by Kathryn Jezer-Morton, Concordia University
Produced for the Knight Foundation-funded
October 19, 2015
Over the past decade, video games have become an established part of library holdings, and video game programming is an increasingly popular way for libraries to attract young patrons (Adams 2009). While substantial research has shown evidence of the educational value of video games (Gee, 2012; Buchanan and Vanden Elzen, 2009; Schaffer, 2006), less is known about the extent to which libraries are exploring that potential. How are libraries using video games to serve their communities, and what possibilities exist beyond what is currently in place?
This paper is an ethnographic study of three Montreal libraries, each of which offer video game programming. The purpose of this paper is to determine whether librarians would be interested in offering independently produced games in their libraries, and how these games, heretofore unfamiliar to most library patrons, could be integrated into the libraries’ gaming programming. Each of the three case studies included here offers examples of distinct challenges and conditions for integrating indie games into libraries. Each research site has its own lessons to offer for how best to implement a pilot project wherein indie games would be introduced.
Video games have proven to be valuable learning tools for teaching literacy to children. Buchanan and Vanden Elzen (2009) argue that beyond the reading players must do in order to successfully play a game, advanced literacies including recognizing satire and interpreting allegory are part of many gaming experiences. Video games can produce the mental state of “flow”, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990, associated with feelings of pleasure, calm and focus, according to Chen (2007). The flow state has been found to be an optimum mental state for the acquisition and reinforcement of new skills.
“Good games are learning machines,” writes Gee (2007, p. 2). The stakes of success and failure, and the chance to try repeated methods to achieve a given goal, is defined as the “magic circle” that exists within games (Rodrigues 2006). The skill-sharpening utility of video games is therefore well established, but playing video games at home may not be as rich a learning experience as can be created in a library environment under certain circumstances. Libraries provide a valuable literacy enrichment environment for school-aged kids, in particular those from low-income families. Gee (2012) notes that while low-income children remain behind in reading, they also tend to lag behind in “21st-century digital media skills.” Gee argues that libraries help bridge the gap between rich and poor not only by offering access to digital media and video games, but by offering children “good mentoring around that media.” (Gee p. 63).
This echoes an argument made by danah boyd, a researcher specializing in young people and digital culture. She claims that the “digital natives” label mischaracterizes young peoples’ relationship with digital media, often to a detrimental degree. While young people may seem to have inborn facility with using digital tools, the way that information is structured and the dynamics that enable power to flow through that information is by no means part of their natural understanding. In an interview, boyd says,
“What I love about cultural heritage organizations [like libraries and museums] is that they are good at asking hard questions, challenging assumptions, questioning interpretations. That honed skill is at the very center of what youth need to develop. My hope is that cultural heritage organizations can go beyond giving youth the fruits of their labor and inviting them to develop these skills. These lessons don’t need to be internet-specific. In many ways, they’re a part of what it means to be critically literate period.” (Owens, 2014).
Part of a library’s function as a mentor for young people navigating digital environments can be to provide alternatives to mainstream video games. Buchanan and Vanden Elzen (2012) claim that a library’s role as democratic disseminator of knowledge should encompass video games.
“More people–especially young people–will benefit if they have more access to good games, more motivation to play them, and more guidance in critical literacy and reflection. The video games industry is driven by for-profit retail sales. Libraries can provide another context for finding, playing, and appreciating good games.” (Buchanan and Vanden Elzen, 2012, 28).
In a media environment where the competition for “mindshare” and “eyeballs” is only increasing, a library’s role as a mentor helping young people contextualize and employ critical analysis to all forms of media, video games included, is essential. The limitations that libraries must work with in performing this role are worth identifying. Video games present budgetary challenges distinct from books and DVDs, but they also offer social opportunities that other media do not. For this reason, there is a lot to learn about the future of libraries’ role in the lives of young people from the way they approach providing access to video games.
By observing three Montreal libraries’ approaches to mediation and dissemination of games, this paper aims to better understand how independent video games can be effectively introduced to young library patrons. The methodologies employed were extended participant observation and hour-long in-person interviews with librarians and other library staff responsible for video game programming. I spent approximately 30 hours observing young patrons using the libraries for desktop gaming and borrowing games, and I sat in on three video game club gatherings at two separate libraries. Although I did not speak to any minors during my research, I observed young patrons interacting with librarians throughout my observations. I used open coding to analyze data and draw conclusions.
