International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

Games folks on libraries: Richard Garfield

Posted on November 18, 2014

Sorry to post again so soon after the last one - which you should read if you haven't, as it contains a reminder to fill out the survey for this year's event! (Plus other interesting tidbits.)

In fact, strictly speaking I should probably hold this next interview off until next year. But this is too good to sit on, so consider it a post-IGD present!

We are joined for a surprise final "Games folks on libraries" interview by Richard Garfield. (Yes, feel free to use the definite article!) Dr Garfield is among the handful of folks in recent decades - or in history, really - to have successfully kicked off an entirely new cultural form, the trading card game; certainly he is one of the very few whose status as foundational innovator is so clear. Even more impressive, his original creation, Magic: the Gathering, is still growing in both audience and new content after 21 years! Since then he has also published a number of other games (including RoboRally, profiled on this blog in September) and a book that shares some small measure of his encyclopaedic knowledge and understanding of games. (The book is linked in his bio below, and highly recommended to anyone interested in the form - and to all libraries, as it's both a definitive work on the topic of games and one of the best textbooks I've read on any subject, with not only abundant and well-organised reference material, but well-designed exercises to encourage readers to apply and integrate what they've learned.) As a student and aficionado of games, not to mention a Magic player since it first reached Oz in 1994, it's been an honour and a pleasure to have corresponded with Dr Garfield to bring you this interview - I hope my fellow gamers gain a similar buzz from reading it!

Richard Garfield designed the first trading card game, Magic: the Gathering, in 1993. At the time he was a math professor, but the success of Magic led to him leaving academics and going into game design full time. Since then he has published half a dozen other trading card game designs, as well as a number of board and card games. Since 2001 he has been consulting on game design with companies including Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and the Pokemon Company. His recent games include King of Tokyo and King of New York (board games) and Spectromancer (PC & iOS). He coauthored a book, Characteristics of Games, which was published by MIT press in 2012.

Richard, thanks so much for joining us! Please tell us about your history with/past experience of libraries.

Libraries were an important part of my youth - I believe in ways more significant than the simple access to books. The books were amazing, and important - but I think what really affected me was the sense that the world of ideas was eternal, and open to all. Not only that, a library was a concrete piece of evidence that the culture I was a part of  valued this intellectual world. I believe this is part of the reason I went into academics.

What is your sense of where libraries are now, both in relation to games and in general?

My mother is a librarian, so I am not totally out of touch, but at the same time really don't think I know what is going on in the world of libraries. A lot seems to have changed. And really - how could libraries not be different? The electronic world puts so much of what a library was at everyone's fingertips. Libraries seem to have many more community programs than when I was growing up, probably at least in part in an attempt to refocus in recognition of this changing informational landscape. I am also not sure of where games are in libraries - but they are certainly long overdue if they aren't there!

Where do you see this going, and where could it go?

Despite this wide access to knowledge - that could be perceived as undermining a library's purpose - libraries have an important role in making sure the world of ideas is available to all, and making sure that people know this is important to human culture.  I am sure all these things are being done already, but some natural direction for the future would include:

  • Making sure that this electronic world of knowledge is open to all. Just like no one in the 60s should have been deprived of an encyclopedia, no one today should be deprived of the internet.
  • Acting as an organizer for the world of ideas. The more content is available at your fingertips the harder it is to organize it, and unorganized content is just noise.
  • Expanding what is part of this world of ideas. Games would be an example of something that is important to our culture - more now than ever - which wasn't really a part of the library when I was growing up.

Thanks once again to Dr Garfield, and to all our respondents for the "Games folks" and "Book folks" series!

Games folks on libraries: Brenda Romero

Posted on October 17, 2014

This installment’s interviewee, Brenda Romero, has a list of accomplishments far too long for me to easily fit in our standard intro paragraph below - you can see a more complete story at But even to that I need to add that I personally owe her a tremendous debt: her pioneering work in demonstrating how games can explore profound questions just as any other artistic medium can has been hugely influential in shaping my own appreciation of and commitment to play as culture that deserves intelligent, critical engagement and curation just as much as any other artform. It's a real honour to have her here! My thanks to Brenda - not only for participating in this interview, but for her entire body of work.

