September 24, 2008

Gaming Is Not Bowling Alone

Back in May, I was invited to give a presentation to a group at the MacArthur Foundation about four opportunities for libraries. The fourth opportunity I discussed was gaming, highlighting the social interactions that we’re seeing happen in libraries and explaining how they provide a unique context for this type of activity. I noticed they had bemused smiles on their faces as I finished but didn’t realize why until they told me they’d just finished conducting a study with the Pew Internet folks and that the preliminary data supported my claims that videogames have become a very social activity for kids today. They were still processing the data so they couldn’t share specifics with me, but they promised everything would be available in a few months.

Luckily, that report, Teens, Video Games, and Civics, finally came out last week as a PDF you can download for free. The subheading on the main page gives you a general idea of what they found: “teens’ gaming experiences are diverse and include significant social interaction and civic engagement.” Gamasutra has a great summary of the report , so I’m just going to highlight a couple of the statistics I found most interesting.

  • “97% of teens ages 12-17 play computer, web, portable, or console games. 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games…. Understanding the nature of game play is vital to understanding how nearly every American teen spends at least part of many of their days.”
    This is a great summary of why librarians need to understand gaming and offer programming around it.
  • “The 5 most popular games played by American teens are Guitar Hero, Halo 3, Madden NFL, Solitaire, and Dance Dance Revolution…. The range of genres spanned by the most popular games played by teens indicates they are not simply playing violent first person shooters or action games…. The two most widely played game genres were racing and puzzle games, played by nearly three-quarters of teens in the sample.”

I could go on and on, and I was going to in this post, until I read the accompanying report, The Civic Potential of Video Games (PDF), from the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College. In fact, this second report literally *screamed* “LIBRARIES” as I was reading it, and I’ve written that word in many places in the margins. While the first report has the great statistics, the second one delves deeper into those numbers and takes some guesses at what it all means. It actually makes a very strong case for gaming in libraries, even though it doesn’t mention us at all anywhere in the text. Some highlights from the Mills College report, along with some commentary.

  • “Although public debates often frame video games as either good or bad, research is making it clear that when it comes to the effects of video games it often depends. Context and content matter.”
    This is where libraries come in – we provide context and content, because traditionally these are two of our greatest strengths. We do this in so many of our existing services – reference, literacy, recreational reading, etc. – and we can do this for gaming, too.
  • “Furthermore, interactions in video games can model [John] Dewey’s conception of democratic community – places where diverse groups of individuals with shared interests join together, where groups must negotiate norms, where novices are mentored by more experienced community members, where teamwork enables all to benefit from the different skills of group members, and where collective problem solving leads to collective intelligence.”
  • “Civic participation requires that young people develop confidence in their own abilities (sometimes referred to as a sense of agency) to act as leaders and to work productively for change. To the extent that youth have the opportunity to practice articulating their own point of view, debate issues, and help others in their own communities, they are likely to develop confidence in their ability to do so in the larger civic and political arenas. Finally, civic and political activity is largely a group activity. Youth organizational membership is believed to socialize young people to value and pursue social ties while exposing youth to organizational norms and relevant political and social skills that make maintaining those ties more likely.”
    Combined with the Thinkering Spaces model, offering more of these opportunities is one of the most powerful visions of the future of the public library for me, and it certainly creates the “transformational experience” referred to in the OCLC report that they believe causes taxpayers to vote yes in support of libraries.
  • “These results suggest that the frequent concerns in the media and elsewhere about the ennui and disconnection among those who play video games for long periods of time may be misplaced…. Teens who play games socially (a majority of teens) are more likely to be civically and politically engaged than teens who play games primarily alone. Interestingly, this relationship only holds when teens play alongside others in the same room.”
  • “Among teens who write or contribute to websites or discussion boards related to the games they play, 74% are committed to civic participation compared with 61% of those who play games but do not contribute to these online gaming communities. They are also more likely to raise money for charity, stay informed about political events, express interest in politics, try to persuade others to vote in a certain way, and attend protests or demonstrations.”
    What this says to me is that the combination of teens in a social gaming space, mentored by information guides (librarians) who provide scaffolding for a positive civic experience, combined with the availability of free internet access, is a constructive gaming experience for promoting civic engagement in today’s youth. Public libraries are uniquely qualified to provide that experience, and it’s almost “low-hanging fruit” for us, as we have fewer barriers to that experience than schools do.
  • “Approximately one-half of teens, for example, have played games that led them to think about moral or ethical issues. However, relatively few teens (typically under ten percent) report ‘often’ having particular civic gaming experiences.”
    Realistically, it will be years before civic gaming experiences are fully integrated into the classroom, a process stunted by No Child Left Behind because it de-emphasizes civics and social studies. This is yet another digital divide libraries can help bridge by providing the types of civic experiences gaming in a social context promotes.
  • “Most of the group-gamers (49%) play with friends in person, with 77 percent of group-gamers reporting playing games with others in the same room…. Overall, 76 percent of youth play games with others at least some of the time.“
    So if there are benefits to playing games together, is it better for kids to play with a small circle of friends at home or to bring them together with a diverse group of peers from their community, surrounded by the knowledge of the world, with information guides standing at the ready to help them?
  • “Civic education research leads us to suspect that parents, peers, teachers, and mentors can significantly increase the impact of civic gaming experiences by helping adolescents reflect on those experiences.”
    Note that the Pew gaming report doesn’t even mention the word “libraries” anywhere in it. Seriously. How can that be? In addition, MacArthur reports constantly refer to afterschool programs but don’t specify libraries. If we want to sit at the table of this discussion, we need to assert our unique position to address the issues these reports raise.
  • “Civic and political participation among youth is quite unequal. The voting rate of 18-29-year-olds who had attended college was fully three times greater than the voting rates of 18-29-year-olds who had not…. By equalizing civic learning opportunities, we may be able to help to equalize civic and political participation – a fundamentally important goal in a democracy…. Civic gaming experiences may be a means of more equitably developing teens’ civic skills and commitments…. Increasing the frequency of such experiences is likely necessary to effectively tap the civic potential of video games.”
    Again, I don’t see schools being able to increase the frequency of such experiences across the board in the current environment. Libraries, on the other hand, are well-suited for this.
  • “Both within games and in their offline lives, it is clearly important that youth have space to develop their own ways of engaging civically and, along with such opportunities, that they receive guidance and support from those with more civic and political experience.”
    See what I mean about how this report has “libraries” stamped all over it? One of the things we need to consider is how we can create optimal spaces and experiences to encourage these types of interactions, because we provide a unique set of conditions that the structured, time-limits of the school day just can’t provide.

