International Games Week October 29 – November 4

International Games Week

Talking Points: Play, inclusion, and community-building

Posted on September 8, 2014

Welcome back folks! This is the fifth entry in our series about the importance of play. If you're just joining us, this series starts here. It also refers from time to time to our series about games last year which you can find here.

I've already covered this topic to some degree in the post on games, sharing culture, and connecting people: games, by providing a framework for interaction, enable a connection between people that requires no other common experience - there's no need to share an age, class, culture, occupation, or anything else; even a common language can be optional.

What I didn't do in that post was call out the fact that this means games and play can not only strengthen bonds that are already there, but work to break down the barriers that artificially divide us - or, if you prefer, to regrow the bonds of our common humanity that have been artificially severed.

They can do this in two ways, which we might label the "active" and "passive" modes.

The active mode is by using the stakes-free experimentation of play and the many tools at games' disposal to explore and undermine the false rationales that justify the mistreatment and exclusion of individuals for things other than the actual consequences of their behaviour.

For instance, games can abstract the systems and dynamics that foster bigotry and division from the specifics of their circumstances. Done well, this can not only give us a certain critical distance and a chance to see them from outside, just as well-written fiction can do, but even to inhabit other positions in those pecking orders. Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyed" sessions can be taken as a relatively extreme, intentionally highly emotional, and not entirely unproblematic example of this.[1]

(Two notes: First, to the extent that calling Elliot's necessarily unfun sessions of behaviour-according-to-arbitrary-rules "games" is a fair description - and before accusing me of trivialising them, bear in mind that I do not consider games any more inherently trivial, or slaves to entertainment, than books are - I would point out that they constitute another example of games tackling vital subjects in ways other media simply cannot.

Second, just as with fiction and other poetic ways to instil empathy or vicarious experience, there are limits on how much insight can be offered. After all, even if for the duration of the work the experience of persecution is simulated perfectly, the simple fact of knowing that it will end - and that you probably have control of when it will end - utterly transforms the experience. It's similar with any draining experience. Being a carer for an abusive invalid, having water drip on your forehead at irregular intervals, even the mild tedium of involuntary social isolation can drive you insane if you don't know when it will end. One of the strengths of Elliot's approach is that just as her blue-eyed audience are starting to refuse to take it any more, she takes that point - that they want to opt out of this arbitrary BS, but you don't get to do that with real-world oppression - and drills it home, by inviting people who have experienced ongoing racism to tell those stories at a time when their audience are primed to be receptive.)

Other games exist that seek to consciously explore these issues: Steal Away Jordan, dys4ia, Dog Eat Dog, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, This War of Mine, and many more.[2] While all these work in different and fascinating ways, and are worth your time and attention, I'd actually argue that besides the value of addressing these divisions consciously and intellectually, play and games do a great job of overcoming them experientially.

This is what I mean by the "passive" mode. Whether or not a game sets out to make us think about these issues, simply by giving us a chance to spend time in the company of those different from us on a somewhat more equal footing - because a game doesn't care who's playing it - we start to break down those barriers. Having to rely on ideas and stereotypes for our understanding of whole groups of people inevitably results in us thinking of them, and relating to them, in those terms. Having experience of a range of specific individuals from those groups means we can relate to them as people, and start to see what they have in common with other people in our life, lessening the power of the group identifier in our reflexive, emotional thinking, and bringing individual humans back into focus.

Again, I'm not asserting that just having a good time together (assuming we can see past our prejudices enough to do so in the first place)  is a substitute for actually reflecting on and consciously attempting to dismantle the systems, symbols and generalisations that shape our lives in destructive ways. The bigot who sincerely thinks that <almost all X are terrible people, just not the X he happens to know, who are actually really lovely (for X), which proves he's not a bigot> is a genuine phenomenon, as well as a joke.

But that experience of the humanity of others is an indispensible complement to that more analytic approach: we are emotional, instinctive creatures as well as intellectual ones, and moment-to-moment most of us live in (and react from) our emotions at least as much as we do our intellects. Just as much of a joke (and just as tragic a joke) as the bigot-despite-his-own-experience is the idealist who understands intellectually that we're all equal and decries discrimination in principle, but who somehow still can't quite get comfortable with Those People - or help them feel comfortable around her.

It's possible to change ourselves at those primitive levels by sheer force of reason, but it's extraordinarily hard and almost never produces any kind of social ease. The best and fastest way to shift those basic, primal levels of our thought is by direct experience: by simply spending time enjoying ourselves in the company of people who are, in some way that matters more than it should, unlike us. And games and play give us a framework for doing exactly that: somewhere to bond together over shared effort and experience, where nothing is really at stake to prime our fear and anxiety responses.

