Saturday, March 29, 2008

On libraries and gaming

There are lots of librarians out there who fundamentally object to the presence of video games in library collections or video gaming programs for teens and other age groups in library buildings. As someone who has spent countless hours of his life with a video game controller in his hand gaping slack-jawed at a flashing screen, I'm more ambivalent about the implications of gaming in the library.

I recently received an article written by some random freelancer decrying the presence of games in the library. In high dudgeon (and, presumably, with veins popping out of his neck and forehead), he yells into my email inbox:

Unfortunately, it appears that this country's librarians have decided to do their part in the dumbing-down of America. What has happened to this country? All of the librarians I have known were in love with the written word and truly enjoyed opening the door to their world to young people. Perhaps, today's crop of young librarians would be better served answering their calling as arcade attendants and movie theatre managers. Generations of Americans who valued education and insisted that their children understand not only the importance but the enjoyment of the written word, have given way to barely functioning illiterates who spend hour after hour trying to get to the next level of Guitar Hero.

He then goes on to decry the decline of literacy in the United States. Now, I am completely sympathetic to his viewpoint, but public libraries are not and never have been strictly educational institutions. While public education is one of it's core functions, the library's mission is to provide recreational and entertainment opportunities to the people as well. In that sense, I have little problem offering gaming programs to library users. In fact, I do it myself on a regular basis with my teen patrons. They have fun, and it's a way to get people into the library that might not otherwise show up. If they wind up picking up a book on the way out, all the better. Also, I'm not sure the library is even capable of fighting the growing ignorance among the American public in any meaningful way. We do what we can with the resources that we have, but ultimately the most important bulwarks against mass ignorance are the public school system and the press. Perhaps if the schools were not turning out "barely functioning illiterates" on an industrial scale, or if the press were more interested in reporting real news than scandal and celebrity gossip, then librarians would have a bigger audience for more edifying programs and services. Trust me, I'd rather be reading great works of literature with my teens than refereeing video game tournaments.

At the same time, some people within the field take an enthusiasm for gaming too far and try to imbue it with educational functions that it simply does not have in order to justify offering games and gaming programs to folks such as our irate library user above. In a recent article in the New York Times on gaming programming at the New York Public Library's central branch on 42nd Street in Manhattan, a library official argues that

“What we’re seeing is that in addition to simply helping bring kids into the library in the first place, games are having a broader effect on players, and they have the potential to be a great teaching tool,” Mr. Martin said. “If a kid takes a test and fails, that’s it. But in a game, if you fail you get to take what you’ve learned and try again.
..In a lot of these games you have to understand the rules, you have to understand the game’s world, its story. For some games you have to understand its history and the characters in order to play effectively.”

This is the "everything bad is good for you" argument, and I think it's bogus. While I don't have any empirical research to support me at my fingertips, I don't think that the skills that gamers learn while playing a particular game are really transferable outside that context. It's true that many of today's games are very complex and have very rich story lines, but I just finished playing Call of Duty 4 on XboX360 and I don't think that because of that, I've gained some sort of expertise in counterinsurgency techniques. And observing the teens that come to my gaming programs, they're certainly skilled at the games that they play but many of them have trouble dealing with the types of complex arguments and ideas offered in books and other print media, partially because their bias toward the visual has reduced their attention spans. Playing games repeatedly makes you a better gamer, but in itself such activity probably won't help you become a better student or a more informed and active citizen. If we offer gaming services to our patrons it's more or less for entertainment purposes only.

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