Influential in the early years of PC gaming, Brenda Romero began her career in games at 15 and hasn't stopped since, leading design on a major cRPG series and then moving from genre to genre within videogames, branching out into academia, making non-digital games that explore issues of profound historical and personal consequence, and shining a light on just how vast the possibilities for games really are. A leader and educator in the best sense of both words, she both expands our understanding of games and play, and reminds us that we cannot explore all those possibilities without the full spectrum of humanity being free to participate in those explorations. She currently runs Romero Games with her husband, John Romero (yes, the one who was part of igniting the first-person action genre), teaches at UC Santa Cruz, serves on the advisory board of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum of Play, and has just (in the last few days) returned from a Fulbright Fellowship trip to Ireland.

Brenda, thank you so much for finding time for us so soon after a major international trip! What is your past experience of libraries?

Interestingly enough, my connection to libraries is quite strong. My mother volunteered at a library for years and re-cataloged the library to go with the Dewey Decimal system. Her love for books and our regular trips to the library are among my cherished memories. I don’t recall there being board games at our library, though. I am sure there were board games there, but somehow, I missed them. Their collection of video games was quite small and usually pretty tattered.

What is your sense of where libraries are now, both in relation to games and in general?

It’s a challenge for libraries, I think, in regards to games. Having a lending library is near impossible when one thinks of the on-line nature of video games. That said, there is a tremendous body of work which exists in boxed form and printed form that institutes like the Strong Museum are working to collect and catalog. Their library is the best game-related library I have seen.

Where do you see this going, and where could it go?

As a game historian, I hope to see more people have access to games and to computers through their local libraries. This is particularly important in areas where computers are not commonplace. Games are increasingly becoming an educational tool, and access is more important than ever.

Games folks on libraries: Susan Gold & James Portnow, the Global Game Gift

Posted on August 14, 2014

This month we're joined by not one but two luminaries of the games world: Susan Gold and James Portnow. Their individual bios will speak more about them, but I want to highlight the thing they have in common: the Global Game Gift. Recently launched, this initiative aims to bring the audience and creativity of world-leading game studios to the work of global non-profits through week-long game jams aimed at producing short, PSA-style games that help communicate something about the non-profits' work and then draw their audience to the organizations' websites.

I'm highlighting the Global Game Gift because (a) it's awesome; (b) it's new; (c) it was the point of contact that got us these interviews (I provided some volunteer assistance along the way); and (d) it highlights opportunities for us in libraries. While the Global Game Gift is aimed at NGOs whose mission is worldwide, it could perhaps provide inspiration - and maybe even a working model - for collaboration with creators at a more local level. I'll be following it with interest - and would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the two of them, both for the Global Game Gift and for their time!

Susan Gold

Susan Gold is Professor of the Practice of Game Design at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Susan was one of the founders of the Global Game Jam, the world’s largest game jam and one of the world's largest grassroots creativity exercises, which has generated thousands of games in over 70 participating countries since 2009.  Along with James Portnow, she recently launched the Global Game Gift to partner AAA developers with non-profit organizations to raise awareness through the development of new games.

Thanks for your time, Susan! Tell us about your general experience of libraries to date.

I have so many library stories, growing up I didn’t have the internet, so I had to go to the library all the time. I remember having to learn the Dewey Decimal system and using card catalogs. But one of my favorite memories is when I was a freshman at the University of Iowa and found that they had original manuscripts from Kurt Vonnegut. He had been to the famed Writer’s Workshop and his work from his time was a part of the archive. I found the room they were located in and just sat in the stacks looking through everything they had. It was a total fangirl afternoon seeing his hand written notes, I was awash in his genius.  Libraries are so many things, but for me they are an oasis of knowledge, plethora of resources and opportunities for learning.