So in addition to the diverse range of social interactions that take place around gaming in libraries, the relationships it helps build between librarians and users, the literacies kids inherently learn playing many videogames, and the draw to the library so kids learn more about the services we have to offer them, we can now add civic engagement to the list of benefits. The ROI on offering gaming just keeps getting better and better.

If all of this feels foreign to you, it may be that you’re not a gamer or you don’t interact with kids who are gamers, because anecdotally, I hear what these numbers say all the time from librarians offering gaming. I hear it most loudly from Eli Neiburger at the Ann Arbor District Library, someone who has fostered an online and physical community of kids who are passionate about the Library because of its gaming programming. In his book Gamers…in the Library??, he talks about how you can level up the discourse by engaging kids around content they care about. In fact, back in May, he presciently submitted a proposal to talk about civic engagement at GLLS2008 (which he’ll be giving on November 3). In addition, I’m happy to say that Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist at Pew/Internet and the lead on the gaming and civics report, will be presenting a ssion on this data at the gaming symposium, so this is going to be a hot topic.

If you haven’t witnessed this type of behavior in person, I encourage you to attend a library gaming event and/or talk to librarians offering this service yourself. I hear the comments week in and week out, usually unprompted, but don’t take my word for it. Obviously I feel pretty strongly that there’s a big role here for libraries to play if we just recognize and grab it, but you should learn more so that you can decide if gaming is right for your library. There’s also a lot more in both of these reports, including information about parental education/ involvement and implications for school libraries, so I highly recommend them as food for thought.

8:14 am Comments (7)


  1. […] value of gaming in libraries or if you’ve been skeptical about the whole idea, please read Gaming Is Not Bowling Alone by The Shifted Librarian. Jenny has done a great job pulling together some highlights from a couple […]

    Pingback by The value of gaming « Just Beth on Libraries — September 25, 2008 @ 8:42 am

  2. The most promising thing in all of this to me is not the gaming, which has a great thrill factor. But its the fact that libraries are being showcased as pliable platforms for informal learning. I just read John Holt’s seminal book, “How Children Learn” and he describes the kind of experiences that can happen in libraries. Thanks for sharing the study, Jenny.

    Comment by Patricia Martin — September 25, 2008 @ 10:22 am

  3. I still don’t get it. By emphasizing gaming and its role in civic participation and social interaction, aren’t libraries simply becoming community centers? There’s nothing wrong with community centers – they are awesome. But they aren’t libraries, which are awesome in their own way.

