1Up @ Your Library

1upI’ve been wanting to write about Brian Herzog’s post about gamifying the library experience as well as Chad Boeninger’s post about rewarding library users with achievements. In approaching the topic, I was talking with my brother Pete about it this evening. There’s a little background I should mention here: in a previous career, he used to be a developer for White Wolf Games and has constructed game systems in the past, both for companies and for his own fun. As his brother, I had the pleasure of playtesting some of those commercial games as well as others. Between us, we have a fair amount of gaming experience (board, card, tabletop, RPG, miniatures, video, and so forth) to draw upon; we are quite the pair of gaming geeks. He also has a degree in Philosophy so he’s gotten the better share of logic genes in the family; it makes Pete a natural for bringing this kind of idea to him.

In talking about designing a game for a library setting, Pete brought up some basic game design criteria from Jared Sorensen (a well known game designer in the gaming industry). In looking to build a game, a prospective designer should ask themselves three questions:

  1. Who is the intended audience?
  2. What is the behavior that you want to reward?
  3. How is it fun?

In examining each question in turn, it gives insights into the game you want to make.

In considering the first question, is the game intended only for regular library users? Do you want to try to attract casual users? Is it just for people taking out material from the library or is it to engage people who are only (for lack of a better phrase) in-house users? Are you trying to attract non-users into becoming users? Students? Faculty? Teachers? Administration? Kids? Teens? Parents? Defining a target audience is a key step leading into addressing the next question.

In looking at the people you want to participate, what are the behaviors that they exhibit that you would like to reward? Is it their regular checkouts and visits? Returning items on time? Getting friends, family, and neighbors to sign up for cards? Using the computers or reading newspapers? Program attendance? Book reviews on your website, “Likes” on your Facebook page, or re-tweets on Twitter? Reference questions? Students asking for help for research projects? Faculty encouraging students to seek librarian help? There’s a good number of behaviors that benefit the library that could be rewarded. It’s a matter of figuring out which actions you want to offer incentives.

The question “how is it fun?” goes to another deeper matter: why would anyone play the game? It’s an assessment of the rules and reward system. What makes this a game that people would want to participate in and continue to do so? How much effort is involved in comparison to the prizes or boons bestowed? In scientific terms, what will set off the release of dopamine in the brain and give people that reward rush? And how can we get that specific brain activity while making it something that people enjoy? Without the fun factor, then it ceases to be a game and starts functioning like work.

In going over the idea of a library game with my brother, there are other aspects to keep in mind. In order to reduce potential cheating, you have to make the sum total of the effort and reward greater than the act and risk of cheating. In other words, it is about putting the legitimate reward pathway as the path of least resistance in comparison to taking the steps to cheat. No game system is impervious to cheating or trying to game the system, but you can reduce the temptation or urge. It is about measuring the effort to match the reward while limiting opportunities to circumvent the system. It has to play towards people’s feelings of what is fair for their time and effort. It will take some tweaking, but it can be done.

Another aspect is the amount of staff time and energy it would take to set up and run a rewards system like this. While I think that the majority of effort is at the front end, it is still a matter of getting staff on board to both understand and explain the game to the target audience. It is the fine line of making a rules system that is easy to explain while relegating harder issues to a staff referee who can handle any problems that may arise. However, I do think that once the system is up and running, the majority of the heavy lifting is done; it just becomes a regular maintenance operation.

I certainly hope this moves the ball for some people when it comes to adding a gaming component to their library. While it should be noted that you can offer rewards through Foursquare check-ins right now, there is nothing to deter you from rewarding specific behaviors or actions at the library. You can do more than thank them for showing up. I think there are fun and low or no cost things that can be done to add a little variety to any library (public, academic, school, or special).

I want to emphasize that I think any library can add a gaming aspect to it; it’s just a matter of answering those questions, coming up with a set of rules and rewards, and doing it.


I won’t leave this idea without taking a stab at a library game.

