians to link to this game to use in their own instruction.

So far, the most impressive example of a library game designed to teach information literacy skills is BiblioBouts.[10] With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, librarians at the University of Michigan developed a game that classroom instructors can use to accompany and enhance their research assignments. The game is an online tournament in which students compete in three separate bouts: Closer Bout, Tagging & Rating Bout, and Best Bibliography Bout. In each of these bouts students practice different information literacy skills such as assessing relevance in the Closer Bout and considering credibility in the Tagging & Rating Bout. The game is closely connected to an assignment and serves as a scaffold for students’ research. As opposed to putting the entire research process off until the last minute, BiblioBouts requires students to complete different bouts and thus different parts of the research process on a pre-determined schedule.

BiblioBouts is also highly collaborative. In the Tagging & Rating Bout, students rate and tag sources collected by their classmates. The game allows students to work with each other and find sources that they may not have originally discovered on their own. It also gives librarians the opportunity to collaborate with instructors. Librarians help instructors implement the game in their classes and sometimes supplement game play with library instruction focused on the topics covered. It also gives instructors the opportunity to have conversations with students about topics such as relevancy or scholarship. Instead of building everything from scratch, the game integrates the open-source citation manager Zotero and uses it as a tool to allow students to collect and share their sources. Because the game is funded by the IMLS, it was designed to be openly accessible for other libraries and librarians to use in their own teaching. In fact, the game developers are actively looking for partners who would also want to employ BiblioBouts and make improvements to it.

Next Steps

There are a number of things current library games are doing well, one of which is designing games in an open way so that other libraries can make use of them. Both BiblioBouts and Goblin Threat are constructed so that other librarians can adapt them for use at their own institutions. Libraries are already sharing instructional materials, videos, and multimedia with one another in projects like the PRIMO (Peer-Reviewed Instructional Materials Online) database and ANTS (Animated Tutorial Sharing Project). Games are another teaching tool that librarians should be building and sharing openly. Librarians are all working toward the same goal of teaching students to become sophisticated information users in this networked environment. Games built and shared openly increase the potential audience from students at a single college, to students in all institutions of higher education.

Another positive trend in library games like BiblioBouts is that they are not isolating, but collaborative. Players play with and against others, competing to select the best sources and ultimately learning from each other. It is similar in this way to other popular online games such as World of Warcraft or Farmville in which you are constantly interacting with others. This models the real world of information literacy and information seeking. Decisions about information are not made alone or within a vacuum, but within certain contexts and often with other people. Success in this hyper-connected world is becoming increasingly dependent on the ability to collaborate with others to solve problems, and educators should be designing games to reflect that reality.

There is still room for improvement in the information literacy game arena though. Jane McGonigal, Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future, asserts that games can effectively be used to teach responsible action and solve real-world problems.[11] Many existing library games orient people to the library or teach procedural and practical skills like how to avoid plagiarism. Are there ways for libraries to begin designing games that teach not just avoiding plagiarism, but also address bigger questions about how best to act in this information-rich world? One example could be a game not about plagiarism but about the ethical use of information. The game could be designed in such a way that students could practice making decisions about using others’ intellectual property not just in academia but in their careers and everyday lives. Another example of a game could focus on our information consumption. Based on the different types of information that students chose to consume, there would be consequences reflecting those decisions. Games provide a safe space for students to try, fail, and learn from mistakes. They are the perfect place to prepare for the real world that brings with it very real repercussions such as loss of credibility, expulsion, and even legal action. Games could be a way for students to develop ethical habits of mind concerning their use of information.

A further area for growth is finding a way to create games that are truly fun to play. There is a line of thinking in higher education that “learning is supposed to be dry and tedious and painful and awful.”[12] But not all educators share this perspective. Librarians, professors, educational technologists, and others are innovating ways of using games to enhance the educational experience. Information literacy is an important skill, but that does not preclude librarians from having fun with the way it is presented. Librarians especially understand the importance of overcoming stereotypes and exceeding expectations. In creating games, librarians need to pay close attention to the experience, the storyline, game design theory, and incorporate extensive play testing to make a game that is fun and engaging. They also do not need to compete with some of the high-budget, production-intensive games that are available to consumers. Games as simple as solving puzzles or word games can be fun and engaging as long as they are challenging and designers pay close attention to the experience. Designing games well can be difficult, but it is also an opportunity for librarians to connect learning and play in a fun, lighthearted, and even humorous way.

The growth of research about games and the use of games in education will no doubt continue. We are in an early stage of designing games as effective teaching tools, and a great deal of work and assessment must be done in order to understand how best to create effective and engaging educational games. Librarians have already pioneered ways of enhancing library instruction and collections using games. Moving forward, there will be ample opportunities to partner with faculty and students in the serious work of creating the future of education —a future in which learning and fun are fundamentally interconnected.

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[1] Cathy Davidson, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (New York: Viking, 2011), 146.

[2] See http://www.champlain.edu/undergraduate-studies/majors-and-programs/game-design-x14300.html

[3] Mary Laskowski and David Ward, “Building Next Generation Video Game Collections in Academic Libraries,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 35 no. 3 (2009): 267-273.

[4] Ibid., 272.

[5] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1970).

[6] See http://library.osu.edu/headhunt/

[7] See http://faculty.fairfield.edu/mediacenter/library/scene/

[8] See the July/August “In Brief” section of DLib Magazine: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july11/07inbrief.html

[9] See http://www.lycoming.edu/library/instruction/tutorials/plagiarismGame.aspx

[10] See http://bibliobouts.si.umich.edu/index.html

[11] Jane McGonigal, “Be a Gamer, Save the World,” Wall Street Journal (Jan 22, 2011). http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704590704576092460302990884.html

[12] Jeffrey R. Young, “5 Teaching Tips for Professors – From Video Games” Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan 24, 2010). http://chronicle.com/article/5-Lessons-Professors-Can-Learn/63708/

This article is part of a special issue of Transformations on games in education, published on September 30, 2013. An earlier version was circulated for open peer review via Media Commons Press. The “Games in Education” issue was developed by Mike Roy (Middlebury College), guest editor and editorial board member of the Academic Commons, and Todd Bryant (Dickinson College), who was instrumental in organizing and developing the special issue.