Libraries and the future of the audience contract

The problem

Corporations who claim they speak for the creators we love are major driving forces in turning the internet into the largest mass-surveillance tool in human history.

The crux of the issue is the one-sided defense of copyright by powerful vested interests. (And, per Doctorow, the lack of countervailing powerful vested interests in the citizenry remaining free and unsurveilled.)

The one-sidedness of the policy conversation in this area is leading governments to act in ways that are inimical to freedom and the human rights of everyday citizens, through the imposition of excessive and disproportionate penalties for noncommercial copyright infringement and the enabling of a vast katascopocracy[1] to detect such infringements. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been making this argument for years, far more effectively than I could, so I’ll just link you to them. (The folks at Defective by Design and Chilling Effects also have some points to make about the problems of DRM and a heavily-surveilled internet.)

But the “content” industries have one incontestable point in their favour: we do love creative works.

Not only do the folks who create them inherently deserve some prospect of reward for doing so, but if creators aren’t rewarded for making them, they will be able to make far fewer. This is the crux of the audience contract: in exchange for people taking the time and effort to create something, and potentially making themselves vulnerable and the centre of attention by sharing it, the community will ensure that there is at least a hope that they will end up no worse off – or even better off. Without some expectation of a return on creative work from the audience of that work, dedicated creation becomes much less viable, and creation has to happen in time carved out of a life supported some other way. That makes certain creative forms and professions (those requiring large budgets, long periods of dedicated work, and/or large groups of collaborators) near-impossible without the patronage of the hugely wealthy, granting them a destructively disproportionate, quasi-feudal voice in the culture.[2]

The solution (in principle)

So how do we combine easy, effectively unlimited, and unmonitored copying of creative works with rewarding creators?

We shift the focus away from the creative work, and onto the act of creation and the creator(s) themselves. Rather than just an industrial, widget-based economy where a work is rewarded based on the number of reproductions sold, we move to an artistic, networked economy where audiences can express appreciation for a specific work or for its creator with equal facility in a wide range of ways – and sharing copies of a creator’s work, rather than robbing the creator, is actually helping spread their work and their reputation.

Purchases of artefacts will continue to be one major way to do this. Artefacts may of course be hard-copy reproductions of the work, whether generic reproductions such as mass-market books, or prestigious limited editions with fancy covers etc. They may also, as webcomics creators have found, be associated artefacts that declare an affiliation to or appreciation for the work or the creator, such as T-shirts or various tchotchkes. They may be entirely unrelated; some online creators derive significant income from goods that, aside from a common creator/publisher, bear no relation whatever to the works for which the creator is best known. Regardless, whatever the nature of the artefact, commercial production and distribution of those artefacts should of course require that the creator of the work(s) be rewarded for the use of their work.

Active recommendation/sharing of the creator’s work is another – after all, an audience is a potentially valuable thing for anyone, especially a creator. The creator can also derive income from the other side of this process: using affiliate links in online marketplaces, and similar technology, to capture a fraction of any sale triggered by their recommendations is much more lucrative if those recommendations have a substantial audience. And other as-yet uninvented modes of endorsement and support are still on the way.

However, direct payment from audience to creator will become – is already becoming – another substantial avenue of support for creators. The tools to support aggregation of mass support both for specific projects and directly for creators themselves – crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, Pozible, Flattr, and Patreon – are already in place and growing in popularity. (Note that these are not inherently hostile to existing production and distribution models – numerous successful crowdfunding beneficiaries have gone on to use existing channels for publishing completed works to a wider audience.)

By enabling popular/mass patronage to compete with that of a single wealthy entity, platforms like these substantially, though not entirely, mitigate the feudal tendencies alluded to above of historical models of patronage. In some respects they even go further towards democratizing culture, enabling niche audiences and creators to find each other who otherwise might be missed by publishing bureaucracies focusing on larger returns from larger market segments. After all, the additional costs imposed by such corporate apparatus means that an income which can viably sustain a creator is often not sufficient to sustain them plus the industry that supposedly supports them – making the bureaucracies that supposedly exist to help creators find sustainable livings, even if entirely honest and efficient, sometimes a barrier to that same sustainability.