My inclination would be to target current regular and casual users by offering “borrower’s rewards” card. After nine checkouts (not total material borrowed, but every time they check out material and limited to once per day), on the tenth checkout I’d give them the option of reducing their late fines by up to $5 or a $5 gift certificate to a local restaurants or shops. I’d be looking to the library friends to fund the gift certificates and by using the local shops it  encourages people to shop in town (thus helping the local economy). I’d also like to offer a similar rewards program to people who are reading newspapers/magazines or using the computer at the library.

In order to keep track of the system, I have two possible ideas. In a manual system, the patron would be given a card. For each checkout or computer use, the card can be stamped with the date and initialed by staff. In an automated system, it would be a matter of developing a computer program to tally uses by scanning the patron’s library card. It would be something separate to the automation system but capable of working at multiple locations. (Perhaps the #code4lib people would see this idea as a challenge.) When the required number of uses come up, the staff would be prompted to issue a reward.

In working with this, it would be a matter of adjusting the number of checkouts to get people to continue to participate while not over-rewarding or changing how quickly they can get stamps. In the alternative, it might be a matter of bumping up the gift certificate or fine forgiveness to continue interest. The purpose in targeting these two types of borrowers would be to work on the word-of-mouth marketing that it could create in talking about spending their reward with family, friends, and acquaintances. It’s a system intended to offer incentives to regular and casual library users 

It’s far from perfect, but I did want to take a shot at it. Even now, I can think of some issues with this idea, but I’d rather not try to riddle it out in this blog post.


So, what do you think: are you game?

9 thoughts on “1Up @ Your Library

  1. I’ve been blogging about games and critical thinking for libraries recently. I love the idea of adding gaming components to public libraries and information literacy classes. It depends on having well-developed games, but it can work.

    I reviewed an article at the beginning of the week about games, learning environments and narratives. It takes a look at what keeps people playing and what those games offer as far as critical thinking and motivation.

    I used to be one of those people who cringed at the idea of games in libraries. I hated the idea. Then, I actually started researching the topic. It also helps that I’ve recently become a strategy/adventure game addict.

  2. Hi Andy,
    Thanks for picking up my post. It seemed like 4-5 years ago there was a big fuss that we should build games that would teach information literacy skills in a “fun” way to students. Unfortunately, you’d still have to hold them down and force them to play the game. I’ve long since been a proponent of incorporating traits from gaming into our existing services, and recognizing how libraries often fail when it comes to meeting the needs of gamers. If you are interested, I wrote something on this a while back.

    Boeninger, Chad F. “Get in the Game: Adapting Library Services to the Needs of Gamers.” The
    Desk and Beyond: Next Generation Reference Services. Eds. Sarah Steiner and Leslie Madden.
    Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries, 2008. 106-119.

    I’d also suggest hitting up Paul Waelchli, a good friend of mine, who is also interested in the topic. He’s written and done some great stuff.

  3. Pingback: Friday Reads – Birthday Edition « Matt Phillips

  4. I LOVE the idea of gamifying more about the library. I am still racking my brain though about a palatable and sustainable – and desirable – reward. The majority of users don’t have late fines to be forgiven, and we don’t want to give them an incentive to get them. Dedicated parking is what everyone wants of course, but that’s not feasible at a lot of places. Longer checkout period maybe? Extra renewals? Longer access time on the computers (if you have limits now)? Automatic bump-up to the #1 spot on the hold of your choice? Borrow an ereader or iPad (or whatever) for a week with a $25 content gift card? Some of those would be tricky in our ILSs… I think finding good rewards will help get people interested in trying it.

    • I’d say the gift certificate idea but it is part of my suggested idea. Or perhaps offer ‘early holds’ where people can spend rewards being first in line for books or programs. There is also nothing wrong with a prize pool; or, for that matter, asking people how they’d like to be rewarded. It could be part of your research into feasibility of a rewards program.

  5. Wrong questions, Andy. Although attributed to me by many people, those are just bastardized versions of my Big Three Questions.

    1) What is your game about
    2) How is your game about that
    3) What behaviors does your game reward/encourage?

    I don’t care about audience or fun.

    • Thanks for clarifying it. I went hunting for a link to the Big Three Questions, but I couldn’t find one. And I’ll be sure to let my brother know what the questions really are.

      Thanks again for the comment.

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