Last Words

On November 10th, back in 2007, I spoke at the 3rd Annual Graduate Student Symposium at University of Arizona. My topic? Games Gamers and Gaming — Why You Want Them in Your Libraries. The title of that talk, in fact, is why I suggested it as the title for this blog. I had standing room only attendance, and that included the director of my library system, which frankly astounded me and gravely tested my ability to remain calm and focused.

I blew my time limit talking. I tend to do that… and I have done so here. I planned to post these last words on December 31st, but the website had other plans and I could not log in. I myself had other plans for January 1st, so here I am today, January 2nd, here to have my final say.

Tomorrow, this blog will be archived. Josh Hadro of LJ assures me it will remain accessible at this web address for awhile, and will actually be easier to find and refer back to (should you wish to do so) in its new server-home as the magazine reconfigures its blogs and website.

As I said at the beginning of the month, it is time for me to move on. But because I always blow my time limits, with more to say than time ever allows, I want to mention a few things you might find it worthwhile to explore on your own.

I’m dating myself by even knowing that song, but so be it. I couldn’t resist making the reference.

Although sometimes written as one word, sometimes as two, Lemontree is a game every librarian needs to follow and watch closely. Their aim? “Lemontree seeks to increase the use of library resources through a social, game based elearning platform.” They’re not alone in this; Bibliobouts has a similar goal, to increase players’ literacy skills and effective use of the library. Interestingly, both games are built for academic libraries, which have a captive audience and a scholarly focus on hard data and trackable outcomes.

This is not to say that all public libraries fail to attend to the results of programming initiatives, but our audience is fluid, making many details too ephemeral to capture easily. What a public library might do is learn from our academic cousins, and consider ways to adapt a game like this to our uses. Gamers constantly make “house rules” from complex games; why not here? Perhaps, Summer Reading might be redesigned to provide more intrinsic motivation and peak experiences than can be had by receiving a library-logo pencil and a sticker.

While Thorton Wilder’s play can be pretty bleak, the chances are that even the bleakest areas of your community have some interesting features. It’s likely that there are places in your community that library constituents would be agog to learn about. Even more likely, there is somewhere everyone says “I always meant to go check that out.”

Some live-action games help do that, and libraries should play (if their towns have such games) or consider developing a version for one’s own library and community, based on what games are out there. Let me suggest two.

The Human Mosaic Project started in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona not long ago. The game is still in beta and, being the brainchild of Warner Onstein (who has a lot of other irons in the fire), I haven’t seen an enormous amount of activity there yet. But I have high hopes, because I’m pretty jazzed about the idea.

To play, you take up a challenge to go or do something in your community. It might be little: research community gardens in your area — or somewhat more challenging: commit to five acts of random kindness to strangers. You could “dice walk” to discover a new neighborhood: carry a six-sided die with you, roll it at every intersection you come to. On a 1 or 2, turn left; 3 or 4, go straight ahead; 5 or 6, turn right. Do this ten times (or twenty or fifty) and see where you wind up. Then, really take in your new surroundings. This can be done on a bike, or in a car if you carry an equally adventurous friend as your passenger with die in hand.

Doing the challenge is only half the point. Talking over your experience with others is the other half. The game asks you to do it online, but what if a library had a bit of wall space devoted to people’s answers to “How did that challenge work out for you?” Host a gathering each weekend or once a month, letting players talk about what they did, and then have everyone brainstorm some new challenges.

Warner did not invent this idea out of the blue; he’d seen it at play in San Francisco. Check the SFZero website to see how San Francisco residents are meeting new people, exploring their city, and participating in non-consumer leisure activities.

The fantasy role playing game Pathfinder is the game of choice for gamers who might otherwise be playing Dungeons & Dragons, having been based on an earlier (sometimes preferred) edition of that game. Arguably, Pathfinder has surpassed D&D in popularity; it has definitely done so in sales if not yet in name-recognition. Librarians considering an RPG club should consider both systems, which are well supported by their respective publishers, and have an enormous community online to solicit for support and ideas. Pathfinder is by Paizo Publishing; D&D comes from Wizards of the Coast.

While I was at GenCon this August, I picked up some of Paizo’s NPC and Plot Twist card packs from their Gamemastery line. I mention them because I know many libraries support teen writing programs, and I see the Plot Twist cards, in particular, being a fun way to set one’s imagination in motion.

