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!

IGD Anecdotes: Intergenerational connections and meeting new people

Posted on September 29, 2014

As you forge ahead with your IGD plans, you may be focusing on certain age groups: kids, teens, twentysomethings, or beyond! Your target group may shape what type of games you introduce – but fear not should you encounter a mixed combination of groups. Be spontaneous and flexible with adjustments because you’ll never know who will show up until the day arrives. You may soon realize that the level of a game could have broad appeal regardless of one’s age.

People of all ages can play a good tabletop game together, or even a video game. From past IGD events, various libraries have observed people of all ages teaching and playing games together. For instance, in one public library:

[A] tween came wanting to learn Magic: the Gathering and brought her first deck. A group of college guys mentored her in the game, giving her tips and strategies. She left much more confident in her gaming skills, and very excited to teach her friends. We had a gaming group from a local university volunteer for the day as their service project. They brought games and spent the event teaching kids and adults how to play new strategy games. It was a great success, and awesome to see people of all ages learning together.

(As a side note, this story exemplifies the value of having teachers on-site to make games an opportunity to learn and critically assess both one’s play of a game and the structures of the game itself. Games such as Magic teach us how to think strategically, and it’s always helpful to get that reinforcement which builds confidence.)

At a library in Vermont there was a large group of teens that came to a game day; as the day progressed more adults joined, and the teens invited them to play a number of games. At one game of Forbidden Island, a cooperative game where players try and beat the island, a teen, a twentysomething, and two people in their fifties and sixties played together. The island won in the end but everyone involved had to work together to form a strategy and problem-solve. This kind of intergenerational interaction can be difficult to get with other programs.

At the UCLA Library, most attendees at the last two IGD events at the undergraduate library were college students. However, librarians and library staff also attended, bringing their children to learn and play games like Settlers of Catan. An 8-year-old boy taught a library staff member how to play Settlers. A group of young teenage volunteers taught another librarian how to play the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game. Games are suitable for a wide range of age groups, and guess what? They do not discriminate!

Consider IGD at your library to attract a diversity of age groups to learn and play together!


Game profile: RoboRally – emergence from procedure

Posted on September 22, 2014

Today's game profile is about a game whose greatest influence on the gaming world has been - or so it could be argued - the time it wasn't published.

In 1991, when Richard Garfield met Peter Adkison (president of Wizards of the Coast) to pitch a game, it wasn't Magic: the Gathering he was there to pitch - it was RoboRally. At the time, Wizards of the Coast focused primarily on roleplaying games, and therefore wasn't all that comfortable (or familiar) with the manufacture, assembly, and sale of tabletop games - so they turned Garfield's pitch down. However, Adkison recognised Garfield's talent and asked him if he had anything a little more printing-friendly and portable. No problem, said Garfield, there was something he had been tinkering with - and he went away, polished up the design of M:tG over the weekend, came back, and birthed an entire medium, the trading card game... thereby boosting WotC into one of the premier publishers of fantasy games - or fantasy in any medium - in the world. In 1994, flush with funds from Magic's success, they published RoboRally to considerable acclaim.

So what was this game that a game design genius considered more saleable than one of the most lucrative game ideas of all time? (I say this without irony - I doubt anybody could have predicted the explosive success of Magic, and RoboRally genuinely is both deeply interesting and terrifically engaging. Even so, I'm being slightly unfair - RoboRally was of course fully developed, whereas Magic clearly wasn't fully fleshed out quite yet - possibly BECAUSE it was so ambitious!)

RoboRally is a game about supercomputers created to control precision robots in a widget factory who get bored during some downtime; to amuse themselves, these genius-level intellects race welding robots through an obstacle course/demolition derby.

You play by drawing a pool of cards that you then use to program 5 steps that you'll take to move around a grid. The steps are simple movement commands: move forward 1-3 squares, back up one, turn left or right 90 degrees, or about-turn. (So far, this sounds pretty familiar to anyone whose childhood included programming in Logo.) You use this movement to attempt to reach a series of checkpoints on the map in order.

There are three catches.

  • First, you are in a factory, with conveyor belts, rotating platforms, and welding lasers. Each time the players move, depending on where they land, they might get moved along, spun 90 degrees, or zapped.
  • Second, it's not enough to stay away from the fixed lasers. Each robot has a head-mounted welding laser that fires after each move. If you're in front of another robot, and there's nothing in the way, you're going to get zapped.
  • Third, your opponents are also trying to move around in the same space, and in particular to reach the same squares as you. There isn't that much room in the factory, and as the number of players goes up, so does the amount of pushing and shoving as robots bump into each other and knock each other off target.

Each time you get zapped, it fries one of your memory slots - which is reflected mechanically by the number of cards you get to draw into your pool. You start out drawing 9 cards a turn, out of which you have to choose a sequence of 5, which gives you decent odds of being able to get where you want to go. However, as you take more damage and get to draw fewer and fewer cards, your options narrow... and once you are drawing fewer than 5 cards, the last card in each damaged slot in the sequence gets stuck there, forcing you to mindlessly repeat that action in that slot every turn. (There are ways to repair slots and reboot yourself - but all cost precious time and risk letting your opponents gain ground in the race.)

As with many other games I love (e.g. Hanabi), the core objective of the game is a relatively simple procedure (in this case, navigate from A to B to C to D) made complex by the presence and actions of other players. The factory itself also complicates things, but conveyor belts and rotators can be a resource if you plan ahead - they can save you movement or help face you in the right direction. (Lasers and pits are never helpful, however.) But when other players enter the mix, even a perfectly-planned route can suddenly take you wildly off course if you are accidentally (or intentionally) bumped one square left of where you were planning to go - if that takes you onto a conveyor belt that shifts you two squares left and leaves you facing south instead of east, the remainder of your perfectly-planned route will play out in the wrong direction and give you an entirely unexpected path to calculate next turn to get back to where you want to be.

