A View from Down Under

I met Phil Minchin first by email, and then in person at GenCon in Indianapolis this August. This serious-yet-humorous man asked thoughtful questions and has evolved considerable insight into how games and libraries weave together. Because he hails from Australia, his perspective is somewhat different from what you hear from Yanks like me, although many of his conclusions are similar. I asked him to write a guest post for this column and he was kind enough to do so. You will find his contact information at the end of the article. ‚ Liz

The overlooked importance of games
Libraries have evolved a lot in the past few decades. Our core mission — providing a place where the community can meet and gain access to culture, entertainment, and information — has not changed in that time, but the formats in which we offer that access have expanded dramatically. Movies, music, talking books, TV series, comics and graphic novels, online services and databases — all are now normal library materials.

There is, however, one major and ancient cultural form which has received less attention: games.

Where games are included in collections, it is usually only electronic games being chosen, and the integration is pretty perfunctory. Cataloguing says nothing meaningful about the type of game you’ll be playing, describing only the thematic elements rather than the gameplay elements. While many games are problematic to include in a lending collection, even those that are not are neglected. Tabletop roleplaying games, for instance, are fundamentally books like other books, and can be catalogued and managed as such. Yet very few libraries stock more than one or two token titles.

There are reasons for this blindness. Libraries originally formed around written works, skewing heavily towards books as solitary pursuits rather than materials for appreciation by social groups. Electronic media are evolving rapidly, and terminologies and taxonomies take time to spread, making it hard to keep up. Games are widely devalued by the culture as a whole. Yet none of these are actually good reasons when you look at them clearly.

In fact, there are many excellent reasons why libraries should be doing a lot more with games. Here are five sound reasons.

Games are important elements of culture
Games have been part of human culture about as long as there’s been human culture. Given the number of oral cultures that play games, it seems likely that cultures become ludate before they are literate.

Games are not merely trivial ways to while away time. Some can be, but given some of the books libraries stock, triviality is not a sufficient objection in and of itself. Games share an ancient history with books. As with literature’s origins in ritual drama and recital, games are closely linked to the sacred, particularly to the divinatory. For example, the four suits of modern playing cards are derived from the suits of the tarot: spade (in two syllables) is the Italian word for sword, clubs are staves or wands, diamonds and coins are both associated with wealth, and the suit of cups was always linked to affairs of the heart.

Games have moved a long way from those mystical roots, as has literature. But it is hard to imagine European intellectual culture without considering chess, or modern American culture without poker, or Chinese scholarly culture without go. Even among people who have never played them, these games are instantly recognisable. Indeed, to be an exceptional player is to embody key cultural virtues iconic to one’s native culture.

Games foster community
The power of games to establish and reaffirm community is attested throughout history. Herodotus recounts how the Lydians used games to keep their nation together through eighteen years of grinding famine and hardship. Today there are extraordinary three- and four-day festivals of games, where tens of thousands of supposedly “antisocial” or poorly-socialised geeks come together to create an extraordinarily warm, accepting and fun community. Over 37,000 people gathered in Indianapolis this year for GenCon. Twice that many met together in Seattle for PAX (Penny Arcade Expo).

Anyone who has successfully run an open all-ages games event can attest to the power of games to get people interacting across every conceivable boundary: age, gender, ethnicity, culture, and sometimes (where the game is already known to both parties) even language itself.

What could be a more natural fit for the library? Are we not the community’s gateway to culture and information, the “new village square,” one of the last bastions of genuinely free, welcoming public space in an increasingly partitioned world? We should embrace the cultural forms that, by their basic nature, bring people together.

Games are art (the poetry of system)
Perhaps the least understood aspect of games is the nature of their poetry.

The film critic Roger Ebert proclaimed that games were not, and probably could never be, great Art, because their outcome was in the hands of players. He failed to recognise that, as with a musical instrument which must be played, or architecture which must be explored, the poetry of a game lies in the possibilities it opens for exploration and how well it does so. Decisions and random inputs and tests of skill can be arranged into something expressive and surprising and true just as easily as tone and pitch, or colour and shape, or word and plot.

Paintings can express truth in ways that books cannot, and vice versa. The artforms that are games ultimately consist of the choices its audience makes and the actions taken‚ and these can say things that no other form can. One need only look at the work of Brenda Brathwaite, or Jane McGonigal’s extraordinary Find the Future at the New York Public library, or the brainbending twists on time and space in Braid and Portal, or consider Ian Bogost, or the indie art-games movement‚Ķ Pick any one and be persuaded. Experience many and be convinced.

Subjectivity is difficult to describe or depict in a game, whose palette relies on concrete verbs. But skilful game designers can do more than express a subjectivity: they can induce it. The best game designers put their players in the position of making decisions and taking actions which might be quite alien to their normal nature‚ often quite unwittingly. The result shows us sides of our own humanity we may never have encountered, or challenges assumptions we make about ourselves, our capabilities, and the consequences of our actions.