Site 1: Cartierville Library, Montreal
The Cartierville Library is located in a suburban Montreal neighborhood that is home to an ethnically diverse middle- and working-class population. Many of the library’s young patrons are the children of immigrants from the Maghreb and West Africa. It is the smallest library of the three field sites included in this paper. Librarian Marc-Andre Huot and Assistant Librarian Cedric Plante are in charge of video game programming and facilitation, which includes game rentals, four desktop stations for online gaming (and web surfing) and a once-monthly Friday video gaming club, held year-round. The Friday Gaming club is operated on a sign-up basis (kids can sign up on a sheet posted at the circulation desk), and is limited to 10 participants because there are two consoles in use. “There is definitely demand for more. The problem is really materials. We have three consoles – Xbox 360, PS3 and PS4. But we don’t have a third TV or projector, so we can only run two at a time,” says Huot. “So it’s a material limitation. Generally we have to turn people away. We have a waiting list and it’s usually full. We call kids the night before to check in and see if everyone can come, and if they can’t we call the wait list.”
A selection of approximately 30 E-rated games and approximately 20 T and M rated games are available for checkout at Cartierville. To discourage theft, discs are kept behind the circulation desk. The children and youth section of the library is located in a separate room from the main area and circulation desk; this library has a traditional feel, in that the main room is dedicated to adult use, with an emphasis on print matter (although there are four desktop computer stations near the entrance). Huot’s desk is located in a separate room at the back of the youth section. Although Huot is on a first-name basis with a handful of young gamers at the library, I never saw a kid seek him out in his office.
Huot and Plante both characterize themselves as video game fans. “I’m not a huge gamer, but I do play regularly,” says Huot. “I have a PS3 at home, and I want to get a PS4. I play very irregularly, though. If I come across a game I like, I’ll play it a bunch, but I won’t go looking for something to play after that.” Plante is a more serious gamer: “I play a lot of video games, a lot of role playing games, a lot of jeux de plateau, computer games. I’m not big into AAA games, popular games. I’m more into indie games, author games. I buy a lot of games on Steam,” he says.
I observed, and Huot confirmed, that video games at Cartierville are generally the domain of kids under 16. Adult video games aren’t checked out very often. Huot noted that there does not appear to be as much of a “gamer” subculture in the Cartierville neighbourhood as compared to other neighbourhoods in Montreal. Young video game players use the library during after-school hours and on weekends. The desktop computer stations are in constant use from about 3:30 p.m. to closing; kids play free Flash-based games available online, and use Facebook and Youtube.
At every visit I observed at least one kid playing Agario, a popular free online game that can be either single or multiplayer, in which the player controls a cell on a petri dish that must gain mass by swallowing other cells. Agario is very simple both visually and in terms of gameplay, but it appears to be popular across all three study sites. The online game Minecraft is noticeably less popular here than at the other study sites, where it’s the dominant online game that kids appear to be playing. Kids are limited to two hours at a time on the computers, to a maximum of seven hours per week. Technically there’s a sign-up sheet, but if no one has reserved a time ahead of them, kids often spend more than their allotted time on the computers, since it’s up to the staff to keep track of them and ask them to log off after two hours, and sometimes that doesn’t happen.
Librarians in charge of buying stock for the audio-visual department at all three libraries order supplies through the Archambeault book and music store. Huot, like his colleagues at the other two sites, is provided a monthly list of new releases and existing titles available for order through Archambeault. The list changes every month and varies in length from a couple dozen titles to nearly a hundred, depending on the number of new titles released. All three AV librarians I spoke to expressed satisfaction with the available titles in terms of new releases. However, there was a consensus that there are fewer new releases for all-ages games than for rated-M games – almost certainly a trend in video game production rather than a reflection of Archambeault’s purchasing habits. All three librarians expressed disappointment that there weren’t more all-ages releases, because they buy more all-ages titles than M titles, in general.
Friday Video Game Club at the Cartierville Library
On a cold October day, I sat in on a Friday Video Game Club at Cartierville, held in a closed-door room at the back of the youth section. A glass panel in the door allows kids to peek inside at what’s happening, but the door is kept closed to control the in-and-out flow of participants. While 10 kids had signed up, only eight showed. It began with four boys playing the soccer game FIFA 14 and four boys playing Just Dance, an Xbox Kinect game. Two girls joined the Just Dance group, and one boy took a seat to watch. After about an hour of rotating players, the Just Dance group all decided they were ready for a different game. Marc-Andre Huot was running the event, and he had two alternatives: NBA basketball and Super Mario Bros. SpongeBob. The group agreed on SpongeBob, although none had played it before. Huot set them up with the four controllers and stood behind their row of chairs as the game began. He issued a steady stream of directions as they started playing:
“You have to move forward. The idea is that you’re advancing.”
“Tap A twice to jump far.”
“At the back right, that’s where you should be going.”
“When your bar is full under your score you can tap B and become a superhero.”
After about 5 minutes, one of the controllers stopped working. Another five minutes and the kids grew distracted and decided to stop playing; they wandered out of the room, leaving only the FIFA boys, who were completely focused on their game. For the final 45 minutes of the session, only the FIFA boys continued playing and Huot allowed several groups of two to play NBA on the second console.
