I’m here today to talk about games in the library classroom. There is a lot of literature on gaming in libraries, but when you weed out those that focus on video game collection and hosting gaming programs in public libraries, there isn’t much left. Please understand I have nothing against these programs, but what I am interested in is how instruction librarians can use games to get students excited about learning to use library resources. And if they are excited, then I hope that means the information will stick with them longer.I know that not all of you are academic librarians. I am going to tell you about my experience with using games in an academic library classroom. I think the transferability will be fairly obvious for school librarians. I hope that the public librarians who are present will see an application for these. I think even if you don’t have a captive audience, that simple local games can be a great way for young people to learn how to find the information they need, or be used as a marketing tool.
Most of us are familiar with the bored look students get in the library classroom. Even when we put a lot of effort into active learning exercises, many still act bored and unengaged. We work so hard to plan activities to get them involved.
Then we see the same student wandering lost in the stacks, unable to read a call number, or locate the catalog, or some other task that was clearly spelled out in the lecture and activities. Or they turn in their rough draft only using one of the five sources you recommended for the assignment.
These same students will spend hours playing video games on their computers or a game console. Every one of these games requires a certain amount of learning. Many video games actually require a great deal of learning and mental energy. They need to learn how to make their character move, they need to learn how to find ways to recover from injuries, ways to get past the bad guys. They will spend hours on “communal learning” through walk-through sites for hints when they get stuck, or talking to fellow players on message boards. It seems to me that educators should be able to tap into that joy of learning and creating video games is one way to do just that.
The “game generation” (anyone under the age of about 40) has been deeply affected by games, whether or not we spent a lot of time playing video games. Games and other technologies have completely rewired how we think and how we learn. This goes beyond educational psychology… our brains are physiologically different. Our brains are programmed for speed, handling multiple tasks and information input at once, and no longer learn linearly. This means we don’t learn the way a book presents information, our brains want to hyperlink all over the place. We see many parts of the real-world, especially our careers, as games. Not that we do not take them seriously, but that we strive for achievement, rewards, winning in the same way, and see competition everywhere.
Now let’s look at the younger half of the games generation. The video game industry is quickly surpassing the movie and music industries in terms of sales. Many students are spending more time playing video games than watching television. Studies are showing that almost every American child as “regular access” to video games. They take interactivity for granted. Clay Shirkey tells this great story about a friend’s toddler daughter who was watching Dora the Explorer and suddenly disappeared behind the television. After a while, the father asked what she was doing. She replied that she was looking for the controllers because she wanted Dora to do something else. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t manipulate the movie.
Don’t the first four look very familiar? Isn’t that what we already do in the classroom?
Throw in the story, and then you start to get into the realm of games. A story is a key element to stimulating emotions among players, and making an activity fun.
While we still don’t fully understand the mysteries of the human brain and how people learn, it is nearly unanimously accepted that engagement is important to successful learning. Studies continue to show that fun and play not only make the learning process more enjoyable, they actually make it more effective. Fun and play lead to engagement and motivation. It has even been shown that when people are having a good time, they are biologically more alert and their memory is stimulated.
There are a lot of good books and articles on game-based learning if you want to learn more about the theory. However, I am going to go ahead and move on to my own experience with using video games in the classroom, and will then give you some tips on how you can get started with this at your own institutions. One of my biggest professional interests is how we (librarians and educators) can solve problems of ignorance by mixing real-world and online tools. I fell into video game creation last summer as I was expanding my tutorial creation abilities. I had been creating static tutorials using Macromedia Flash, but striving for more interactivity to hold students accountable for learning the tutorials’ content… and making them more fun. Once I found the book Beginning Flash Game Programming for Dummies, I soon realized basic programming isn’t that hard. In my first effort to create an educational game, I created a game for introductory library research. General introductory library researchUsed hot spotsmultiple-choice questionsdrag & dropdynamic feedbackLinked tomapsDatabasesWeb sitesDirectoriesOther online tools that would help answer the questionSimulation of research processUnderwhelming reception with freshman bio studentsLearned and moved on
The game simply mimicked the research process and could be done entirely online. In hindsight, I would call this a simulation rather than a game. I finally got the opportunity to test this out with a non-majors freshman biology course. I wouldn’t entirely say it bombed, but I felt underwhelmed by their experience. I gave the students some time towards the end of class to reflect on the effectiveness of the game on blank note cards. Some said it was fun, but others asked why we were doing a simulation of the library when we were actually in the library and could use the real thing. I thought this student had a point, but felt some of the basic concepts in this activity were still valid. So I gave up on doing this particular activity in class again and started from scratch.