Ancillary benefits: literacy, vocabulary, numeracy, spatial awareness, socialisation and social skills
In an artform as varied as games, it’s impossible to generalise about which other important life skills you pick up along the way. But unless you’re playing a game of pure chance, most games carry a side benefit of learning or skill development.

Role-playing gamers point to the high-falutin’ words they learned in their games as the source of their rich vocabulary. Understanding the need to manage rolls and modifiers, and how to assess probability develops their numeracy skills.

Tabletop gamers of all stripes have to read the rules to work out how to play. Literacy and comprehension can get a real workout in the process.

Even games with no apparent educational value‚ the fast-paced action games like first-person shooters and racing games‚ develop hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness. Speaking from personal experience, I can affirm that this is not trivial: five years ago, the training my reflexes and threat anticipation received from action games saved my partner and I being from sideswiped and crushed by a semi-trailer that swerved to avoid an unexpected obstacle on an interstate highway.

Any multiplayer game ‚ especially tabletop, face-to-face games ‚ develops social skills as players learn that playing nice produces more fun more consistently than completely selfish behaviour. The feedback loop to taking turns, respecting rules and gameplay conventions is firm and effective.

Yes, there are some dishonourable exceptions, especially online. But a great many shy people, and people with autism-spectrum disorders, have said that games have helped build their social mindfulness and confidence. It’s not by chance that libraries offer board games to give rowdy groups of children or teens a way to channel and express their energy in ways that reduce their negative impact on other users of the space.

Core benefits: systems literacy and theory of mind
Important as literacy, numeracy and the rest are, though, not every game necessarily fosters every benefit any more than every book serves every reader. However, there are other benefits inherent in all games.

First, given that a game is a poetic system, playing games develops systems literacy ‚ the ability to “read” a system, think about the ways in which the components interact, anticipate outcomes and make decisions accordingly. Humanity has always been dependent on its ability to analyse and understand the systems around us‚ it is fundamentally pattern recognition, a key element of our human intellectual prowess. But as we continue to urbanise, mutable social systems increase in complexity. Purely physical (and immutable) systems are challenging enough, but the ever-shifting demands of living effectively in vast social systems can be daunting. I can think of few more important skills. Whether in our work lives, in our personal lives, or in our lives as citizens, that ability to spot patterns and predict consequences is essential to any true freedom and happiness.

Games, and superficial game-like systems, are becoming integrated into commercial and political propaganda, making systems literacy not only a highly transferable skill, but vitally important to be able to identify. Some of these systems are being used as substitutes for actual management and motivation in the workplace, and some games themselves exploit players, milking them of their time, attention and money. Learning to identify dubious game-like manipulations is a life skill of enormous benefit, even as positive adaptations of these systems enhance our enjoyment of and success in life.

The second inescapable benefit of any game played with another person is in some ways much more profound. Playing a game with someone forces us to engage with them in ways no other activity can. Although (pace Palin) Plato never actually said “You learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation”, it’s undeniably true that games are an excellent way to develop theory of mind. The ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes is a crucial skill of emotional intelligence for any adult, for compelling reasons both moral and practical. However, most situations in which one can practice this skill either have nothing at stake–so there is no particular incentive to go beyond socially expected forms–or there is too much at stake for experiment or play (being the best ways to learn) to be comfortable and/or ethical.

It’s no coincidence that games can foster interaction across cultural boundaries, as noted above. On the contrary, it’s a concrete manifestation of this deeper, less tangible benefit. I also believe that part of the reason that games build social confidence (also mentioned previously) is that they build social skills. As the industry begins to publish video games like L.A. Noire, which uses realistic facial motion and microexpressions as part of its core “spot-the-lie” investigative gameplay, this becomes explicit. Multiplayer games have always relied upon the players’ abilities to infer intention and interiority.

These five points constitute a compelling case for libraries to review how and why we integrate games into our collections and services.

Phil Minchin is a library IT team leader at the Port Phillip Library Service. An occasional featured blogger on Gamasutra, he recently won a travel grant from the Spydus Users Network (sponsored by Civica Library & Learning) to visit the US to study games in libraries. He attended GenCon, WorldCon, and PAX, and spoke to representatives of local libraries from around the country, researching everything from the nitty-gritty of stock management to big-picture issues of games and their cultural context. For more information about the trip and/or his findings, contact him at pminchin@portphillip.vic.gov.au or euchronic@gmail.com.

He has also been busily trying to turn National Gaming Day @ your library into International Gaming Day (which it turns out was happening anyway, so it’s not proving terribly difficult!). He is hosting an all-ages open gaming event in his home town of Melbourne, Australia. Details below:

Facebook URL: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=267614226594645
Saturday November 12, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Experimedia Room
State Library of Victoria
La Trobe & Swanston Streets



  1. […] Civica LLD Travel Grant. (you can read more about his discoveries on games in libraries here) He also hosted several games of Werewolf throughout the conference, which kept us all highly […]