The kids in attendance appeared to have arrived in groups of friends intending to play together. The FIFA boys all seemed to know each other (and they all wore the same school uniform), and the Just Dance/Spongebob players seemed to know each other, too. The sense I got was that friends came expecting to play together, and did not necessarily mix with other friend groups unless Huot set up a foursome out of two groups of two. The group of attendees at session I attended were ethnically diverse: Four were Afro-Canadian, five were South Asian, two were from the Middle East, and one was Caucasian.
Huot had to turn several kids away because they were either too young or too old; the library maintains a strict 9-14 age policy. In one instance, a boy of around 10 arrived asking to join the FIFA game. He was trailed by his younger brother, around age six. Huot indicated that the younger boy couldn’t come in. The older boy paused, silent, not sure what to do. “Are you in charge of him while you’re here?” asked Huot. The boy nodded. “Well, sorry, but he can’t be in here, so you can’t either.” The two boys left.
Huot explained that the age policy wasn’t always so strict. They used to allow kids to come in with their younger siblings in tow, but, in his words, “It turned into a daycare.” They had numerous kids as young as age three in the room, and it became too chaotic to manage. The age policy cuts off at 14 because Huot found that older kids often wanted to play games that were inappropriate for the younger players, and their social dynamic was different and sometimes intimidating for the younger kids. “We really want this to be a place for preteens to socialize among each other,” he said.
Half an hour before the scheduled end to the event, only the four FIFA players remained, with an additional boy watching. It appeared that the signup system, combined with the age cutoffs, had the effect of limiting participation more than organizers would like. Wait-list notwithstanding, kids did not appear interested in waiting outside the closed door of the gaming room for an opportunity to play. They would wander to other parts of the library, or leave, and Huot couldn’t leave the gamers unsupervised for long enough to go searching for kids when a spot freed up.
“We have to run it as a sign-up because if we didn’t, there would just be too many kids wanting to play. We only have the two consoles, and as you saw, one of the controllers stopped working. We can’t accommodate the number of kids who want to play without some kind of system,” explained Huot. The consequence of too many kids wanting to participate, combined with limited hardware and personnel, appears to be a situation where it’s hard to guarantee that the maximum number of willing participants can access the games.
Site 2: Bibliotheque Marc-Favreau, Rosemont, Montreal
Bibliotheque Marc-Favreau is the newest and largest library study site included in this paper. Construction of the building started in 2011 and the library opened in 2013. It is unique among the sites studied here for two reasons: It employs a self-checkout model, and its kids’ section is not walled off from the rest of the library. It is located more or less immediately inside the library’s doors, while the adult sections are off to the sides and upstairs. The primacy of the kids’ collection makes the library feel less like a traditional library and more like a multi-use community centre. Marc-Favreau is one of three libraries in its borough, but it is the only one of the three to have gaming consoles available for use. The other two have games for check-out, but no on-site gaming.
The librarian in charge of video game purchasing and programming is Alexis Robin-Brisebois. He describes his personal relationship with gaming this way: “I played a lot of video games when I was a kid, but I’m far from a gamer. I’ve always been on the side of the theoretical defense – video games as legitimate cultural object. But it’s not like I have a PS4 at home. I play Angry Birds on my phone in the metro. I like playing Mario Kart with the kids here. But that’s pretty much it.”
Robin-Brisebois characterized most of the other library staff at Marc-Favreau as pro-video game, but some of the older staffers, he noted, voiced reservations under certain circumstances. “When we do video game events for kids, it’s hard to recruit staff to come and supervise,” he noted. “Maybe it’s more a question of time and availability. But it’s not really something that everyone wants to do.” There was an incident a few months prior to our meeting that Robin-Brisebois described as having been unpleasantly surprising. A staff member remarked in a meeting, half-jokingly, that it would be nice to install a blocking software on the desktop computer stations in the youth section of the library that would block the Minecraft website. “The kids are always playing Minecraft, for sure,” remarked Robin-Brisebois. “But it’s really not a problem for anyone. To say that in 2015 – that was almost embarrassing for me to hear,” he said.
Marc-Favreau has a large selection of mainstream E-rated and T-rated games and an M-rated section located on the second floor near the adult comic book section. There are eight desktop computer stations in the kids’ section, and an additional group of desktops upstairs in the adult section. I never observed web-based games being played on the adult computers; the only game I observed being played by adults was Solitaire. The kids’ section desktops are in constant use from the hours of 3:30 p.m. to closing, and for the entire weekend. Kids (more often boys than girls) are most likely playing Minecraft, and also web-based games found on the site FRIV. Kids are limited to two people per desktop station, but during after-school hours, when groups of friends come to the library together, there are often small groups of kids crowded around a seated player. During peak use hours, the library stations a security guard near the kids’ computer stations to keep the noise down and make sure kids don’t crowd around too much.