Certainly in the games industry, the use of these services by independent creators and critics to fund work that otherwise would have gone unfunded has had a huge impact. Whether the colossal success of the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter in 2012 resulting in games propelling that service into the mainstream and becoming its #1 category ($300m of its $1.5b to date), or the breakout success of Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency Kickstarter revealing the scope of both the audience for basic feminist critique of popular culture and the vitriol of the anti-feminist backlash, it is fair to say that crowdfunding has been central to the last few years of games culture. (Which is, of course, a large and growing part of mainstream culture.) But while games creators have been particularly quick to jump on the opportunities offered by these new models (gamers being trained to spot opportunity and advantage, and highly sensitive to network effects), no medium is ignoring them – or can afford to.

The library, however – the place that above all others has been about enabling the public’s right to access to culture and information in a systemic, sustainable way; that above all others is about connecting the public with what they love regardless of commercial considerations – has been sitting this transformation out.

I believe that this is a mistake: we have a key role to play in this. Further, I believe that if libraries take a more active interest in helping creators and their audiences find each other efficiently and make a living, the supposedly irreconcilable tensions between free (meaning unsurveilled as well as unrestricted) sharing of culture and the needs of creators start to look a lot less intractable. Finally, I believe that remaining blind to the tremendous ferment of creativity enabled by these new funding and publication channels is a great way to make ourselves irrelevant. If we are increasingly seen as supplying a representative sample only of corporate-approved materials rather than of the full range of contemporary culture, we both abandon our popular mandate and play into the idea that all we do is compete with retailers of commercial creative works.

Below are just a few suggestions for how we might make that shift. But before I close this theoretical section, let me address one key argument against free culture: the economic-rationalist view that once someone has something for free they will never pay for it. To me, this says more about the mean-mindedness of the theorists than it does about reality. The actual facts of piracy contradict this, with shows and movies that have been shared unauthorised still being heavily watched and purchased, and even some producers of such projects (the hugely successful Game of Thrones comes to mind) acknowledging the role that “piracy” (actually peer-to-peer sharing rather than industrial-scale commercial reproduction) has played in making their shows more popular and more successful. But more importantly, it also ignores the tremendous willingness people have to invest time, energy and money into supporting and celebrating the things they love. Fan culture, which has been on the rise alongside peer-to-peer sharing and, not coincidentally, has always been one of the major places such unauthorised copying occurs, is merely the most overt example. The correlation between library usage and book purchasing is another, less obvious demonstration of the fact that free access to culture – far from reducing interest and investment in it – only increases the time, energy and money people are willing to spend on the things they appreciate.

Some solutions (in practice)

Let me note at the outset that, while some of these suggestions may result in substantial changes to library practice and relationships, I don’t consider any of them to be particularly significant changes to the basic job of a library. My point is that for libraries to continue doing what they’ve always done – sampling and making available a wide variety of content to suit their particular patrons’ interests – they need to start considering these sorts of possibilities, because the old models for publishing and distributing creative works are being forced to make room for new ones.


Expanding the pool of publishing/distribution channels from which we buy

For various reasons, libraries have outsourced more and more of their collections and processing to companies who use economies of scale to lower per-unit costs.

Aside from any other effects of this trend, it locks libraries into materials that are available to be distributed (and processed) at those kinds of scales. And it does this precisely at the historical moment when original voices are less likely to make it through those filters (owing to the consolidation and resulting homogenisation of editorial voice into publishing megacorporations), and more likely to publish through the newer channels we are neglecting.

As these more direct creator-audience publishing models become more prevalent, there will be less reason for creators to have industrial-scale volumes of stock created and hanging around to be sold. Such creators will already know the size of their audience, and in some cases will have printed directly for their previously-measured demand. (For instance, a Kickstarted project might print only the number of copies of a work needed to fulfil the project’s obligations, plus a small percentage of spares in case of damage, shipping error, and so on.)

For this reason, libraries that rely on traditional print-then-sell publishers may miss out entirely on opportunities to acquire particular works which may be hugely influential. While such works are likely to find a reprint, past experience has shown that this can take some time, during which period the library is failing to supply the work to its patrons. And again, this assumes that the work finds a home with existing publishers – which many critical viewpoints may not.

Therefore, libraries need to consider allocating some budget to buying works from new crowdfunding platforms, and to as-yet-unknown publishing models, not just the 20th-century publishing models we’re used to.