    Libraries have their own purpose, and it is simple: they are virtual and physical spaces that should provide environments conducive to acquiring and exchanging information. The actual buildings are nice because they are relatively quiet places kids can go to study when it may be difficult to do so at home where siblings and other distractions abound. Library web portals can be of great value to patrons by allowing them to focus on the information they need while lessening the ever increasing amount of noise that is generated on the web and in the rest of the world.

    Yes, I know younger generations have an innate ability to multitask, and research strategies vary, and the world she is a-changing, but what many see as the evolution of libraries seems to me to be desperate straw-grasping in the form of trend-mongering.

    The main argument I have heard for having GuitarHero in the library is to draw people in and hopefully they will check out the information-related amenities while they are there. This is akin to timeshares giving out free televisions or trips to Chichen Itza; a few people buy what they are selling, but the majority of people walk away from the sales pitch not having purchased anything, feeling a little sad for the pathetic company they have just duped into giving them completely unrelated free crap.

    I want to believe that gaming in libraries is productive, and will add to the value and positive image of the library as institution, but nobody has been able to give me solid proof or statistics that indicate this. There are so many other things libraries can do, so many relevant things, to increase their value.

    Add a coffee shop (people drink coffee while they read and research and study), or provide needed community information-related services (like job-hunt consultations or tax help or basic real estate courses or tutoring or ESL & college prep classes or internet & computer & research skills sessions). Work with schools to bring students in early on so they know what a library is. Work with the government to offer easier access to information that is often only accessible by cutting through rolls of red tape. Work with local businesses (car dealerships, organic food co-ops, doctor’s offices) to aid in educating the consumer or patient. Focus on enhancing what libraries are, not changing them into something else.

    We are getting distracted. DDR is flashy and fun, but irrelevant. We need to concentrate on doing what we do best, not attempting to do what others already do (and it doesn’t matter anyway because next year the Wii will be soooo 2008).

    What I see is not the evolution of libraries, it is the extinction, for which librarians are the biggest proponents.

    Seriously, if anybody has any statistics on gaming in libraries, please post them, because I want to understand!

    Comment by Melissa — September 27, 2008 @ 6:04 pm

  4. Hi, Melissa —

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this.

    From my perspective, libraries have been community centers for decades and this type of programming is just an extension of an existing service. Many public libraries already offer boardgames, craft programs for kids, programs for adults, meeting rooms for the public to use, movies, book clubs, concerts, and more. I don’t think “library as community center” is a new concept that started with gaming. I’m not sure I understand why a coffee shop is okay but a gaming program where the participants actually interact with each other isn’t? Can you elaborate more on that? Many libraries are already doing most of the things you named, so I think we can do those *and* gaming. As I keep saying, it’s “and,” not “or.”

    “Libraries have their own purpose, and it is simple: they are virtual and physical spaces that should provide environments conducive to acquiring and exchanging information.”

    I think you’re making an assumption here that everyone views the library as you do and that your perspective is the one “right one.” Libraries are many things to many people, going back to a beginning with archives that were available to only a select few. Your definition also assumes that recreational activities in the library don’t exchange information. Are you advocating that we kick the knitting club out of our meeting rooms?

    “The actual buildings are nice because they are relatively quiet places kids can go to study when it may be difficult to do so at home where siblings and other distractions abound.”

    Again, this is one view of what kids are supposed to be doing in libraries. Back when libraries did not offer fiction because it corrupted readers’ minds, we also didn’t offer services to children at all. But things change, and many of us believe that the mission of public libraries (which is actually stated in many institutions’ mission statements) includes recreational use. We say adults should be able to check out fiction and attend programs at the library for purely recreational reasons. Why does that not apply to kids, too? As a child, I would have hated to have someone else box in my view of what I could do in my library.

    “what many see as the evolution of libraries seems to me to be desperate straw-grasping in the form of trend-mongering.”

    You are entitled to your opinion, but did you feel the same way when libraries introduced music and movies? Because games are just another content format, and many of us believe libraries are in the business of content *and* information. I also remember hearing colleagues say that offering public internet access, especially for reading email, was a desperate grab to hop on a trend and remain relevant.