You can imagine how these sorts of positive shared experiences could be provided ancillary to other media (book clubs, art appreciation societies, or what have you), all of which are very much to be encouraged. But only in games and similar playful experiences are they innate - and indeed beneficial, because arbitrary social barriers restrict the pool of possible fellow-players - to the form. Games and play give us an inherent incentive to make room in our lives for others as they really are, not as we think of them or as they are represented by someone else. That's pretty amazing stuff.


(Click here for the final post in this Talking Points series - "Play, analysis and action".)

A GameRT view on ALA Annual

Posted on July 3, 2014

The past weekend saw the American Library Association's Annual conference (ALA Annual) in Las Vegas. As an Australian on a budget, sadly your humble editor was unable to attend - but the IGD team, and the Games and Gaming Round Table (GameRT) more generally, were well represented. GameRT President and IGD Chair Diane Robson has prepared the following report (which includes material from other reportage by Member-At-Large Brian Mayer, excerpted with permission and linked below).

The Games and Gaming Round Table (GameRT) had a banner year at the American Libraries Association Conference in Las Vegas. The round table’s first event was a preconference session on Meaningful Gamification presented by Dr. Scott Nicholson, director of the Because Play Matters Game Lab. About fifty attendees learned about gamification, motivation and goals, as well as ways to effectively reward participants. Participants spent the 3 hours immersed in material that Nicholson has been known to spend an entire term at Syracuse University teaching, through an mixture of listening to him speak and then working through sections of a binder. At the conclusion of the session, participants left equipped to take an initial concept and to turn it into meaningful play.

The conference was of course opened with a keynote by world-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal - we'll post a link to video of her presentation if and when we get one, but meanwhile here are a couple of short interviews with Dr McGonigal on The Impact of Video Games and The Impact of Libraries.

Friday at 5pm, the Exhibit Hall opened to a mad rush of librarians, and this year GameRT had an exhibit booth. For this one year we were able to showcase our Round Table and allow a couple of game publishers see the benefit of connecting with librarians at the Annual convention. GameRT handed out information about our convention programs and the Round Table, International Games Day brochures, and branded key chains. Hundreds of librarians stopped by to talk to the two publishers, Eagle/Gryphon Games and Mayfair, as well as to learn about what GameRT has to offer librarians interested in games and gaming in libraries.

On Friday night, GameRT and the ALA Comic Book and Graphic Novel Member Initiative Group hosted annual celebration ALAplay - which saw a space twice the size of last year's event filled to the brim, despite ALAplay being held in Caesar's Palace rather than in the main convention center! More detail below.

On Saturday, GameRT's featured program was Come Make a Game, another fascinating presentation by Dr Scott Nicholson that had people playing and creating all at once. More information is included below!

Relatedly, the Game Making Interest Group of the ALA's Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) division also held a meeting on Sunday morning that sounds fascinating. [Editor's note: We will have to talk to them about collaboration for IGD...]

And lastly, Sunday afternoon saw a gathering of the handful of the IGD volunteers who made it to Annual (plus one who Skyped in from the following morning in Australia) - in the end it was not a huge number of us, as only half the US team made it to Annual and not all of those could make it to our meeting, but nonetheless it was great to have a chance to meet face-to-face and celebrate all we've achieved thus far - and the year we look like having. We were joined by Pierce Watters of Paizo Publishing, who was extremely enthusiastic about the future of games in libraries and volunteered to try and bring more publisher participants to ALAplay and other ALA activities next year.

Thanks to Brian Mayer for being a reporter for the ALA Annual GameRT programs. Another thank you goes to Jenny Levine who helps us make it all happen!

[Ed.: I second those motions but add a minor point of order - thanks to Diane as well for keeping all the GameRT's balls in the air!]


ALA Play

(Contains excerpted material from

ALAplay 2014, hosted by GameRT and the ALA Comic Book and Graphic Novel Member Initiative Group, attracted about 300 people with an evening full of fun and learning.

ALAplay is a space where the graphic novel, cosplay and gaming communities collide. This year the following publishers were able to join us to showcase their games.

HL Games, the publishers of Word Winder, a word-search game designed by David L. Hoyt of Jumble fame, had a giant version of its game for attendees, who got to kick off their shoes and get spelling.