Certainly the cards are useful for a game master preparing a scenario for the RPG club to play, and there are Compleat Encounters in the game aid line, “designed to help GMs run interesting games quickly and efficiently.” But if you have a writing group instead of an RPG club, and a budding writer says “Plots are hard” (as so many do), have her draw a Plot Twist card at random and imagine ways to massage the idea into something for the story-in-progress.

New York Times bestselling author John Vornholt says “If the story starts to falter, bring on the Klingons with phasers blazing.” The cards might be just the ticket… minus the phasers.

There are many solid role-playing games out there. Talk to your friendly local hobby store for suggestions and insights. Got an older gamer crowd who play online RPGs? Look at the Dragon Age rules from Green Ronin. (That’s the game I want to play, personally, since I already enjoy the digital releases.) Want something rules-light but solidly well-designed? Fudge, from Grey Ghost, fits that bill. Slightly more substance and a plethora of support material to take you to every imaginable fiction genre or historical period? GURPS from Steve Jackson Games must be your choice.

This has been a sore point among gamers for a long time. It can be a sore point for librarians too.

On a RPG forum, a poster recently asked “Why aren’t RPGs in public libraries?” I can see your eyes rolling from here; stop that. “They’ll get stolen” is probably the first thing that comes to mind, along with “They’re expensive” or “I don’t think many people would use them” or you think they’re not well made or they aren’t available from Baker & Taylor or… whatever. You’re making excuses, aside from the couple of hundred libraries with copies of (for example) the core D&D rules listed in WorldCat. We can do better.

A lot of our most popular material gets stolen, as well as a lot of niche material. How is your Wicca collection looking? Dream interpretations? Erotic Asian art? Maybe the books about JFK and Marilyn Monroe stay on your shelves; they haven’t in the libraries I’ve worked in. Your movies and music CDs? Your GED books? I thought not. Yet you buy replacements regularly.

Poorly made? Some of them, yes. But gamers use their books heavily when they play with them, and many are better made than more conventional tomes coming out of New York. The Pathfinder Core Rulebook is printed in China with properly stitched signatures, 575 pages in dense 8 point type(!), hardbound, full color throughout, and it weighs almost 4.5 pounds. You can’t get your teen boys to read? They’ll read this.

Adventure modules might have a better chance of being returned. As was noted on the forum above, core rulebooks disappear because unlike our regular books, players don’t read them once and then never again. They need to refer to the books repeatedly during play, and that’s why some of the rulebooks might never find their way home to us. But if your library has an RPG club, clearly communicating the value of the book to others in the community who might enjoy playing together, you’ve made a step in the right direction. And in the end, refusing to buy otherwise-desirable materials primarily because they are theft-bait is a rotten reason to deny access to publications your patrons and customers might legitimately want to get their hands on.

The adoption of games as the primary and frequent source of recreation, of relaxation, for millions of people around the world is still viewed by certain segments of society as a sure sign of the decay of modern civilization. Others consider the pursuit of peak experiences and the unending joy of exercising our hungry human brains on challenging, self-directed games to be standing on the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy of human needs.

Jesse Schell, a professor of entertainment technology and game design at Carnegie Mellon University, is not alone suggesting we are in the midst of a cultural revolution, and that games are leading the way into the future. Whether in business or in education, understanding what motivates people — what makes them happy to do something — has a powerful payoff. Gamification done poorly (I’m looking at you, Foursquare) will stain the reputation of those games that help make us better people, that make exercise and fitness more fun than it has any right to be, that provide powerful tools for change, that make the world a better place. When it is clear that gamification is here for the foreseeable future, we learn and adapt.

I wanted to talk about many topics I never got to, like the STEM challenge (deadline March 12, 2012) but fortunately, others are doing so. There is technology and development coming down the pike that promises to change everything, from the ePawn Arena that allows pawns and miniatures in real world board games to interact with a virtual environment, to Storybricks putting the tools of story-creation in a persistent virtual MMO world into the hands of players. It’s an exciting time to be a gamer, and a challenging time to be a librarian. I have confidence in each to improve the lot of the other.

Disclosure: I received Pathfinder and Dragon Age rulebooks for review, and I receive microscopic royalties from Wizards of the Coast for artwork unrelated to Dungeons & Dragons. The Storybricks project is presently one of my freelance clients. I mention none of the games or companies above without being honestly impressed with what they do.

Look me up around the net. I am on Twitter as @LizDanforth and my personal blog is at, where you can find my email.

I have done what I can here. The rest is up to you.

Game on.



  1. Enjoyable read, thanks

  2. Brilliant post, Liz. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm with all of us!