This game was specifically designed for use in the freshman composition course when professors brought their students into the library for research instruction. I chose this class because I would be able to use the game multiple times. I am very grateful to have worked with two English professors who were willing to give something a chance even though it was unchartered waters.
The biggest change I added to the second phase of my introduction to library research was adding a fictional story to similar learning objectives. Without the story, the “game” becomes more of a “simulation” or “activity.” I think the biggest difference between an “activity” and a “game” is the level of emotional involvement the players feel towards the task. Adding a simple, fictional story makes the learning fun. The story in this case is that students form a team of secret agent rookies who are out to guard an “information mainframe” (the library), which has been intruded by an invader. They have to get to the resources before the invader to protect their secrets.
In addition to the storyline, I also added several real-world elements to the game. The students were given physical copies of the library directory (which is posted throughout the library), a glossary of “secret words,” and physical copies of popular and scholarly journals. About a third of the way through the computer game, each group was given a title of a book. Each book was somehow related to espionage, tying into the overall theme. They had to look the title up in our catalog, find the call number, figure out which floor it was located on, and then go get it. In the book, they would find a three-digit code on a slip of paper (that I had placed there before the class), which they would enter into the game. They could not continue without this code. They were later asked to bring down one volume or issue of a particular journal, and then I would give them the code to continue the game. This interaction with the physical library helped to ease their fears about finding physical materials, and helped provide a real-world context for the information they were learning on the computer.
To create a sense of friendly competition, the game was programmed to award points for each of the games’ activities. Each team’s final score was posted on the chalkboard at the front of the room, but pride of the highest score was the only reward offered. Teams took a lot of pride in their scores.
This library session was entirely active learning. I provided a brief introduction before the game and a review afterwards, and was available during the game to answer questions. However, for the half an hour or so it took the students to complete the game, I did not have to do much. It was exciting to see students teaching each other and putting the pieces of information they knew together to find the answers. The computer provided a “home base” and focused students’ attention on one task at a time, unlike a traditional worksheet, and that improved their ability to focus on the task at hand.
During the game and as we gathered for the review, students were humming the James Bond theme song and holding their fingers like a gun. At one point I went to the floor where they were finding books to make sure they weren’t having any problems. They looked at me in mock annoyance and said “stop spying on us!” To me, this and their eagerness to have the highest score are evidence of engagement.A debriefing or closure activity is very important to this method of instruction. I have found that providing a brief quiz at the end using classroom response software (a.k.a. “clickers”) is an excellent way to immediately follow up the game. Using clickers allows me to assess what they have learned through the game, as well as clear up any confusion if something wasn’t clear through the activities. I still had time with them in class to review something if there were a significant amount of students who provided an incorrect answer.
The average score of three classes on the total quiz was 92% correct.
Finally, I asked them a tenth question on the quiz, which asked if this was a fun way to learn about the library. You will see on this chart that each class answered very differently. I’m sure any of you who have taught multiple classes before know that no matter how similarly you give your lecture and activities, each class has its own personality. I found each class had a very different range of scores on the quiz, which related directly to how well they did on the review questions. I was very happy when 75% responded that this was a fun way to learn about the library, and this class had the highest range of scores. The final class was a very vocal group, and I was disappointed that only 53% responded that this was a fun way to learn about the library. I couldn’t hide my reaction to this response, but then someone shouted out that they would have said yes if I didn’t make them climb up to the third and fourth floors. There was a murmur of agreement from other students in the class. I should probably mention at this point that our instruction classroom is in the lower level of the library, so they do have to either climb four flights of stairs, or one flight of stairs to get to the elevator. All of the spy-related books were located on the fourth floor, and our print journals are all on the third floor. So some of the students who selected “no” might have said “yes” if it weren’t for the physical exertion the game entails. Next year when I do this activity, I will have the students write their responses to this question and provide more information on why they chose “yes” or “no.”I do not feel that the clickers are necessarily the only way to do a closure activity, but the presence of some type of closure activity that gets everyone involved is very important. You have sent them off in many directions, and every student in the classroom has had an entirely unique experience. It is crucial to bring these unique experiences together, reaffirm the most important parts of the exercise, and invite questions of anything that was unclear.
The game is called “It’s Alive.” The student plays a mad scientist who has been told by administrators that he has to stop using his students for experiments. So he decides he’s going to build a monster that he can experiment on.
The creepy guy who is willing to sell you the body parts wants to make sure you know how to conduct your research before he will give you the part.