Eagle and Gryphon Games brought out several tables full of their games and had on hand one of their main designers, Alf Seegert, who walked people through many of his designs, both current and upcoming.

Mayfair Games had a number of titles for demonstration, including its wildly popular Star Trek Catan, a sci-fi re-theming of the award-winning Settlers of Catan board game.

IGD@yl donor Paizo Publishing was there, running demos of its Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box and showcasing a preview of the upcoming Skull & Shackles expansion for its Pathfinder Adventure Card Game series. The demoing of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game was particularly notable as it was conducted for Paizo by Garrett Gottschalk, a librarian in the Chicago area who is also a volunteer GM for Pathfinder (for those in the Pathfinder Society, Garrett has the title of Venture-Lieutenant). Several observers commented on Garrett's appealing style, as in: “Wow, he does so many voices. This is great!”

(Above-mentioned Paizo staffer Pierce Watters added his praises of Garrett, saying afterward that "He understood the needs and functions of libraries and also how Pathfinder could fit into a program. If I may be allowed a little purple prose, it was as if we had a booth at a law enforcement convention and Batman was at our booth." Nice work, Garrett!)

Lastly, Set Enterprises was busy showing off a wide selection of games, including the SET board game, Quiddler, and its newest game, Karma.

The presence of game publishers is a strong move forward for the event, exposing librarians to the wide range of games and play resources available for using their programs but also showing to publishers the interest and enthusiasm the library community has for gaming.

Peppered among the gaming raucous were other islands of interest. Scott Nicholson had his face-painting stand open for business, adorning the faces of attendees with third eyes and butterflies. Matthew Murray had a graphic novel Readers’ Advisory Device (RAD) that he built using a Raspberry Pi machine that dispenses printed recommendations.

There was also a Comic Jam collaborative comic going where attendees could add to crowdsourced strips, many of which were initiated by illustrators from Artist Alley on the exhibit floor. Librarian P. J. Bentley shared information about a gamers’ advisory program at his library in Portland, Oregon.

And photographer Kyle Cassidy snapped photos of librarians to extend his project that was featured on Slate in February. Cassidy ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to attend Annual to take more photographs and turn the event into a documentary, narrated by author Neil Gaiman.

The evening was a huge success thanks in large part to the hard work of those involved in planning and promoting, along with the ever-growing support and interest of the library community in all things gaming.


Come Make a Game: Library Game Jams

(Contains excerpted material from

The GameRT program, again presented by Dr. Scott Nicholson, was Come Make a Game: Library Game Jams. The session was filled with more than 100 people and hummed with enthusiasm rarely seen at programs.

“This is the most energy I have seen in one of my sessions,” said Scott Nicholson, associate professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and director of the Because Play Matters game lab.

Nicholson led attendees through the process of running a “game jam,” giving them the tools and confidence to run one back at their own libraries. Game jams are design activities, either analog or digital, in which groups of people work together to make a game within some constraints, such as time, materials, and/or theme.

Attendees began by playing Awesome Time, a game with almost no rules other than to take turns rolling the dice; the first person to the end of the path wins. While amusing within the context of the group, the game is intentionally broken with lots of uncertainty in the rules. (What happens if you land on another player? Do you need exact count to get to the end?) It also lacks any real mechanisms or a theme, features that often make games engaging and enjoyable for players. That is where the “jam” comes in.

Next the groups were told go back and fix the game, trying to make it better by adding such elements as:

  • Interesting decisions
  • Conflict
  • Risk
  • Resource management
  • Dexterity
  • Speed
  • Storytelling

To help with the task, each table was loaded with game bits from Eagle and Gryphon Games's game designer toolkit, which was a product of a successful Kickstarter campaign (the company plans to release more toolkits soon).

The rest of the session was a frenzy of creativity and laughter as librarians worked together “fixing” Nicholson’s broken game and slowly designing their own. While time did not permit sharing, in application patrons and student could then share their game designs with one another or introduce them to the community in an open house or game fair where they can talk and discuss their designs.

All the fun and excitement aside, the program was important as it helped showcase how gaming programs in libraries are moving forward, beyond recreational and outreach services, and that gaming can support instructional support and tie in with maker and community programs.

Thanks Diane! All in all, an amazing weekend for games in libraries! And just quietly, next year sounds even more amazing, with the momentum among both libraries and publishers growing steadily. Plus it's in San Francisco... time to start saving so we can all meet in The City in 2015! And for my fellow Antipodeans, if you're coming to ALIA's 2014 conference, keep an eye out for me and we'll scheme about how we can catch up and maybe even go one better...

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