Most Minecraft players that I observed were boys. Often, players would be playing each other at neighbouring computers, and their friends would be gathered to watch the competition unfold. The vast majority of the Minecraft games I observed were in “battle” mode rather than collaborative building mode. When I remarked on that to Robin-Brisebois, he became curious and approached two players he knew by name. “What are you guys up to?” he asked casually. “We’re killing!” replied one boy, giggling. “No collabo?” ventured Robin-Brisebois. “Why?”
“It’s more fun playing like this,” replied the boy.
On another occasion, I asked Robin-Brisebois if he knew how kids found out about the online games they played. He approached a boy he knew by name who was playing Agario on a desktop (the same game that is popular at the Cartierville library). “Is this Agario?” he asked, in a friendly tone that indicated that at the moment he was interested in the games the kids played, rather than in enforcing rules. “How did you hear about it?” he asked.
“From Squeezie. He’s a Youtube guy, he reviews games.”
Squeezie, a young Youtube star from France, posts gameplay reviews of online games in a winningly hyperactive style. Librarians at both Marc-Favreau and Cartierville – but not at the Ahuntsic library – were familiar with him because of his popularity among younger desktop gamers.
The library owns five gaming consoles – a PS4, an Xbox, an Xbox/Kinect, and two PS3s — and can run four of them at a time (given the limited number of available screens/projectors). Robin-Brisebois estimates that four consoles successfully meet the needs of their population, but certainly if there were more available, they’d be in use. “For sure, if I have 150 kids here for ‘Teen Night,’ (La Soiree des Ados, a semi-annual event) and if I had 10 TVs, they’re all going to be looking at the TVs and playing games. But I like to try and program other stuff – nail art, whatever it might be.”
Video Game Club at Marc-Favreau
Marc-Favreau’s video gaming club meets every second Sunday from 2-4 p.m., year-round. The club operates on a first-come, first-served basis. They used to use a registration system but they found that often kids would show up without having registered, and kids who had registered would not show up. On a brilliantly sunny Sunday in September, half a dozen boys between the ages of 9 and 14 were gathered by the doorway of the gaming room at 1:45 p.m. – fifteen minutes before the scheduled start of the club. The club is held in a glass-walled room off the young children’s reading area on Marc-Favreau’s main floor. The consoles are visible from just inside the library’s main entrance during club play, which all but guarantees a trickle of first-timers at every session. The doors are kept open and throughout the two-hour period, friends and family members of whoever is playing drift in and out more or less constantly. The atmosphere is intensely social; there is a sense that friendships begin here. According to Robin-Brisebois, there are some kids who are “friends from video game club” but don’t see each other in any other context.
Robin-Brisebois and an assistant librarian pushed a table in front of the door to block the kids from entering the room where the consoles were set up before the 2 p.m. start-time. Finally, they let the waiting group in and set up what they confirmed was a typical set-up for video game club: Three consoles, on which Super Mario Super Smash Bros, FIFA 2014, and Just Dance were set up. Although a fourth console and screen was available, the room where the club meets is only big enough to comfortably accommodate three gaming stations. “Right now they love Super Mario Super Smash Bros,” said Robin-Brisebois. Super Smash Bros can be played by up to eight players, and it’s always played by that many during video game club. They sit in a group of low chairs, the littler kids in the front. The age range of players is between 7 and 14. Given the number of players, it’s a loud group with almost constant shouting, but it’s good-natured. “That’s what the younger kids play. Then the older kids – mostly guys – play FIFA 14, and a mix of boys and girls play Just Dance,” says Robin-Brisebois.
The games are chosen based on popular demand. It’s clear that FIFA 14 and Smash Bros are “must-haves” – there is nonstop demand for them; their presence has a hegemonic quality. However, the third console is somewhat more “in play.” At one point, no one is playing Just Dance and a boy enters the room and asks if he and a friend can play NHL Hockey. The assistant librarian supervising this Sunday is named Robert; he agrees to switch out the game. The kids play for 20 minutes before one of their mothers, who has been browsing upstairs, arrives and says it’s time to go. Then a girl of about eight asks for Just Dance, and it’s switched back.
Throughout the two hours of gameplay time, kids are coming and going. A core group stays through to the end, but an assistant librarian ensures that everyone gets a turn. A total of about 30 kids show up; at one point, the room is at its capacity of 21 people, and several kids are told they have to wait outside the room until someone leaves before they can enter. The atmosphere teeters on the brink of chaos, as players are constantly interacting, and friends who are watching are providing (sometimes loud) commentary. An assistant librarian is present through the entire two hours. He spends most of the time watching casually, but it’s clear that he can’t leave the room. The energy is too intense, there are too many kids to be left unsupervised.
Robert, the assistant on duty, remarks that if the older FIFA 14 players had their way, they would play 1-on-1 rather than 2-on-2. “They’re really good, some of them, and they want to win by themselves, not as part of a team,” he says. As the room fills up, they are told that they have to make teams of two, which they do among themselves. Most kids seem familiar with the gaming culture of the library, and they voluntarily pass of controllers to other kids who are waiting after 20 or so minutes. They will watch for a while, or leave the room and come back for another turn. The organization of players is completely informal and seems to work, which is surprising given the number of kids that come through.