Thus, you have to try to take into account where you think others will try to go - and what you think they will try to do about your movement. (There is tremendous satisfaction in spotting the evil gleam in someone's eye as they plot to knock you off your path, deliberately hold back your movement to ensure they miss, and then watching them whiz past in front of you and careen away, victims of their own cunning.)

The obvious extrinsic value of the game, the simplistic modelling of computer programming, is actually more deeply simulated here, in this business of attempting to think through contingencies and anticipate likely interactions with other elements of the system, and then plot out future actions accordingly. It showcases beautifully how even the simplest systems can, through nothing more than interaction with other equally simple systems, become deep, surprising, and interesting.

Add into this the business of reading beyond those other game objects to the players controlling them, and you have the basis for some genuinely compelling brainwork.

It helps that the robot tokens that you control each have their own cute - and silly - personalities [note that these images are of the figures from the 1994 edition of the game]. There is no mechanical difference between them, but I have still seen players get particularly attached to one or the other; they give younger players a point of identification to latch onto the game, and older players the basis for a touch of banter.

The procedural basis of the game also lends itself to reproduction in other forms of technology - one of the most ingenious game-related creations I have seen was an implementation of the game in LEGO Mindstorms at Gen Con 2011, which not only had a LEGO game board and LEGO Mindstorms-driven robots, but used Mindstorms robotics to scan and interpret the cards (which I believe were also made of LEGO) that players drew.

I'll leave you with some pictures (possibly as inspiration for your library's LEGO/robotics club). Enjoy!

LEGO RoboRally - board
A wide shot of the board - sadly in low resolution.

LEGO RoboRally - control system
A (slightly blurry) shot of the control system. Note the conveyor belt (on the left) feeding the "cards" into the reader.

LEGO RoboRally - robots 1
A closeup on half of the robots (note that some of the base characters have been replaced with slightly more famous robots/droids/Androids)...

LEGO RoboRally - robots 2
...and the other half.

LEGO RoboRally - sign & QR code
The sign for the game (also made of LEGO) - click on it to go to the creators' site. (Their Monster Chess is also pretty impressive!)


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.

What’s afoot: News from the world of games

Posted on May 19, 2014

Hi folks! Our third-Monday-of-the-month series is going to be news from the world of games. We're still getting everything up and running, and the tabletop games business is quiet at the moment as it's gearing up for convention season, so this month's entry will be a bit short. But still hopefully of interest!

General upcomings

There have been a few interesting announcements about upcoming releases in games - some of which are not so new, but perhaps newsworthy to library folks.

Trading card game Magic: the Gathering has just announced its next big September expansion is going to be called Khans of Tarkir. Rumours are that dragons will play a significant role in the fictional world of the game - one to keep an eye on if you have patrons who like dragons. They also have a new multiplayer set called Conspiracy coming out shortly featuring intriguing [pardon the pun] multiplayer mechanics.

Speaking of TCGs, our sponsors Konami (thanks again!) have just released the latest set for their card game Yu-Gi-Oh! The set is called Primal Origin and is the final set in the 8th series of the cards.

The 5th edition of iconic tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons,  which has been playtested extensively under the working title D&D Next, is slated for release this August at Gen Con and generally on August 17. It could be worth thinking about as a school holiday program - pick up the rulebooks and run a few games, then point the players at a display of the tie-in fiction.

In a surprising turnaround, Microsoft have announced that they will be selling their XBox One console in a new Kinectless bundle. This is noteworthy because they have stuck to their guns about requiring the Kinect motion sensor/camera, to the point of costing US$50 more than rival console the PlayStation 4, despite both considerable market friction on the higher price and consumer resistance to the idea of a compulsory infra-red camera attached to the TV (and, usually, an internet connection). The announcement means they'll now be selling the console for the same price as the PS4 (or, so reports say, $50 less here in Australia) - and also does away with technical and privacy issues that might have made it harder for libraries to include the consoles in their facilities.

Interesting reads/views

From the Department of Ingenious Absurdity: Mario in a box - - Possibly useful as an inspirational tool for a robotics (or game design) session at your library?

From the Department of Archaeotechnology: The Atari landfill excavation - - A story about the proof an urban legend turning out to be true (pretty much). There have been stories about an early ET tie-in game being so bad that Atari buried copies of it in landfill circulating for years - certainly the game was pretty bad! Personally I thought the story was worth it just for the mention of "Atari truthers" at the end.

From the Department of Good Fun: Games for Good video update - - Games for Good is an initiative of games consultant and writer James Portnow (Extra Credits) that was funded via crowdfunding site RocketHub last year, to highlight the many positive contributions that games make, and to enable and encourage gamers and game-makers to collaborate with other folks doing good in the world. In this video (recorded during a livestreamed update to backers) Portnow talks about what he and collaborator Soraya Een Hajji have been up to - and it's pretty impressive! The update is followed by a lengthy Q&A, which might be a little more skippable to a less invested audience; but as an introduction to the kinds of inroads games are making into the wider culture - and their ambitions to do good things along the way, which notably for libraries prominently includes standing up for Net Neutrality - it's not a bad place to start.

That's it for now! If there's anything else you'd like us to add, please feel free to be in touch!

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