Games in Libraries: Past, Present, and Future

Scott Nicholson

Extended Abstract

In the last year, gaming as a library-hosted activity has become a frequently-discussed topic. In June 2008, the Verizon Foundation announced a one million dollar grant to support the American Library Association in their exploration of the connections between gaming, libraries, and literacy. At the American Library Association 2008 Annual Conference, there was the premiere of the gaming pavilion with representatives from both the electronic and tabletop gaming industry, such as Nintendo, Gencon, and Wizards of the Coast. At this same conference, an Open Gaming night drew 400 librarians, and the first meeting of the Games and Gaming Members Initiative Group marked a rapidly growing interest in the support of games through the library. News about "gaming in the library" has appeared in many newspapers over the last year.

All of this discussion of the library supporting gaming has also drawn negative attention from those who question the library's role in gaming. Should taxpayer resources be used to fund gaming programs? The library has traditionally been seen as a quiet place for study and many see gaming events as just the opposite - events that draw hundreds of screaming teenagers into hallowed book sanctuaries of shush. Gaming programs in libraries draw both attention and controversy, but they are also attracting groups of traditional library non-users to the library not only to play games, but to also engage with other library services.

What is interesting about all of this commotion is that gaming in libraries is not a new service. Non-digital games have been a part of library services since the 1800's. Libraries have used games as programs in popular summer reading activities and have been home to chess and bridge clubs for years. Libraries have supported other recreational forms of media such as fiction, music, and movies; gaming fits in alongside these forms of entertainment media and has, in many cases, replaced them in library users' lives.

The goal of this presentation is to explore the past, present, and possible futures of games in libraries. As gaming has evolved, so has the library's support of gaming activities. Over 80% of U.S. public libraries now allow users to play Web-based games on library computers. Digital games, including music-based games like Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero, have become very popular additions to library gaming programs alongside tabletop games. Gaming programs have the potential to draw in groups of new users to the library by providing services relevant to their needs. In addition, they can help the library to be a safe and non-commercial space where members of a local community who may never cross paths otherwise may meet. Given the popularity of the Internet as a way to meet people from around the globe, opportunities to meet people that live nearby are decreasing. Gaming programs in libraries are bringing together people of different ages and demographic groups in social activities. What long-term impacts could this have, both on the library itself and on the community in which the library is engaged? These issues will be presented, supported by data from several surveys designed to understand the ways in which libraries have integrated gaming as a service.