So the main screen starts off as a shelf of body parts, each of which is a button leading to a series of related questions. I included a lab rat that appears with helpful hints, although I discovered they did not read the instructions well enough, so they missed a lot of the hints. I chose not to have visible scores for this game. The activities focused on a particular assignment, so I wanted to make sure they got most of the material correct. So for each section, you had to get nearly all of the questions right to be awarded the body part. If not, then you had to do that section again. This time I did offer a prize of a $1 campus café gift certificate to each member of the team who finished first, because in this case, rushing would not allow you to win.This game was played in the science building’s computer lab due to time constraints and limited computers in the library. While this game was a favorite among the students who make up my gaming focus group, in some ways I reverted back to the first phase of my initial game. It has an interesting story and the way the body parts build a monster is great. However, I think the interaction with the physical library provides important context into what the students are learning and being asked to do. The professor was pleased and eager to do this again, but I will add some interaction with the physical library, try to add more humor and graphics, and label the body parts so it is clear what types of questions will be asked in that section of the game. I did not do more formal assessment because of lack of time, but plan to add it next year.
I will be working to add more animations, humor, and real-world interaction to my existing games. The first step will be to incorporate the librarian at the reference desk into the games, perhaps requiring students to get their next mission from her. I am currently working on a plagiarism education game in the style of Myst or those escape games. My gaming focus group has suggested an Indiana Jones themed game to help students learn how to find journal articles. They suggested calling it something like Raiders of the Lost Journal. I will always be looking for more effective methods of assessment. I would like to add some non-video game-like elements to library and general freshman orientation, and am brainstorming with a history professor about potentially collaborating to create a zombie-tag-like game to simulate the McCarthy era witch hunts.
I am very happy that I fell into games before I started looking at what other libraries are doing because otherwise I would have been scared off. From what I can tell, the few libraries who are working on online games are getting huge grants and hiring professional programmers and digital artists to create their games. Some academic libraries have students in professional programs that are willing to do the work, though it is a multi-year development process. Unfortunately, many are finding the games aren’t very successful, or their simple board games are more successful than their complicated online games are. In some cases, the game was developed on some bad assumptions, like students being willing to go all over campus to look something up in a book when the question is multiple choice. The creators were then surprised that the students just guess the answer. If it requires students to get up from their chairs, then the game needs to require a correct answer.
I don’t think you need to have a lot of money to create effective games. You will need special software. I use Macromedia Flash, and there are very reasonable educational rates for this particular product. This is what the “casual games” you see on sites like AddictingGames.com are built in. Flash is a very powerful program and does have a bit of a learning curve. You also do not have to hire a professional programmer. A book like Flash for Dummies will get you started with the basics of the program, and Beginning Flash Game Programming for Dummies will help you with basic game programming. I think the biggest problem with the few library games I have seen is they sink tons of grant money into a game without knowing what is going to work. Start your games small. My games are not technologically impressive, but they seem to work at our school. With some creativity, you can do a lot with minimal programming. Learning to build your own games incrementally will allow you to see what works, evaluate their effectiveness on your population, and build on your experience and student feedback.
Look for places where your games will a high return on investment (ROI). In other words, look for classes or tutorials that you can reuse because they do take time to develop. Look for places where a game will solve a problem, such as a class that is chronically unengaged, or a topic that is not fun to learn about, like plagiarism. Anyone is welcome to e-mail me if you want my files to either tweak to your collection and building, or to look at to build your own. It would be nice for anyone who uses my work directly to give me credit, but I’d really just like to know what you are doing with games. I’m also available to answer questions at any point, though if you get too technical I’ll just have to tell you it’s over my head! When it comes to instructional games, I have to admit that I have an agenda. I want more people to work with games so I have can have more ideas to build on.
Finally, but most importantly, games do not have to be online. This is one of my strengths and interests, so it is what I started with. But Greg Trefry has an excellent presentation available online about Big Games in libraries. Big Games take basic game rules or principles and turn the real world into a board game. There are many, many big games out there you could build on. One creative library-related game was done by Eli Neiburger at the Ann Arbor District Library for a staff development day. His game had two objectives, first of using library materials, and secondly getting to know the downtown businesses. So he had teams take digital pictures of a downtown business with the address clearly visible, then they had to find a book whose Dewey call number was somehow related. For example, one team found a shoe store whose address was 332 Ashley, and matched that with a book with a call number of 332.04 whose title was Retirement on a Shoestring. Big Games use common technologies such as texting and digital pictures, but are mostly played in the real world. In your library, you can start small with activities from the book Games that Teach by Steve Sugar, or go big, like the games at New York City’s annual Come Out and Play festival… which by the way is June 12th if anyone is interested. I think this could be a great way to solve the problem of freshman orientation.
