Anyone game for serious play?

Thinking like a games designer could help to deepen our understanding of what engages, challenges and motivates people to participate in library services and work with library resources.

A library camp (and cakes) in the country

I am not someone who would normally think of herself as a keen games player, let alone someone who would choose to spend a weekend in the countryside talking about games. However, once in a while, for my personal CPD, I like to try something that's outside my comfort zone and removed from my 'day job' where I can get fresh insights to inform my advisory and consultancy work.

It's intrigued me for some time how games have become a growing feature of librarians' teaching practice in recent years, for example through Copyright the card game. I wanted to get to the bottom of what library games have to offer. I was also keen to understand why, when it's often thought essential to use digital methods to communicate with learners, libraries are having success with paper-based, hands-on games.

And so, on a very wet September Saturday morning, I found myself navigating through increasingly narrow lanes to Beaudesert Activity Centre in Staffordshire, to attend my first ever library camp, this one focused on games and play. 

As you can see from this event page, a library camp is very different from your normal conference set-up. There is a very loose programme structure and no keynotes: anyone could turn up with a good idea and deliver a short session. Accommodation was the opposite of fancy: camping, bunkhouse or (for the more timid) B&B. Self-catering kept costs to a minimum and meant that everyone could bring their own favourite biscuits and cakes to share.

Jenga, zines and learning walks

For my first activity I had my first go at making a simple zine. Zines (or fanzines) were originally associated with science fiction in the 1920s and later with punk rock in the 1970s. We used cut-out images to explore themes of reading for pleasure and the importance of play, and the discussions we had while doing so were probably more memorable than the very rough finished publications!

I learned that library games are not just for young students. Other activities during the camp included working on a prototype card game to help train researchers and exploring a new idea for a jenga-style game to help academics learn about pedagogy. These activities helped me understand for myself how successful games are constructed, from nailing down the problem to be solved to the clear communication of possible solutions. As we were a fairly small group, all the learning could take place through dialogue rather than being presentation-led.

For me, one of the most enjoyable parts came on the Sunday morning when we set out on a 'learning walk': this was a chance to explore the surrounding woodlands while talking about games with the experts in the group. This confirmed for me the value of being able to learn outside the conference room, in a natural environment that stimulates the imagination and encourages conversation.

Play works!

Overall conclusions? I may not have been transformed into a super-competitive person but I came away with a much better appreciation of what makes games players tick and why 'serious play' isn't as contradictory as it sounds. I’ve also started to see why, in a time when everyone's lives are increasingly saturated with technology, libraries might want to opt for hands-on games to draw audiences in and teach 'difficult' concepts about information skills.

It was refreshing to be part of an event that consciously dispensed with digital tools, freeing up attention and energy to focus on face-to-face communication. We still used our mobiles to take pictures, tweet and network with each other and I don’t think anyone missed Powerpoint!

Thank you to the CILIP Information Literacy Group for sponsoring the event. For those who would like to explore further, here are some useful links:

Making games for libraries blog by Andrew Walsh (@playbrarian)

Games for information literacy libguide at University of Huddersfield

Learning from game-makers

As an added bonus, having got over my resistance to games at library camp, I took my learning a stage further at ILI International where we had an excellent session on 'Opening up collections with digital interactive fiction and literary games' by Gary Green of Surrey Libraries. You can find out about Gary's work with the British Library in this write-up Game library camp 2017 – games and gamification in libraries on the Artefacto blog.

I would recommend that, even if games are not your thing, you get talking to a games maker and volunteer to help them if they need a volunteer to prototype a new game. Thinking like a games designer could help to deepen our understanding of what engages, challenge and motivates people to participate in library services and work with library resources. Good games are not merely child's play, they can involve everyone.
Lis Parcell is a subject specialist in libraries and digital resources at Jisc, UK.