According to Robin-Brisebois, group of kids that attends every video game club session live in the co-op apartments behind the library. Many of them are children of immigrants from the Maghreb and West Africa. This demographic of second-generation immigrants is also well represented at the other two study sites. There are younger siblings who have tagged along with older siblings, started out playing Super Smash Bros with the younger kids, and have grown into FIFA-playing maturity in the past couple of years. The librarians on duty know some of the kids well, are familiar with some of their strengths and weaknesses. “He used to cry sometimes, when he’d get frustrated,” said Robert, indicating a boy of about 13, very confident, at the center of a FIFA match. “He started coming with his older brother. Now he’s one of the chefs du groupe.”
The library has decided on an open-ended attendance policy rather than a signup or registration system because they found that with a sign-up requirement, kids arrived with a small group of friends and expected to play with them exclusively. “The effect was like running an arcade,” said Robin-Brisebois. What the library hopes for (and, based on what I saw, achieves) is more of an interactive space where kids meet new people and make new friends. The drawback is that there is a bit more intervention required as far as making sure everyone gets to play, but it’s worth it, according to the assistant Robert, because the group has really gotten to know each other and has grown in this socially dynamic atmosphere.
On this particular Sunday, FIFA and Super Smash Bros are more popular than Just Dance. A boy dances by himself for a while before joining the fray in Super Smash Bros, and then two girls of about eight dance for about ten minutes before leaving. A social group never builds up around Just Dance the way it does around the other games. Robert noted that, while boys often take a turn or two at Just Dance, girls are less likely to join into Super Smash Bros, and even less likely to play FIFA. A girl of about 13 does join Super Smash Bros while I am observing, but she is the only girl to participate in either of the other games for the whole two hours.
While the etiquette around Super Smash Bros is above all casual, there appears to be an “older-guy” etiquette at work at FIFA: handshakes, high-fives, understated reactions to disappointment and victory. There is certainly an established group of FIFA players who come here every session and have come to dominate as the best players. Meanwhile, the other two games appear to have no fixed hierarchy of skill.
While video game club was held, on the other side of the wall the desktop computers in the youth section were in use the entire time, by Minecraft and Agario players. This confirmed my suspicion that there are two types of gamers who use Marc-Favreau library: online gamers and console gamers. It’s possible that in other environments the groups overlap (maybe the Minecraft kids play console games at home, and the console kids play computer games at home), but in the library gaming environment, they appear to belong to different social groups. I never saw the kids who attended video game club playing on the desktops during the weekday after school hours, and the kids that I came to recognize as regular desktop players did not show up for video game club.
Site 3: Bibliotheque Ahuntsic, Montreal
When I arrived for my first meeting with Julie Pare, the head librarian at Ahuntsic’s library, she cut right to the chase. “Before you start asking questions, I just want to tell you that we don’t have any expertise in video games here,” she said. “We lend them out, we sometimes do video game programming during spring break or summer. We have some assistant-librarians that are a little younger, who might have more knowledge on the subject than me. But as for me, I don’t have much expertise or interest in video games.”
It appears that Pare’s feeling about video games sets the tone for the library’s programming, which is the least regular and extensive of the three study sites I visited. Before arriving I had estimated that my interview would take 30-45 minutes, and when I arrived Pare told me that she was very busy and would need to cut our interview short. After a couple minutes of chatting I admitted to her that I don’t know much about video games either, that my participation in this study was more as an ethnographer interested in library programming and the habits and interests of kids than about games per se. After this remark Pare’s mood noticeably brightened and she ultimately gave me 20 minutes of her time, and then introduced me to two other staff members who she felt might be able to speak more specifically about video game programming at her library.
Ahuntsic library has two video gaming consoles (an Xbox and a PS3), and they are used during an annual “Teen Night”, during special spring break programming, sporadically during the summertime, and for one day during the Festival Montreal Joue, in November. They have a standard selection of mainstream titles for check-out, and the discs are kept behind the counter to prevent theft. There are 32 desktop internet stations throughout the library, 12 of which are in the youth section. Four of those 12 are located directly beside the main circulation desk, and while I did see it in use among kids playing internet games, its high-traffic location made it the least popular of the gaming stations.