When I am researching or working on instructional games, I often can’t help thinking of the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” from Mary Poppins. As we all probably remember from this movie, the “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” making a dreadful chore like room cleaning something that’s actually fun. I feel like I have only scratched the surface with instructional games for library instruction, but feel like it is already making a big improvement in their retention of material. For students who honestly have learned the resources in past instruction, it makes the repetitive experience more pleasant and teaching in a new way will teach them things they had missed before.I hope that I have made a convincing case for game-based learning in the library instruction classroom. I will be posting my slides on Slideshare, which will include links to my games, as well as some other games. It will also include a list of some of the best books and articles I have found so far. I will be happy to answer any questions you have now, or you can e-mail or call me at any point in the future.
One of our instructional “problem children” was a second semester biology course for majors. Biology is one of our largest majors and we hardly get any time with them for library instruction. The little time we do get in this freshman course has been a frustration for me and a number of my predecessors. I saw an opportunity to try something different this year and build a game specifically for this assignment. If it was successful, I could then use it in future classes.
Integrating Virtual & Physical Games
Library Instruction in a Small Academic Library
Name of the Game
Introduction to Game-Based Learning
Are Games Right for You?
Involve learning how to
Defeat bad guys
Recover from injuries
Tap into communal
How can we use tap into
this joy of learning to
Those who grew up with video games (under 40)
Deeply affected by games
Brains programmed for
See real life as a game
Born when video games were
in full swing
Game industry surpassing
movie and music industries
Almost all American
children have “regular
access” to video
games, regardless of
Take interactivity for granted
Prensky’s Six Elements of a Game
Prensky’s Six Elements of a Game
Prensky’s Six Elements of a Game
Representation or story
Fun & Play = Engagement
universally seen as an
important part of effective
We are biologically built to
learn through play (watch
Studies show that when we
are having a good time, we
are more alert and our
memory is stimulated
Secret Agents in the Library
Importance of story
Changes from “activity” to “game”
Excites emotional engagement
Students as secret agent rookies
Intruder in “information mainframe” (a.k.a. library)
Must find resources and protect their secrets
Secret Agents in the Library
Integrating real-world interaction
Students given title, then must find
Code placed in book
Couldn’t continue with game w/o
Students must find print journal
Important to effectiveness of game
Secret Agents in the Library
Teams’ final scores posted in front of room
Created friendly competition
Added to student engagement
No other reward offered except pride
Secret Agents in the Library
Entirely active learning
Students taught each
Computer served as
“home base” and focused
students’ attention on
one task at a time
Secret Agents in the Library
Results always changing
Often results not
Humming James Bond
Holding hand like a gun
“Stop spying on us!”
Sample Review Question
What is one indication that a journal is scholarly?
A. Many colorful pictures
B. Written by a journalist
C. Presence of a bibliography
More animations, humor, &
Get reference librarian at
Raider of the Lost Journal
Are Games Right for You?
Don’t be intimidated by
large schools’ projects…
most aren’t doing it right
DON’T need lots of money or a professional
DO need software like Flash, and books like Flash for
Dummies and Beginning Flash Game for Dummies
Look for high ROI Plan before you build
Start small and build on Don’t be afraid of silly
experience and student Get student input
feedback TEST, TEST, TEST
Doesn’t Have to be on Computer
Greg Trefry’s presentation
on Big Games
Eli Neiburger of the Ann
Arbor District Library
Games that Teach by Steve
New York City’s Come Out
& Play festival
How Can You Use Games?
Contact me at any
time for files or
Sharing your ideas
A spoonful of sugar
helps the medicine go
Slides and resources
Adventures in Library Research:
Secret Agent in the Library:
Plagiarism Game (in development):
Other Games to Try
Escape games, like Escape Artist at
Water Busters at
Carnegie Mellon’s library games (though I think you
have to have Flash on your computer to play them):
Suggested Reading, Part 1
Beck, J.C. & Wade, M. (2004). Got Game? How the Gamer
Generation is Reshaping Business Forever. Boston: Harvard
Business School Press.
Broussard, M. Spoonful of Sugar: Instructional Games in
Finkelstein, E. & Leete, G. (2006). Macromedia Flash 8 For
Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Gee, J.P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us about
Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Harris, A. (2006). Beginning Flash Game Programming for
Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Neiburger, E. (2008). Broadening Our Definition of Gaming: Big
Games. Library Technology Reports, 44(3), 12-16.
Suggested Reading, Part 2
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Game-Based Learning. New
Sugar, S. (1998). Games that Teach: experiential activities
for reinforcing learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.
Trefry, G. (2007). Big fun, big learning: Transforming the
world through play. Presentation at ALA TechSource.
Ward, D. (2007). Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right,
a, b, select, start: Learning from games and gamers in
library 2.0. In N. Courtney (Ed.), Library 2.0 and beyond:
Innovative technologies and tomorrow’s user (pp. 105-118).
Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.