Gaming in Libraries

Board and card games have a long history in libraries. Most librarians have no problem with a quiet game of chess or gin rummy, and many libraries make these and similar games available for checkout. Video games, on the other hand, haven’t always had the best reputation, so libraries have tended to steer clear of them until recently. The idea that video games cause violent behavior has been strongly disputed, but some librarians still feel that they’re a waste of time with no relevance to our profession. However, there’s more and more evidence that games in general and video games in particular develop a wide range of useful skills. Furthermore, gaming events in libraries can generate great publicity and they create a strong, lasting connection between teens and the one institution in town that actually supports and encourages the activity that they love so much.

Our purpose here is to describe the logistics and details you should think about before you host a gaming program. We will not be covering the steps you need to take to build a collection of video games for checkout, but the Further Resources section will lead you to information on that subject.

Why You Should Care About Gaming in Libraries

  • Gaming events can:
    • Draw teens and their parents to the library. For years librarians have worried that they’re “losing a generation.” Teens have been visiting the library less often and checking out fewer books as their information and entertainment options increased. There’s increasing evidence that gaming events in the library will increase circulation and reading among young adults.
    • Create a connection between young adults and library staff. Teens (and adults) are more likely to ask for help from someone they know.
    • Help teens develop teamwork and organizational skills. A lot of libraries involve teens in planning and monitoring their game nights. Teens help select the games, market the events, set up equipment, enforce time limits and so on. Furthermore, the games themselves often require teamwork and cooperative problem solving.
  • Video games can be beneficial. There’s no universal consensus on this controversial issue, but there’s a lot of evidence suggesting that well-designed games improve fluid intelligence and one’s ability to solve complicated, multifaceted problems. For a book-length discussion of this topic, see Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson. has more arguments in favor of gaming in libraries.

Key Actions

  • Talk to your target audience, which is typically made up of teens. Ask them which gaming platforms they prefer and which games will draw the biggest audience. Teens can also help you with the set-up and take-down of the equipment. Finally, peer marketing will get the word out and make your gaming nights successful.
  • Create partnerships. If you have a GameSpot or a similar store in your area, drop by and see if they can offer any advice or assistance. They know the gamers in your town and can recommend age-appropriate games. Also, they might donate games or gaming equipment to your library or at least offer you a discount. The local YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club or any other kids program might be looking for someone to partner with. They can provide space, money or help with marketing and outreach. Get creative with your partnerships. A library in West Virginia recently partnered with the State Health Department. It makes sense. When teens play Dance Dance Revolution or Wii Fit, they burn thousands of calories. And seniors love Wii Bowling for some reason (Wii Bowling is part of Wii Sports, the game that comes with your console). Talk to local senior groups and elder care facilities and see if you can collaborate on a Wii Sports night.
  • If possible, borrow the games and the game consoles from local teens or a local gaming store. You might be able to borrow TVs as well, but these are harder to transport. Of course some equipment is less durable, so be careful about what you borrow and how you take care of it. Furthermore, only borrow from patrons you can count on. Gaming events where the equipment doesn’t show up are generally unsuccessful. Finally, if you plan to put on regular gaming events, you should get your own equipment.

Other Ideas and Possible Actions

  • Think about making formal competition a part of your gaming events. Setting up a tournament with rules and scorekeeping takes a lot more work, but it’s been wildly successful for Ann Arbor Public and other libraries. Ann Arbor Public also keeps a running leaderboard.
  • Plan your purchases carefully.
    • Which consoles will you buy? You can focus on the latest and most expensive consoles (the Wii, the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3). But older consoles (i.e., the Gamecube, the Xbox and the Playstation 2) are still popular and considerably less expensive. Some libraries have also had success with events that focus on PC games, handheld devices such as the Nintendo DS and the PSP (Playstation Portable), and multiplayer online games. ConsumerSearch has buying advice on the latest generation of consoles. Wikipedia has an overview of the previous generation.
    • Should you buy wireless controllers? Probably not, as they tend to wander and get lost.
    • How many controllers will you need? Most game consoles only come with one, but you’ll need more than one for your events and tournaments. You can buy the extra controllers (usually about $50 apiece) or ask participants to bring their own. Again, if you’re asking someone to help you with equipment, make sure they’re reliable.
    • Do you need to buy extra TVs? If so, some TVs work better with video games than others. Most new TVs work well with video games, but if you’re looking at older models, try to find one with a response time under 12 ms. Also, if your console and your TV both support it, you can often get a better-quality image by purchasing an HDMI cable.
    • Do you want to buy a projector? They’re usually more expensive and harder to set up than a TV, but projectors can add an epic feel to your gaming events and they offer teens an experience they can’t get at home. Library Success Wiki has some tips about projectors and their compatibility with various consoles.
  • Assess your game needs. Not all popular games will work well at gaming events. Some games are designed for one player, and others focus on long, involved quests and puzzles. Look for games with good match play, multiplayer or cooperative modes. Also, it should be possible to complete a round of play in a half an hour or less so players can cycle through quickly and everyone gets a turn.
  • Be prepared for questions from parents and other concerned citizens. Parents may want information and reassurances before they let their children participate. Library board members, journalists and others may have a bad impression of video games due to news reports about Grand Theft Auto and other games designed for adults. ALA has a list of Talking Points about Gaming in Libraries that may address some of the questions you’ll get, and most of the web sites in our Further Resources section talk about advocacy in one way or another. A Parent’s Guide to Video and Computer Games speaks directly to parents of young children and a simple Google search will pull up similar pages. The Parent’s Guide to Game Ratings explains the major game categories.
  • Shape your message proactively. Most of the press surrounding library gaming events has been overwhelmingly positive, so don’t be afraid to promote and publicize your events. In doing so, you can also address community concerns about supervision and appropriateness of content.