The youth section at Ahuntsic is separated from the rest of the library by a wall. There is a sense that it is a separate wing, and what goes on there can’t be seen or heard by the rest of the library. Ahuntsic library has the most “traditional” feel of the three study sites; upon entry you’re facing a big circulation desk and a pillar with a list of rules and regulations posted on it. The three staff members I spoke to – Julie Pare, and two assistant librarians, Annique Dumont-Bissonnette and Joachim Luppens – were much less familiar with the gaming habits of their visitors than the staffers at the other study sites. They struggled to recall the names of popular games and did not characterize themselves as gamers. (Dumont-Bissonnette said that her boyfriend is an avid gamer, and that she knew about some games through him but rarely played herself.) Moreover, when asked about patrons’ habits at the desktop computer stations, they had less familiarity with what was played. On the other hand, they were able to describe typical adult desktop users’ habits in some detail. I got the impression that there is less interaction between staff and young library users in Ahuntsic than at the other two sites, where librarians know many young people by name and are fairly well versed in current trends in gaming.
Like the other two sites, Ahuntsic maintains a two-hour maximum for desktop users, with a weekly maximum of seven hours. However, both Pare and Luppens indicated that kids routinely spent more than the maximum on the desktops.
“They have their strategies for staying on [the computers] longer,” said Pare.
“They’ll come in with their big brother’s card, their friends’ card, and reserve under those names to make the reservation last longer. If there’s no one reserved after them, and they have their tricks, they can manage to stay on there a long time. Especially in the summer. A lot of them aren’t in camp in the summer, and their parents encourage them to come spend the day at the library, so that’s what they do.”
When asked how much librarians police this prolonged web use, both Pare and Luppens indicated that it was hard to keep track; they both said they were very busy on a day-to-day basis, and it would take special effort to keep track of who’s who at the workstations. I got the sense that they felt that they couldn’t be bothered by what kids were up to on the desktop consoles. “They just come in for the games,” Pare repeated twice. That’s in contrast to the adult desktop users, whose use they described as more varied — job searches, getting citizenship documentation, correspondence – and includes gaming. Luppens said the most frequent game he recognized on adult desktop screens is FarmVille.
Luppens has organized several gaming activities and he favors movement-based games played with the Kinect to games like FIFA and NHL. “We’ve had problems with batteries that need to be replaced in the controllers. I find, with four players, when they can move around, it’s more fun for them, they don’t get bored as quickly. It’s more dynamic. It’s often Just Dance. To be honest, it’s hard to find games that fit this criteria – that are rated E, that are four-player, that can be played with the Kinect,” said Luppens.
Luppens in responsible for buying new games each month through Archambeault, and maintains a fairly straightforward approach: replacing what’s broken and buying whatever must-have new release is available. He echoed the other two study sites in his observation that while more adult games are available as new releases, adult games don’t get checked out nearly as much as games for kids and teens. “Maybe adults haven’t clued into the fact that the library has games for them,” he said. Based on conversations at the other two sites, I am more inclined to believe that adult gamers buy their own games, and that Ahuntsic, which has a similar socio-economic profile as Cartierville, is not home to as many adult gamers as, say, Marc-Favreau.
Annique Dumont-Bissonnette has worked as a supervising librarian at several special video gaming events at Ahuntsic. She found Mario Brothers games and Just Dance to be successful multiplayer games. She recalled an informal experiment that she conducted in 2014, where a new game, unknown to the group of kids, was one of two games available during a gaming event. “It was Mario Kart, and another game the kids didn’t really know,” she recalled.
“All the kids wanted to play Mario. When the line was too long for Mario, they’d go try the other one. I think it’s cause everyone knew Mario Kart, so that’s the one they wanted to play. One way to do a better job [integrating new games] with that would be to have two new games, with no game that they already know as an option. And then they would have more of a chance to get to know the new one, not being tempted to go back to the one they know.”
Analysis: Insights Gained From Recurring Themes
All three sites have had incidences of theft of video games, but only at Marc Favreau does the problem go beyond the degree of theft that libraries expect as a matter of course. Robin-Brisebois explained three types of theft that occur, all of which target video games more frequently than books, by his estimation. The first type is smuggling items through the electronic sensors by putting them in an aluminum-lined lunch bag. These lunch bags can be found at any dollar store and prevent the scanner from detecting what’s inside. A second method is to scratch off the security chip on the disc surface, which isn’t prohibitively difficult. A third is to become a member of the library and take out as many items as you can (up to a maximum of six DVDs or video games, and 12 books), and simply never return them. The latter type of theft is possible because, as all three study sites confirmed, Montreal’s library system has no recourse against theft. “No fees are leveled against you that keep adding up, a bailiff doesn’t drop off a summons at your house,” said Robin-Brisebois. Needless to say, every staff member I spoke to agreed that having game-loaded tablets available for check-out would never work.
As long as someone is willing to forsake their future library privileges, a one-time theft of a handful of new releases can go unpunished. Robin-Brisebois noted that new releases, in particular M-rated games, that can cost nearly $100, are most likely to be stolen. His theory is that theft of that kind is typically for the purposes of re-sale; usually the stolen items will be relatively newly released games, DVDs and comic books with a good resale value. At Cartierville, Huot guessed that the absence of a gamer culture in the neighborhood meant that stealing for resale purposes was less common. “I don’t remember anything like the re-selling thing that Marc-Favreau had, of someone taking out the max number of items and then never returning. There might be less of a gamer culture in this area than around Marc-Favreau, too. So the whole issue of re-selling games, in this neighbourhood, just might not be something on people’s agendas.”
