Eli Neiburger and Summer Games

I missed hearing Eli Neiburger talk to the Games and Public Libraries “RU Game” meeting at the time it happened. My bad, because Eli is always interesting. And you’d think that giving me an excuse to log into World of Warcraft for work purposes should be an easy sell, but I was preoccupied, alas.

I’ve mentioned the RU Game events several times previously in this blog, and Ellen Forsyth always brings forth excellent speakers. The meetings take place inside the World of Warcraft game, approximately once a month for about an hour. Either of the links above will lead you to the information needed to catch the next one.

If you cannot attend or simply miss one as I missed Eli’s visit, Ellen always sees the transcripts put up quickly. Eli’s talk was a particularly good one, and I encourage you to read it.

Eli really should need no introduction to those of you reading this column. Just in case you’re new to these parts, I’ll hit the highlights. He is widely recognized as the author of Gamers … in the library?!, which is surely one of the books to have the greatest impact on this niche of our profession. Eli moves and shakes, being one of the Tech Leaders in this year’s Movers and Shakers selections, and very rightly so. As Toby Greenwalt notes in that article, Eli’s track record as a visionary able to “predict the ways technology and web culture are going to impact the library world” is matchless. Eli is, at turns, a very entertaining guy with a dry clever wit and an intensely passionate advocate for his views. If you ever get a chance to listen to him at a convention or conference, I hope you’ll take the opportunity.

As I read the transcript, I found Eli’s talk to be particularly cogent in terms of what games can become in a library — arguably what they should become. While there is a ton of wild-eyed hype out there about how gamification will change the world, most people are (in my not so humble opinion) doing it wrong. Slap game mechanics onto everyday life and work. Manipulate the victims, I mean the players, into doing something that does more to benefit the puppet masters than it helps those trying to play along. When you’re not actually doing anything for yourself in a fun, engaging way? Doom, doom, doomed to fail in the long run.

Eli knows better. He understands gaming from the inside, and the Summer Games he developed for this year’s summer reading program at Ann Arbor District Library is much more than superficial “gamification.”

He’s not afraid to look at the bigger picture of what libraries do over the summer. As he says in the transcript, “promoting reading to 21st century kids is a little like promoting swimming to healthy young fish. it’s a nice thing to do…. but they’re SOAKING IN IT.” People of all ages read for fun, for work, for recreation. The fact that they’re reading from a screen instead of a sheet of paper ignores the truth that this is all reading. “More humans are writing and reading [than] at at any point in human history and the body of written work is growing at rates beyond exponential.”

From that perspective, Eli and his team took a long look at what they could be doing, and what the library patrons would really benefit from. He says this: “…we wanted to make a game that incentivized the behaviors that 21st century kids really need to develop…like searching, tagging, reviewing, rating, and being a positive member of an online community and make it open-ended so that people could play all summer long.” And they made it for all ages.

What’s more, AADL’s games didn’t stop when school started, either. Have a look at how a leader leads his community using games with serious results that never lose sight of the fun challenge of the intrinsic rewards.

This is timely. Nancy Ledeboer, current president of AzLA and Director of Pima County Public Library (my employer) recently used her AzLA newsletter “Message from the President” to challenge the state’s libraries to re-envision summer reading. Sparked by Daniel Pink’s Drive, Nancy realized that the pattern of “read for rewards” that libraries have taken for granted as a means to encourage reading through the summer may be fundamentally flawed. Pink’s information on the research about what motivates us discusses several counterintuitive points. Among them is that the ordinary reward systems we take for granted — do X behavior to Y benchmark to get Z reward — actually disincentivizes activities initially and predominantly done for enjoyment. It becomes a chore, a job, and ultimately not as much fun.

Moreover, Nancy recognizes that 21st Century skills and literacies go well beyond words in print. Eli makes this point himself.

Drive is a book I’ve been pushing at friends and colleagues since I ran across it earlier this year. I mentioned it during the Play Learn Innovate talk I gave last June. Understanding that autonomy, mastery, and purpose drive people’s best qualities at work and play — more than a bigger paycheck, more than a sweet parking spot or a corner office — applies everywhere except in the most routine tasks and jobs. Those unimaginative, routine tasks are being handled by computers, or they are outsourced overseas today. The people in our libraries (on both sides of the desk) and in our communities are the self-same 21st Century citizens that Eli Neiburger is addressing with the summer reading program he initiated this year in Ann Arbor.

The people who will thrive in decades to come will be those who engage fully, with creativity, flexible thinking, and they are likely to be working best in unusual and sometimes challenging environments. They won’t be just taking orders from bosses, they will be demanding a chance to have their say in order to achieve the best results for all concerned — sometimes things the bosses didn’t even know they wanted or needed. That is the power of 21st Century skills.

Call it my suggestion if you prefer, or call it your new quest — is to look at what Eli has to say, and think about the possibilities. Yes, he spoke in the persona of an avatar lecturing in the great Ironforge library while logged into World of Warcraft. Pay attention to what he said as much as how and where he said it — content trumps all. Nevertheless, I think it telling that Eli’s “Treasure Quest” game references the new book, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which I also highly recommend that you read if you’re a gamer, a geek, and/or a futurist. The erasure of geographic limitations through virtual worlds is in its infancy, but I have no doubt it will grow increasingly part of our everyday world.

Think about the games Eli developed, and think about what Nancy Ledeboer said to challenge Arizona libraries. In turn, I challenge you all — around the country or around the world — to take the ideas these two people are working with. See how the tools they’re toying with fit into your hands. Read Drive, think on the implications, and be persuaded that we can do better next year. Because I’m sure we can.