Game-Based Learning Programs @ the Library:
An Invitation to Public Libraries to Foster Community Involvement, Connection, and Acceptance through Video Game Play and Discussion
by J. Berit Anderson
Many of today’s public libraries are struggling to stay relevant in an age of ubiquitous online information. Libraries offer a “third space” (i.e. not home or school) that is free to use, unbiased, and not for profit (Adams, 2007), and they should work creatively and cleverly to take the best advantage of this wherever possible. Video games are becoming an ever-more-popular form of entertainment in our society. There are a huge variety of games out there, from abstract puzzle games to amazingly life-like military simulations to massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Games appeal to people of many ages and backgrounds – there is something for everyone. Libraries have a unique opportunity to turn peoples’ interest in video games into an asset that will help support the library, entice people through the door, and build stronger community connections.
This chapter is a two-part invitation. First, it invites those libraries who as yet have been reluctant to take the plunge with video game collections and programming to move past fears and obstacles to embrace the exciting, engaging, entertaining, and educational world of video games. Second, it invites libraries with existing video game programs to consider introducing elements of game-based learning (GBL) to expand and enhance patrons’ gaming experiences. When executed thoughtfully and enthusiastically, video game programs can breathe new life into libraries and provide patrons with programming they can really get excited about (and from which they can learn some valuable life skills!).
III. Why Video Games & GBL?
While video games are often taken at face value purely as a form of entertainment, their worth to society runs much deeper. In his book Everyone plays at the library: Creating great gaming experiences for all ages (2010), Scott Nicholson states that “games are containers of information just like other information containers in the library. Therefore, if a public library supports recreational information engagement, supporting games is a natural extension of supporting the changing recreational preferences of a library’s population” (Nicholson, 2010, p.149). Adams (2007) and Gee (2012a) takes this logic a step further, noting that since libraries have a duty to provide equitable access to all, they have a responsibility to offer gaming experiences to those who may lack other opportunities to play, and therefore lack a chance to develop the skills and benefits that players gain from game play.
These include –
21st Century Skills
In their publication Standards for the 21st-Century Learner, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) in 2007 states that, in order to be successful in modern society, children must be able to –
- Inquire, think critically, and gain
- Draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new
- Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic
- Pursue personal and aesthetic growth. (AASL, 2007, p. 3)
These skills have value for people of all ages, not just children. Video games help support the development of these skills and more, including problem solving, critical thinking, imagination, leadership, teamwork, collaboration, and competition (Powell, 2013; Hill, 2015; Gee & Levine, 2009).
Video games can support a range of literacies that are required to succeed in our digital society, including –
- Traditional reading/writing literacy (Nicholson, 2010; Squire & Steinkuehler, 2005): supported by games with text (e.g. game instructions, text chats)
- Operational, cultural, critical, and systems literacies (Powell, 2013): supported by video game creation (such as Scratch) and video games that encourage modification (such as Minecraft or The Sims)
- Technology literacy (Brown & Kasper, 2013): supported by all digital games
- Graphic literacy (Neiburger, 2007): supported by games that use symbols instead of (or as well as) text
- Game literacy (Buckingham & Burn, 2007): supported by all games
- Information literacy (Gumulak & Webber, 2011; Kambouri, Thomas, & Meller, 2007; Nicholson, 2010): supported especially by games that inspire out-of-game research, such as Minecraft or World of Warcraft
Fostering Intergenerational Connections
Video games offer libraries the chance to engage many different kinds of people in many different ways. Different types of games can be used to attract patrons of different ages and inclinations; as a very rough generalisation, narrative games are likely to attract children, action games are likely to attract teens, knowledge and strategy games are likely to attract adults, and social games are likely to attract seniors (Nicholson, 2010). However, these are by no means set in stone, and programs targeted toward mixed-age groups can create lively discussion and foster acceptance and understanding between different generations (Nicholson, 2010; Voida & Greenberg, 2012; Gerber & Niemeyer, 2016).
Social Inclusion & Community Involvement
Video game clubs can be an excellent method of fostering social inclusion and community involvement for public libraries. For example, when founding a video game club, the library might approach a local game store for advice and support, thereby building connections with local businesses and perhaps drawing in members of local gaming groups (Werner, 2013; Nicholson, 2010). Involvement with video clubs can encourage pride of place & sense of community, as well as teach citizenship, responsibility, and respect for others and their belongings (Brown & Kasper, 2013). These clubs can serve as jumping-off points for other interests as well (Brown & Kasper, 2013); for example, the video game Civilization III may inspire further research into world history, or Star Wars: The Old Republic might bring together previously unacquainted science fiction fans who might then begin reading and discussing science fiction books together. Last but not least, libraries can provide opportunities for play and social contact that may not be available at home. Providing equity of access is a core tenet of public libraries. As video games can foster useful life skills in those who play them, libraries have a responsibility to reduce the access gap between the haves and have-nots by providing not only the video games themselves, but also opportunities to play and discuss them (Brown & Kasper, 2013; Gee, 2009).
IV. Taking the Plunge – Things to Consider When Founding a Video Game Club
This section is intended to serve as a starting point for those libraries who are ready to start a video game club but have not yet begun the process. Scott Nicholson’s book Everyone plays at the library: Creating great gaming experiences for all ages (2010) provides an in-depth discussion of how to plan and establish a game club at the library and is worth reading in its entirety; however, this summary of some of his key points (along with some considerations raised by others in the field) will provide a basic idea of what should be taken into consideration when starting a video game program.