Cartierville and Ahuntsic both took the anti-theft measure of keeping discs behind the counter, which all but eliminated theft of video games and DVDs at both locations. Both locations report that damaged discs are more of an issue, in particular because very popular games can be difficult to replace given what’s available through Archambeault. “They can go off the market soon after they’ve become available, and then we can’t replace them. Especially games rated E from the previous year that are starting to wear out, those can be hard to replace, and they are our most popular games. I’ll sometimes buy two of something if I think it’s going to get played a lot,” said Huot.
Video game clubs offer only multiplayer games as part of their programming, but finding the right game that can work with a variety of ability levels can be challenging. “What really matters is the quality of the gameplay,” said Cedric Plante at Cartierville, of his experience supervising video game clubs. “If it’s fun, if everyone can keep up together, if it moves forward, progresses, then they’ll have fun.” The challenge is finding games that provide a minimum of frustration while still including a range of ability levels. Huot echoed his colleague’s concern about finding the right balance between multiplayer and all-inclusive during video game club.
“It can’t be a game that causes frustration. If it’s frustrating, they’ll want to stop. There are a few platform games that are multiplayer, and it doesn’t work if one of the four kids is dragging behind. For that reason they often want to play 1 on 1, because it’s easier for them. And that can be frustrating for us – we’d like to see them doing collaborative games more, for sure.”
At Marc-Favreau, the inner circle of FIFA players during video game club are very good players, and while they are cooperative about handing their controllers off when they’ve had a turn, there’s a natural segregation that happens between the experts and the more casual players. Super Smash Bros and Just Dance, on the other hand, appear to be games that comfortably include a range of abilities in the same multiplayer session. It’s perhaps for that reason that both games are mainstays of video game clubs at the sites I visited.
GIRLS AND BOYS
Over the course of my observation, I only saw one instance of a boy and girl playing desktop games together. During console gameplay at video game club meetups, co-ed gaming was more common, but only on certain types of games. Librarians at all three sites expressed concern that girls and boys feel equally welcome at their video gaming events. And while staffers who had supervised remarked that girls were always present at programming, there was an overall consensus that there were some games that girls simply did not participate in – namely FIFA and NHL.
Consoles are expensive, and there is no dedicated gaming hardware budget in the Montreal libraries network. According to Huot, budget for gaming hardware, whether it be a replacement controller or a whole new console, is only available if there are funds left over from the general audio-visual budget at the end of the year. He doesn’t typically find out if a surplus is to be expected until November. This means if a console breaks in June, he has to wait five months until he knows if it can be replaced – and replacement might not be possible.
This circumstance has led the Ahuntsic library to focus on Kinect games rather than console games during its programming, to avoid risking a broken controller altogether. Marc-Favreau has twice the number of consoles of the other two libraries, but Robin-Brisebois admitted that they were bought before he started working there, and he doesn’t know how he’d replace them if one were to break. “I could request it, but I’m not sure what budget it would come out of,” he said.
An additional concern is wireless connectivity. All Montreal libraries host web-based password-protected wi-fi for guests. Because an internet browser is required for accessing the internet, gaming consoles can’t stream games. This is of particular frustration to Cedric Plante at Cartierville, who, as a gamer himself, is aware of many games available via streaming that would be interesting to try out during club programming. “I could take the console home myself and download games in my own apartment, but that’s too inconvenient,” he said. The current set-up precludes any smart consoles being used in libraries, and overwhelmingly favors mainstream titles that all players are familiar with.
Video game clubs require at least one staff member to be on hand for the entire two-plus hour duration. While this doesn’t seem to create strain on the personnel at Marc-Favreau, and Huot and Plante at Cartierville act as a supervisors out of their own enjoyment of gaming, it’s an important consideration when proposing additional gaming programming. At Ahuntsic, every staff member I spoke to said they were very busy and their schedules made expanding the video gaming programming seem impractical. Every gaming supervisor I met was on the younger side, and there was broad consensus that while violence was virtually nonexistent among the kids, anyone supervising has to be comfortable intervening in conflicts between kids that can escalate quickly. “I’ve never had to ban someone from coming back, but I’ve definitely thrown kids out,” said Huot. At Marc-Favreau, the staff prefers to keep a security guard on hand.