How you see libraries at this moment?

The modern library is in flux. For so many of us, the internet age means answers at our fingertips with no good reason to go to the library. You can find info by just accessing databases that were once only home to the library. I can browse catalogs of holdings in faraway locales, so I don’t even have to do a book request. I think modern libraries are trying to find where they can best service their communities, with each trying to find a niche that works for their patrons.

Where do you see libraries and games overlapping in future?

I’m really lucky, at Northeastern University I have the Digital Medium Commons located in the Snell Library. It is a whole floor of our library, and is comprehensive facility with PC/Mac workstations and set-ups for audio and video (green screen too) as well as tools for all sorts of multimedia projects. They have software for animation, 3D-modeling, GIS, CAD, and all the game-design software that we use in our classes. This allows faculty & students outside of our program and any visitors to create in the library. I like that it is not just allocated for students in special classes, but allows everyone to experiment with the tools and make games and other multimedia projects. It is a place where we can have collaboration across the university and where we hold the yearly Global Game Jam here in Boston. The space is open and allows people to “work across disciplinary boundaries to build complex simulation models and explore innovative solutions to real-world problems.” That’s what it says on the website at least. What is also cool is that it has 3D printing and recording studios and it is the type of thing that I think will increase entrepreneurship & indie development in our community. I can only see this as a positive way where libraries can create new ways of facilitating the needs of a modern patron.

James Portnow

James Portnow is the CEO of Rainmaker Games consulting agency and the Writer/Creator of the hit web series Extra Credits with over 300,000 subscribers on Youtube. James also channels his experience as a game designer and consultant in the educational field into the Games for Good initiative, which highlights the ways games do good for our society through a range of projects, from compiling bibliographies (ludographies?) of games that promote social good, to the Global Game Gift, which he launched in partnership with Susan Gold.

James, thank you too! What has been your history with libraries?

It may seem like a silly story, but when I was a young man, when I was in that awkward phase of trying to discover who I was and what I was passionate about in this life, I fell into a life long love of classics due to a card game and my local library.  I actually remember it perfectly to this day: I was maybe 13, my friends and I were playing Magic: the Gathering; someone flipped over a Frozen Shade, I leaned across the table to read it and on the bottom were written these words:

There are some qualities — some incorporate things,
That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.

- Edgar Allen Poe, Silence

There was a music, a life, to this language I hadn't experienced before.  It was something more magical, more essential, than anything I'd gotten in my pulp fantasy and sci-fi novels.  So that day, I ran to my local library and found this book; I read it cover to cover... then I did the same with every book quoted in the game I loved so much.  I ended up getting my bachelor's in Classics and to this day, more than my masters in Entertainment Technology, more than anything I've learned on the job, I use that love of classics, the love that libraries made possible for me, in my work and in my life to guide me on my way.

How do you see libraries at this moment?

I think libraries are in a period of adjustment, they're re-finding their footing now that the internet has taken over much of their place as a repository of knowledge.  I have seen them start to undergo a metamorphosis into communal centers and places of learning where a love of reading and education can be shared.  To me this is excellent direction and an essential role for the 21st century.

Where do you see libraries and games overlapping in future?

Games can be used as an entry point, a way to get people engaged in literature or philosophy.  Many games use the great works as touchstones - as points of reference or central themes -  this can be used as a entry point into those works themselves.  Much as I was engaged by Magic to pick up books I would have otherwise never read, libraries can open up whole new worlds of understanding and expose people to the works that have shaped our world by relating them to something that the library-goers already love.

As much as I would like to see games in libraries, as much as I would love to see libraries be a place for critical analysis of the medium and discussion groups, even more would I like them to be a place where games can open up people's passion for literature and ideas, and I think they can do so with no real cost, no major shift in stock or policy, so if I had one place I'd like to see games and libraries overlap, it's there.