1. Establish Program Goals
The first step should be to establish the goals for the program that are linked to the library’s mission (Nicholson, 2010). This link will help to provide a strong foundation for the program, ensure that it aligns with the library’s other programming, and justify budget costs. The most common aspects of library missions that video game programs help support are –
- Attracting underserved users
- Being a community hub
- Providing entertainment
- Serving active users
- Creating publicity (Nicholson, 2010, p. 150)
Brown & Kasper (2013) concur that establishing goals is key to a successful program. They provide a useful example of how this might be done, describing the following video program goals from a library in their case study: “increasing literacy, encouraging positive behaviours, fostering the development of new skills, and promoting critical thinking” (Brown & Kasper, 2013, p. 761). The library under observation found that these goals helped establish practical matching assessment criteria for club members (e.g. adherence to dress code, sufficient reading materials borrowed within a set time limit, respectful behaviour toward others), kept members focused and on task, and provided general direction and guidelines for the club.
2. Determine Target Audience
Nicholson (2010) advises that the next step is to determine the target audience of the program. Choosing a single age bracket is a straightforward method of limiting membership (children, teens, adults, seniors) (Nicholson, 2010; Werner, 2013; Robbins, 2015). However, there are other possibilities that might draw members from all ages; for example, families, experienced (or inexperienced) gamers, trivia buffs, or science fiction fans (Nicholson, 2010; Gerber & Niemeyer, 2016; Adams, 2007).
3. Select Games
The third step is to select games that align with the choices made in steps one and two. Nicholson (2010) advocates first determining which game archetype (strategy/narrative/action/knowledge/social) aligns best with your goals and targeted audience, and then selecting a variety of games within that archetype. Examples of games within each archetype include –
- Strategy games: Civilization III; The Sims; StarCraft
- Narrative games: World of Warcraft; Guild Wars 2; Neverwinter Nights
- Action games: Rock Band; Mario Kart; Halo
- Knowledge games: Buzz!; Scene It?; You Don’t Know Jack!
- Social games: Little Big Planet; Team Fortress 2; Wii Music
Werner (2013) agrees that game selection must be carefully selected to match the program’s target audience; however, she goes a step further, proposing that potential (or current) group members be involved in the selection process, thereby facilitating a deeper sense of ownership and involvement in the group. In addition to content considerations during game selection, Werner also suggests considering games with short modes and/or play rounds so that many people will get a chance to play. Finally, she addresses the question of whether or not libraries need concern themselves with staying up to date with the latest games, arguing that “The focus on gaming in libraries is not on the newest system and games but more on providing a variety of quality games to patrons” (Werner, 2013, p. 793).
4. Other Considerations
Once the conceptual framework for the program has been laid, Nicholson (2010) raises some other points to consider: What is the allocated budget, and how will you adhere to it? How will you market your new program to attract members from your target audience? If people outside your target audience want to participate, will you allow them to play or not? Where will the program be run – will noise be an issue? Will you offer refreshments?
How many staff will be on hand to facilitate the program, and will you need volunteers to assist? Brown and Kasper (2013) suggest that keeping program metrics (e.g. attendance, library usage before/after program implementation, user engagement) can be a valuable asset to have on hand when budget reviews come up. Werner (2013) also notes that it is wise to be prepared for potential content challenges, and that this is easily dealt with if your selected video games align with collection policies and your program aligns with the library’s mission.
V. Delving Deeper into Games – Enhancing Existing Video Game Clubs with GBL
Some libraries have already created video game collections and founded video game programs. While participants in these programs are learning to some extent merely by playing video games, this learning could be enhanced and expanded by adding in aspects of GBL that are becoming more prevalent in the education sector, such as discussion and video game creation. Discussion helps foster higher-level digital literacy skills (Gee, 2012a), and video game creation can help players learn and refine skills such as programming, critical thinking, game design, creativity, teamwork, planning, and process-based thinking (Hill, 2015; Nicholson, 2010). Both activities encourage players “to reflect on the subject matter of the video games they play and its implications
in the real world” (Powell, 2013, p. 838). Discussion can be incorporated easily into existing programs, either informally by dropping questions here and there during a game session, or in a more structured way by introducing set debriefing time at the end of a game session. Game groups with older members will be able to have more nuanced discussions about more mature topics (Robbins, 2015), where as younger groups will need more direction and facilitation during debriefing time. Video game creation can be incorporated in various ways, such as modding Minecraft or building new levels in Little Big Planet, or by building new games with dedicated software such as Scratch. These activities can be added into existing clubs, or, alternatively, an offshoot program can be created with video game design as the sole focus. Either of these approaches will open members’ eyes to the possibilities of game design. James Gee, a strong advocate of video games in libraries and GBL, notes the importance of these types of activities: “Just as for books, talking and interacting with and mentoring from adults early in life is crucial for setting games in the context of critical thinking, making ties to content knowledge and the world, problem solving, and innovative thinking” (Gee, 2012a, p. 419).
VI. Final Remarks
Public libraries that accept the invitation to create video game collections and run video game programs have the opportunity to broaden patrons’ horizons through video game play, discussion, and creation. The benefits can run both ways – libraries can increase collection usage and expand outreach into the community, while patrons can learn new skills and benefit socially (Brown & Kasper, 2013). Libraries have a responsibility to provide skill-building opportunities and practice in new literacies to the disadvantaged members of society, and creating video game programs are an excellent method of achieving this.
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