Thinking Inside the Box--Games, Teens, and Libraries, a continuing education program sponsored by the Bloomington Public Library (BPL) and the Alliance Library System (ALS), brought together about 40 library workers who want to learn more about introducing games-based programs into their libraries. More than half of the participants were virtual participants via webcast. The in-house participants introduced themselves, their affiliations and their interest in games. Most of those present were school or youth services/young adult librarians, and only two, both young men, thought of themselves as gamers. Panelists included Lori Bell of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center and Diane Colletti, Youth Services Consultant at ALS, YA Librarian Kelly Czarnecki, IT Manager Matt Gullett, and IT Staff Chuck Thacker and Chad Brekke, all from BPL. There were also library kids on hand to demonstrate games and to instill a feeling of inferiority in the newbies. Although I'm a BPL employee, I attended on my own time, and out of my own interest. (I also provided two "demonstrator" kids to help show and teach some of the games to participants.)
The session kicked off with an overview of a pending grant written by ALS and BPL, Twenty-First Century Storytelling, which if awarded, would provide a mobile gaming unit, training, guest speakers and help coordinating mini gaming tournaments for ALS member libraries. In explaining "why a gaming grant," Colletti said that gaming was a positive activity for young library users, and that "any kid who walks through the library door is doing the right thing," whether they're reading books, checking out movies and music, skimming magazines, surfing the net, or playing games. This sentitment was echoed in one way or another by each of the panelists. ALS is committed to offering gaming support even if they are not awarded the grant. They expect notification in October.
Lori Bell, who mostly works with older adults says that she's regularly asked about her interest in games: "Why are you involved?" She produced an article with figures showing that the largest group of on-line game players is women ages 35-49, not teen boys, and that senior adults are a close third. (One of the attendees offered that her 70-year-old mother plays on her Nintendo an hour each night before going to bed.) Bell also said that people have always played games, throughout history and throughout their lives, and that video and online games are just one more way for them to continue this.
Participants were then shown a brief documentary on the evolution of BPL's Game Fest, which is finishing up its first full year of programs (with Game Fest #4 scheduled just hours after the conclusion of the session). For anyone who needs to sell the idea of gaming to hesitant or uninformed trustees, staff or management, the film is highly engaging and well-produced, putting games in a cultural context, and featuring interviews with BPL staff and kids who talk about what they like about Game Fest. There's footage of kids playing a variety of games from Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) and Battlefield 1942 (Desert Combat), to the no-electricity-required types like Checkers and Monopoly. The film is available on the BPL Game Fest site.
Next, Kelly Czarnecki talked about her interest and involvement in gaming programs. She said that she'd tried a lot of different kinds of YA programs, but that they just weren't taking off. Not one to passively wonder why something isn't working, she hit on gaming as a way to reach out to teens. Even though she's not a gamer, she saw games-related programming as a way to build community. Czarnecki said she really likes seeing the interaction between the kids, and appreciates the diversity of participants. Talking about that night's upcoming Game Fest, Czarnecki said they had 25 new sign-ups. For the first Game Fest, kids could sign up online or call in. About 12 kids went the library's website and signed up, but for the most recent one, all the kids (50+) used the sign-up form on the TeenZone page. So, it also serves as a way to get participants to the library's website and see what else is going on! Czarnecki also talked about how their first year was a building year and how it took a lot of persistance to get buy-in from retail partners. The persistence has paid off, with solid partnerships with gaming, electronic and comics stores and with a sizeable regional gaming conference, Flatcon, which happens each year in Bloomington. Plans for the future include a circulating video game collection and moderated forums in which Game Fest participants can provide input and build an online community with others who have similar interests. They're also considering developing a focus group. This would enable them to develop a different kind of relationship with a small group of teens who would provide more input than that provided by kids who fill out surveys at the end of a game night.
Offering an IT Manager's perspective, Matt Gullett answered a question he hears a lot: "What does this (gaming in libraries) accomplish?" Providing games, whether in organized programs, or for checking out "gives another face to the library." He addressed promoting the programs, saying that they'd learned that word-of-mouth was the most effective method of reaching this age group. And, for the sake of full disclosure, he talked about some of the challenges in handling a large group of young adults. He admitted that corralling 50+ kids isn't easy and that it's essential to have adequate staffing. His advice is to "be forceful in a nice way." Gullett was followed by BPL's Network Manager, Chuck Thacker, who talked about some of the more technical aspects of providing gaming in a library setting. Among the advice he offered was that if you're going to regularly offer Dance Dance Revolution, to invest in quality, metal pads that can take a lot of punishment. The BPL kids wore out a set of the standard pads in their first year!
After the formal presentation, participants were invited to stay and try any of the games that had been set up for that night's Game Fest. While most declined, a few plucky souls stayed around to try their hands (and feet) at DDR, MarioKart, and Battlefield 1942. My girls tried to get me up to speed on Mario Kart, but just shook their heads in pity (and shame) as I repeatedly got my kart turned around in the wrong direction, wishing I'd taken some Dramamine before-hand. I spent a good 15 seconds trying out DDR before I gave up to do what I do best--schmooze. It was great to talk to Lori Bell--our virtual paths regularly cross, but it's been years since we've met in person. I wandered over to the computer lab to find my 11 year old mentoring one of the participants on Battlefield 1942. Not quite a Hallmark moment, but pretty cool to witness, nonetheless.
Czarnecki was concerned that participants might feel overwhelmed with all the choices and information presented at the session, and urged them to start small. She suggested that those who have YA Advisory Boards start out by providing a game night to this ready-built audience. And, she said to just offer one game, not several. Money seemed to be a concern of several of the participants, and Thacker admitted that it wasn't cheap to build a gaming program. What I was thinking, but didn't contribute, goes back to Gullett's comment about putting a different face on the library. Traditionally, it's been hard to court and keep teens interested in the library. After story hour, there's not much in the way of programming (or as Czarnecki discovered, compelling programming) for the young adult set. But, teens are the next wave of voters and tax payers. As they enter adult life after having been out of touch with the library for so long, it makes sense that they wouldn't be huge supporters of library service. Putting on this "different face," and making the library a meaningful destination to this age group shouldn't be seen as a luxury. It should be seen as a wise investment that will pay out dividends far into the future.
As long as this post is, there was lots more, including several great questions throughout the program. I've encouraged the BPL team to come up with a Newbie Gamer Librarian FAQ. If you want the real deal, the presentation will be available as a webcast in the near future. The BPL team developed some great handouts and pathfinders that will hopefully make their way to the ALS or Game Fest website. Right now, as I'm finishing this post, there are 50+ teens in the lower level of the Bloomington Public Library. To the casual observer, they're just playing. But, if you took the time to watch, you'd see young adults who are using their brains and bodies, who are learning to cooperate and negotiate, and who are meeting other kids not a part of their regular social circle. And, likely, they'll carry a positive image of and good feeling about the library into adulthood. I'd call that priceless.