Games folks on libraries: Julia Bond Ellingboe

Posted on July 17, 2014

This third installment in the series is pretty exciting for me - I have been a fan of Ms Ellingboe's ever since I first came across her indie RPGs, and in fact they were one of the early examples that helped wake me up to the possibility that games could, like fiction, tackle serious issues in ways that seemed likely to help people learn and deal with them constructively, while still being - in fact, because of being - engaging... and even, given a non-trivialising definition of the word, entertaining. But enough of me gushing - on with the interview!

Thanks so much for joining us, Julia! Can you give our readers a brief bio?

I'm a part-time freelance editor, writer, and roleplaying game designer. When not telling stories or writing, I am the human resources manager at my local food co-op. Having missed my chance to become an itinerant storyteller, my work draws on various folkloric traditions, such as African American slave narratives, Japanese kaidan stories, and the Francis J. Child Ballads. My work includes Steal Away Jordan: Stories from American’s Peculiar Institution, Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife, and short fiction. I have a bachelor’s degree in Religion and Biblical Literature from Smith College (where I got almost all my library work experience). You can find my short stories in several anthologies from Stone Skin Press and Broken Eye Books.

[Quick editor's note: As you'd expect from the source material, both the games listed above potentially deal with mature themes. As is usually the case with story games, this will largely be the product of the group that plays them, and they are excellent, so don't hesitate to check them out - but if you still have a trace of that unconscious "games=kids" assumption, don't apply it here! These games were written by an adult for a mature audience.]

Thank you! What is your history with/past experience of libraries?

I started working in libraries when I was in college, and continued to work in academic libraries and a public library for about eight years after college. In my junior year, I was an art library assistant. After I graduated, I worked at our local public library for about a year and then got a job at my alma mater as a circulation assistant. I worked there for about five years. Then for two years I managed the college library's storage facility. When I worked at the college library, I was the chair of our library staff development group ("LSD"). My alma mater has a wonderful alumnae benefit that allows us to borrow from the college libraries and use online journal and ebook databases like JStor and Project Muse, which I've used fairly regularly in the 19 years since I finished college.

So it's fair to say you have a passing familiarity with the library world then! What is your current sense of where libraries are, both in general and in relation to games?

In my area of the country, libraries are one of the first town resources to be cut. We've seen the hours in my local city library reduced and nearby town libraries shut down completely. I think people assume that now that there's so much free stuff online, brick and mortar libraries are practically obsolete. What we forget is that libraries provide access to so much more than books. They provide free access to the internet to people who don't have computers, they offer educational programs to both adults and children, they are social hubs and safety zones.

I don't have a good sense of where libraries are with games. That said, a few years ago, a librarian friend of mine invited my neighbor (another game designer) and me to do a workshop for teens on creative writing and game design. This was part of her regular teen tabletop role-playing game group. I've seen my own game as well as others in public library collections. Game books and board games--heck, even video games--fit in just fine in libraries!

Where do you see this going, and where could it go?

I recently, finally came across a Little Free Library in my town. I'm going to put a copy of my game and a few others in it this weekend. [Ed: this was a week and a bit back, so some lucky person may already have found it!] Anything that offers access to books is awesome to me. Micro-libraries and Little Free Libraries have their limitations, though. You can bring the book home and never play it. On the other hand, library-sponsored game days and gaming clubs at brick and mortar libraries would be great ways to bring in new patrons and keep current patrons coming.

Thanks once again to Julia for her time!

Games folks on libraries: Johnnemann Nordhagen

Posted on June 12, 2014

In a lovely piece of synchronicity, our second game designer profile is from one of the founders of The Fullbright Company, Johnnemann Nordhagen. (You may remember that the Fullbright crew were responsible for one of the games we covered in last month's Game Profile piece, Gone Home.) Johnnemann talks about how his love of literature - specifically, Sir Terry Pratchett[1] - got him into a successful career as a creator himself, and then reflects on how those opportunities can be expanded.

