Oh The Games People Play Now--In Libraries

By Tom Peters |

On the first day of the first ever ALA TechSource Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium in Chicago yesterday, Scott Nicholson from the Library Game Lab at Syracuse University released a report on The Role of Gaming in Libraries: Taking the Pulse. It's already available online as a PDF file.

Games are big business. Nicholson's report cites an industry report indicating that sales of games have outpaced motion picture box office sales and should surpass music sales in the near future.

In April and May of 2007 Nicholson and a few library science graduate students conducted telephone interviews with representatives from 382 U.S. public libraries selected at random from the over 9,200 public libraries listed through the Library Statistics Program at NCES. Over half the libraries in the sample served populations less than 10,000. 

Joe SouthSeventy-seven percent of the libraries supported gaming in some way. A whopping 82 percent responded that they allow patrons to play games on the computers in libraries, which prompted Nicholson to speculate that some librarians seem to allow gaming in their libraries without actually admitting that they officially support it. Larger public libraries are slightly more likely to support gaming than smaller ones, probably simply because they have more staff time and resources to do so. 

Overall, 43 percent of the libraries surveyed hosted formal gaming programs, such as tournaments, where patrons played games in the library. Again, larger libraries are more likely than smaller libraries to have formal gaming programs, and most of these programs are centered on board games and traditional games (chess, bridge, etc.), rather than on console games, such as Nintendo and Xbox. 

Nicholson and his research team call for an expansive, holistic view of gaming in libraries. Gaming was defined very broadly, encompassing board and card games as well as video and web-based games. The report notes, “While the popular console games have their role as a gaming offering, they need to be placed in context with other forms of games that the libraries have traditionally offered.” 

There are two related but distinct phenomena here. One is in-library gaming activities, including organized tournaments and open gaming time. The other is the circulation of games, gaming devices, and other gaming materials. The Ann Arbor District Library, which excels at gaming tournaments, does not circulate games. Eli Neiburger from the AADL, who also spoke during the first day of this symposium, does not want to put the library in direct competition with Blockbuster and other retail game rental businesses. Nicholson's research found that only 20 percent of the libraries surveyed actually circulate games.

Nicholson and his research team also are trying to start an annual census of gaming programs in libraries. Based on the 313 libraries that responded to his call for 2006 data, 179 unique gaming programs occurred, which were repeated on average an impressive 20 times. The average attendance at these events is 33 people. 

2008 may be shaping up as the year when gaming in libraries goes big-time. At this conference Neiburger announced that the Ann Arbor District Library has plans to make their in-house software AADL-GT available free of charge to other libraries. Now library patrons attending tournaments in libraries can have local, regional, and national leader boards. Libraries using the AADL-GT system can plan synchronized tournament days with online finals. Neiburger said he wants to maximize the social power of these gaming tournaments. He noted that the nationwide development and deployment of AADL-GT may open up national marketing and sponsorship opportunities, too. National use of AADL-GT will start in July 2008, after some beta testing early in 2008. 

Like just about every research report, Nicholson's preliminary study calls for more research. He would like to find funding to conduct this type of gaming in libraries census every year. He called on libraries to collaborate to determine which gaming activities are best for different types of patrons. As Neiburger pointed out in his talk, some games appeal almost exclusively to a narrow slice of the demographic pie, while others, such as Wii bowling and DDR (Dance Dance Revolution), can appeal to everyone, from children to seniors.


Other scholars and researchers are working on other pieces of the gaming and libraries puzzle. Nicholson reported that Dave Dubin from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is creating a classification system for games. Ian MacInnes, an economist at Syracuse University, is examining the public good aspects of gaming.

Update: You can watch Tom Peters' video from GLLS2007, as well as some other session videos, over on the AL Focus site.