    “The main argument I have heard for having GuitarHero in the library is to draw people in and hopefully they will check out the information-related amenities while they are there. This is akin to timeshares giving out free televisions or trips to Chichen Itza;”

    I think you’re comparing apples and oranges because the timeshares concept is a one-way sell that hopes only to take one specific thing from the person sitting there. With gaming, libraries engage the participants who get to interact with each other and come together around content. When this happens in a library, these kids are surrounded by the wisdom of the world and information guides to help them navigate it. That’s a powerful formula that no other “community center” can offer, and it’s a very different equation than a timeshare pitch, because the participant can get out of it whatever she wants.

    “I want to believe that gaming in libraries is productive, and will add to the value and positive image of the library as institution, but nobody has been able to give me solid proof or statistics that indicate this.”

    I’ve written about this many times, so I encourage you to go back and read through the archive at Most recently, I directly addressed this concern in a post called Does Gaming Promote Reading?. Also check out Scott Nicholson’s 2007 census of gaming in libraries, Who Else Is Playing? The Current State of Gaming in Libraries, in which librarians reported specific numbers supporting the statement that gaming improves the image and use of the library with users who come in for the games.

    If you think DDR is flashy and irrelevant, then focus on the pieces that are important to you and help your library enhance them. Gaming is not taking away from them, it is adding to them. My guess is that gaming is taking up such an incredibly small percentage of any library’s budget and resources that it’s probably not even denting 1%, which leaves more than 99% for the other services you named.

    If you truly want to learn more, I again encourage you to go to a library gaming event and talk with librarians who offer this service. I’m confident that you’ll find that far from feeling “extinct,” these folks are building on new relationships with new library users, in addition to creating better relationships with existing ones. This truly is the best way for you to understand how powerful a service this can be.


    Comment by jenny — September 28, 2008 @ 9:45 am

  5. Hola,

    I think Jenny pretty much said most of what I was wanting to say, so this will be short. As stated by Jenny, libraries (minus strictly academic ones that would be found on a college campus) are for all purposes community centers, and have been for some time. Many public libraries now hold events of all kinds that lend to all aspects of the community (summer reading clubs and events to with them, weekly story times that are in all respects community events, lending meeting rooms out for non-library sponsored events, etc.).

    Parts of my own library are quiet and ideal for the gathering, digesting, and sharing of information. Other areas of my library are purely for community interaction (the teen area, children’s area, meeting room, etc.). We deal equally with both parts because that is what a public library does, and should do. Much has changed over the last few decades, and for many areas the library is a supplement to all aspects of life (education, community, and personal). Decades ago, these libraries might have been the only real source of education for many, but education is not the sole purpose of a public library now. If that was the only thing that public libraries focused on anymore, then that would lead to the extinction of said libraries.

    I think what most peeple fail to realize is that public libraries have not forsaken information in any regards. instead, they have adopted additional features that surrounding communities need (also keep in mind that not all communities have dedicated community centers). All the informatin is still there, and for the most part it is more accessible than before due to the multitude of ways it can be passed on. You see teen gaming as a senseless act of mind-numbing crap (funny, that’s what I see reading “classics” as, but that is only my opinion). However, I see it as an opportunity for teens to pass information (that they see as important and that others see as important) to each other, and expose them to other opportunities that they could use, while providing meaningful social interaction that might be tough for them to normally receive.

    I have many teens that have began using our homework help center, or have come to an educational event solely on the fact that they see the public library as a great community tool. If we were merely a place to sit down, shut up, and find some information, our ability to pass informatin would be severely hindered as only dedicated scholars (a very prestigious profession and one that often can’t be afforded until retirement), or self inflicted prudes would seek such a sad, gloomy, and unfriendly place to visit.

    These are just my rambles, but I believe that this is the correct direction for public libraries to take. I have nothing else… for now.

    Comment by Jolli — September 29, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

  6. This is a fascinating read, as is the comment stream regarding libraries as community centers.

    Have you considered the idea of starting library-organized player communities in online games? For instance, the guild “The Sleeper Cartel” in World of Warcraft ( features many of the aspects of civic participation that you describe in this post; recently they’ve been doing in-game events for charities, and in the past older guild members have helped out younger ones with writing assignments and such. Kids who are interested in community organization and management can also get a lot of experience helping manage these virtual communities. The main thing missing from this, of course, is the fact that there’s no physical proximity, and perhaps this puts it out of the scope of what a library should be involved in; but still, the idea of a library-run guild that actively promotes these kinds of civic activities is interesting.

    Comment by Atul — October 11, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

  7. I like the site and am glad to have found it. I also sent you a message on Facebook. After sending the message I found out more about what I was asking about on the ALA connect.

    Comment by Kelly Alipour — August 10, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. |

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.