Staff engagement with video gaming in general seems to have a positive impact in staff-kid interactions, but that’s as much a factor of the positioning of the desktops as it is about effort made by staff. At Marc-Favreau, where desktops are located in high-traffic areas near the open desk station occupied by Robin-Brisebois, I observed staff members and kids regularly addressing one another by name. Kids appeared generally respectful of the two-hour rule; either their session would end when the next person signed up showed up, or a librarian would stop by and check in if a player seemed to be parked at a desktop for a particularly long time. Robin-Brisebois noted that, in particular among the kids who live nearby, in a complex of co-op housing behind the library, there was a tendency to “not unplug” that he worried about. “Sometimes, on the weekends, it will get to be 2 o’clock, and I’ll be like, have you had lunch? And I’ll send them home to have lunch, and then they can come back,” he said.
Meanwhile, the kids playing beyond their two-hour limit at Ahuntsic and Cartierville are tacitly ignored by staff, whether because of the positioning of the desktops away from easy supervision or because of limited personnel availability. As a result, the staff-kids relationship seems to suffer. At both of those sites, staffers had a somewhat wary regard for kids on the desktops, while at Marc-Favreau, where kids are just as willing to spend the entire day gaming, there’s more interaction, which leads to familiarity, which reinforces the library’s role as a community space for young people.
This issue is closely tied to limitations presented by hardware and personnel, but sign-up systems are an additional barrier to access that can be modified based on a library’s needs. As evidenced by the contrast between the social dynamism of Marc-Favreau’s no-signup video game club and the somewhat start-stop flow of kids at Cartierville’s signup-run club, access can determine attendance. Holding a video game club in an open space where spectators are welcome creates discovery opportunities and naturally accommodates more kids. However, where there’s a lack of personnel and huge demand, this setup is untenable. The challenge faced by the Cartierville library’s video club is how to control access without driving people away. If my observations at Marc-Favreau are any indication, having one additional staff member on duty and an open-door policy has the effect of improving accessibility and creating a dynamic social environment.
WHAT ARE THE KIDS READY FOR?
This question is perhaps the most relevant to the project of implementing indie video game programming in libraries. All the librarians I spoke to expressed a point of view that, they acknowledged, conflicted with my observations. They all said that the kids were up for trying out and possibly learning new games. However, given the option, they will almost certainly opt to play games they already know. So, what could facilitate the introduction to new games? Annique Dumont-Bissonnette’s remark at Ahuntsic, that if a new game is introduced the best way for kids to learn how to play it is to have no alternative, seems to most straightforward. Certainly having staff on-hand who are familiar with a new game, to walk players through initial rounds, would be essential. Many kids at Marc-Favreau seemed happy to watch others play, and this might be an additional way to introduce a new game: Invite a few experienced players to play a few rounds in an open area where kids can drift in and watch, and take a turn if they’re interested.
All three sites included in this paper serve ethnically and economically diverse populations. In all three cases, kids are using the library as a safe place to hang out after school before their parents come home from work, as a free alternative to summer camp, and as a free place to hang out on the weekends. There is no doubt that the library’s role as democratizer of access to information is in effect at these three sites. In observing the relationships between young library patrons and librarians at Cartierville and Marc-Favreau, I was reminded of danah boyd’s argument that young people need mentors to help them navigate through the mazes of digital culture they’re exposed to. By encouraging collaboration and not tolerating violence during video game club sessions, librarians are helping to socialize these young gamers. By featuring games like Just Dance and Super Smash Bros, that attract both girls and boys, they are creating a more inclusive environment.
The one site that did not endure personnel or hardware limitations – Marc-Favreau – runs a dynamic video game club. Although kids ask for the same games week after week, Robin-Brisebois expressed a willingness to try a pilot project of indie games, were such a thing to be available. He was especially interested in games that would encourage collaboration. Likewise, Huot and Plante felt that encouraging collaboration would be in line with their goals as mentors. At Ahuntsic, Luppens said that publicizing an indie gaming event would be a challenge – “you’d want to make sure the kids understood what kind of game it was before they came.” Despite Ahuntsic’s relatively hands-off approach to video game programming, both Luppens and Dumont-Bissonnette said that they were confident that an indie games program, given the proper support, could be a success.
In offering a pilot project of indie games, personnel limitations are a major consideration. At both Ahuntsic and Cartierville, these constraints have distinct ramifications. At Ahuntsic, staff are not as familiar with young gamers’ habits, and are therefore less equipped to offer them mentorship and engagement when they’re playing on the library’s desktop computers. Moreover, video game programming in general is limited due to staff availability and, perhaps, interest. At Cartierville, the video game club isn’t able to reach the number of kids it could because only one staff member can supervise at a time. Given that introducing a new game would require additional personnel support, both in terms of publicity, gameplay instruction and supervision, any indie games program should take staff availability into consideration.
Perhaps the most convincing reason that I found for introducing indie games in libraries was the limited selection of games played at the study sites. FIFA and Just Dance are by far the most popular games, and kids seem to be deeply accustomed to playing those games during club play. Having an in-library gaming session to introduce kids to these new games would be essential before offering them on a check-out basis. By introducing kids to new gaming scenarios, an indie games program could expose kids to ways of playing and competing that may be completely unfamiliar to them.
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