Stories from the Field

And so we have a little teen area. It has this little moveable wall that’s four feet high around this table and that’s the teen area. One of our staff members, Natalia, donated a television, and we had a community member donate a video game system, and I just literally dropped it. I didn’t even hook it up. I just dropped the bag of donated stuff in the middle of the teen area and walked away, and the kids had it set up and playing within minutes; I don’t use a lot of staff time on that. I made a sign and it says if you’re really loud, we’re going to kick you out. If you’re consistently loud we take away the video game system. This is yours. Use it. Please use it but just know that it’s got to be quiet. It’s got to be respectful, and I don’t keep track of who’s playing what or anything. The kids maintain it themselves and they regulate themselves. Usually whoever wins gets to keep the controller and the next kid plays and they don’t really need clipboards. It’s more like sandlot baseball. Pick your teams.

Kieran Hixon
John C. Fremont Public Library, CO

We have a projector that hooks up to laptops for PowerPoints and I thought, 'We have to get a video game system and hold a tournament.' What could be better than playing on a screen that’s six feet tall? Let’s get everybody here. The first thing I did was ask people in the community to donate stuff and I got more Xboxes than you can shake a stick at because the community does want to be asked and does want to help.

So we did our first tournament. We had two TVs in two different corners. One was a Dance Dance Revolution. One was a driving game, Burnout, I think. We close on Saturdays at 2:00 and so we scheduled the tournament at 2:30, and at 2:15 there was this kid knocking on the back door. Well, we were still setting up and the parking lot’s full of kids! It’s like a riot and we looked outside and sure enough there were 50 kids standing in line and we were 'Oh, my.' We expected maybe twelve, thirteen kids. It was crazy the tournament we had — it went really well.

We made a rule that you had to have a library card without any fines on it; then you could play the video games. The amount of kids we had sign up for cards was outstanding, and the kids that came in that didn’t have library cards said, 'Oh, I haven’t been in here. This place is really cool.' It’s really brought a lot of kids into the library and now we have probably 80, 90 video games and it’s the second highest circulating collection in our library. We have a video game tournament every month. At the last video game tournament sixty kids showed up. Think about it, ‘cause our district’s only 5,000 people.

Kieran Hixon
John C. Fremont Public Library, CO

One of the head librarians gave me a heads-up with Best Buy, and we filled out a form to get some equipment donated to us. And there were two choices — the Wii and the Xbox 360. If we do the Wii, everyone from different generations can more or less adapt to it, and it seems like we can more or less use that for singular tournaments and for gaming tournaments for seniors and stuff like that. But the Xbox 360 has more games. I think either way, whatever one they decide to donate, we'll probably do good either way. And then we asked for the Guitar Hero bundled package.

Tanya Finney
Cheltenham Township Library, PA

One of the things we do every Friday afternoon with the laptop lab is we actually invite teens to come in and do online gaming for about an hour and a half before we close.

In 2005 we bought a PS2 and we put that on the children’s floor in the teen area and we let them play games on that. Then late last year we started doing once-a-month teen gaming after hours for two hours and we’d get pizza in and stuff like that. We were getting about 10 to 12 kids to come in for that. We bought a Nintendo Wii. We had an Xbox donated to us, so we’ve now got three gaming systems for them to use every day when they come in. And then the weekly gaming started about September, a couple months ago, so it was just a case of we had the laptops. Let’s take them upstairs. That way we can put the gaming upstairs and get them out of the Internet room so they can make a little bit more noise up there, and it frees up some of the computers downstairs for other people who want to use them. We’ve got about seven or eight regulars and then we have the odd two or three that sort of drop in.

Terry Caudle
Madisonville Public Library, KY

Martha Fuhrman is our teen librarian and she got us Guitar Hero II and DDR [Dance Dance Revolution] and she was just telling somebody today that they did a Guitar Hero event at one of our branch libraries and got just a monster turnout of boys coming into the library so, yeah, that’s parting the Red Sea.

Stef Johnson
Flathead County Library, MT

Further Resources

To learn more about gaming programs, materials and resources for your library, check out the Further Resources section.