Welcome Johnnemann, and thanks for your time! Please tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in a small resort town in Colorado, and began working on video games when I was a teenager. I was drawn to text-based games called MUDs, specifically Discworld MUD, based on the books by Terry Pratchett, and I learned how to code so I could help make the game. After college I got a paying job in the video game industry, starting as a tester and working my way up into Research and Development at Sony, then working on the Bioshock series and The Bureau: X-Com Declassified at 2K Marin, and most recently moving to Portland to help make Gone Home with the Fullbright Company.

What is your history with/past experience of libraries?

Libraries have always been one of my favorite places. My family are big believers in libraries, and I first began visiting our local library as a small child. As I grew, I developed a lifelong passion for books, and my biggest gripe was that the library would only allow me to borrow 6 at a time! After school the town library would be the place I spent time, reading or doing homework (but more often reading). I got to know the librarians and the local collections as well as the inter-library loan system, and how to navigate the paper and electronic catalogs.

In school I made friends with the school librarians, and ate lunch every day inside the library with friends. I still read, but we also branched out into games - we started a chess club, played Dungeons & Dragons (quietly) in the corner, and used the computer for Lemmings, Legend of the Red Dragon, BattleChess, and various other titles that the librarians had gotten.

In my rural high school, the librarian was also an IT worker and advocate, pushing for and supporting the computer labs and services. I started working as a computer technician for the library, supporting the games and technology that the school district used.

So, long story short - libraries were my sanctuary growing up, as well as the source of most of my entertainment, both books and games.

What is your sense of where libraries are now, especially in relation to games?

I don't feel that I have a good sense of that. I have seen some libraries starting video game collections, but it doesn't seem to be a universal program and it seems like a very difficult thing to do well. I know that I don't think of libraries as a source for video games, which is a shame. But as popular games are a hit-driven medium that is very dependent on the new hot products, it seems hard for libraries to compete with rental services or retail purchases for video games.

Where do you see things going and where could they go?

However! That said, video games are more than ever in dire need of curation and preservation. The current rise of the ability of so many people to make games, especially people from diverse backgrounds, is spectacular. However, with the explosion of available games, players really need knowledgeable guides to the medium, people who can steer them towards the best games, or the ones that will resonate most with them, and not just the most popular games. Game librarians would be an excellent fit.

In addition, most people's experience of digital games is focused only around the current technology, and when consoles or computer technologies go out of vogue or are superseded by more advanced versions, often the ability to play the games for those platforms is lost. In an ideal world, libraries could provide the hardware and software necessary to let people experience those games even years after they stop being sold in the retail world. Providing access to the most important historical games would be a valuable mission for libraries!

And lastly, I'd love to see libraries branch beyond digital games, and curate collections of card, board, and roleplaying games - these perhaps fit better with the traditional paper worlds of libraries, and offer an immense amount of value to players, game designers, and those seeking to better understand the medium.

Thank you Johnnemann! A very cogent outside view of our field.

In fact, if you'll permit a little editorializing, I would point out one thing: that the problems with electronic game curation Johnnemann points out are not limited to old tech, or bleeding-edge-too-new-to-be-affordable tech. Gone Home is a PC game that runs comfortably on my older laptop... but because it's on PC, there's currently no way to lend it. This means that - at best - we can have this well-known, well worth sharing, still-being-talked-about game installed on an in-library computer and hope people get through the game before their booking expires (the flow of the game matters, and it's a shame to interrupt it if you can avoid it). And of course not too many libraries even have games PCs when consoles are simpler! Given that independent developers, including those actively seeking to make the most interesting and experimental work, are heavily concentrated on PC because of lower costs, this means that our communities are missing out on exactly the kind of material we like to provide. I don't have any solutions,[2] but if we're serious about promoting access to culture - especially the good stuff - this is one to fix.

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