Naturally, some of this purchasing will need to be done at patron request – just like regular collections. In fact, I’d suggest that in the interests of discovering the widest possible range of such works, you might want to actively cultivate patron suggestions in this area. The trend towards targeted promotion includes creators looking for their audience; you are unlikely to see interesting new authors advertising in the mainstream press or publishing trade journals.

In this connection, it’s worth noting that academic libraries are moving towards models where their catalogues will find items to which the library does not yet have lending rights, and acquiring those rights in response to demand from the academic populace they serve. Of course, this is partly a response to the outrageous prices and conditions being imposed by academic publishers, who are making sharing of research (research that is of course founded upon the intellectual commons) harder and more expensive at precisely the historical moment when doing so is actually getting easier and cheaper. Even so, the models exist, and may well have lessons for how to find the best purchases for a given library’s collection.


Engaging better with free content – including rewarding creators who contribute to the library’s collections and resources after the fact

As discussed above, part of the present shift in cultural production is moving away from the make-a-widget-sell-a-widget industrial model. If creators choose to make their content available in that way, we should by all means continue to use existing systems to pay for their work. But as more and more creators explore open culture publishing models, and rely on support from those who use their creations, I believe that libraries need to start considering their relationship to such creators and their work.

I’m only too well aware that library budgets are often a pittance compared to demonstrable need, and that it might be hard to justify paying for “free” resources. I’m also well aware that simply by having an item in the library’s collection, we are helping its creator find their audience – and therefore, in crude commercial terms, their market.

However, I believe that libraries need to not only take seriously the material that’s published free online and do more to explore it for our patrons, but to acknowledge the debt we have to the free online resources we use.

And, as a logical and moral extension of that point, to consider chipping in financially and practically accordingly – both as a matter of principle, and as a matter of modelling the appropriate relationship to creative and other original work to our patrons.

This is a complex and nuanced discussion – for instance, by having the library contribute to the costs of a creator, does that make our patrons feel they are absolved from doing likewise, causing them to donate less? It probably deserves a post of its own, really. But in the age of Creative Commons, copyleft, and the Free Culture movement, too few libraries are even considering these questions.

[But for the sake of clarity: yes, this does mean I am saying that libraries should consider both donating to Wikipedia and allocating some staff time to be made available to edit it. (Aside from any other considerations, this might go a long way to redressing the gender imbalance among Wikipedia editors.)]

One fact I feel needs to be central to these considerations is that as an institution with a considerable – though usually inadequate – budget, libraries are often better off than either individual creators or the project teams to which they are donating their time and effort. While I fully understand and even applaud libraries wanting to conserve budgets, the fact remains that however resource-poor we are, chances are that creators of free resources are also not well off – and unlike libraries, they actually feel hunger. It would once have gone without saying that we need to be willing to contribute to the costs of resources we include. This applies equally to resources for which we pay via non-conventional means as to those purchased under long-established models. To do otherwise is to discriminate against creators who are attempting to make it easier to share their work – in other words, people who share our values.

I’m not proposing carte blanche for anyone who publishes free stuff online. Given that these resources are free, it is not unreasonable to add them to the collection and see how they fare. However, I submit that we must be willing to consider paying creators at the point we are certain we want their work in the collection, whether that decision comes before they are added or after assessing our patrons’ response to the works.

I’m fully conscious that – budgets being directly affected by this idea – there are some key stakeholders who will resist it: organisational managers who will ask some pretty hard questions about why libraries should pay for something they already got for free. Those are valid, but answerable, questions – we should be able to demonstrate the value of the items to the collection, and therefore the need to sustain and reward creators. And answering them properly will also incidentally reduce the gameability of such systems (whereby library staff might corruptly dispose of library funds to the benefit of themselves or those close to them).

But let’s be clear: this will also inevitably involve a certain amount of managing up. We shouldn’t shy from that. Organisational managers are excellent at managing generic “resources”, but librarians are the experts in the collection and sharing of culture. It is right that managers ask questions about how resources are expended, but they are not qualified to offer leadership in making those decisions. Again, for library folks not to be in the forefront of engaging with a cultural shift of this magnitude is to voluntarily edge ourselves and our beloved libraries towards redundancy.

[Also: It’s not directly relevant to this paper, but crowdsourcing can help libraries too!]


Libraries cultivating support for creators as a moral and practical imperative if people like content

Libraries could do more to get people supporting the creators they love, and even those they don’t love, but benefit from, or think are interesting or important. This needn’t be restricted to newer crowdfunding-type channels; buying a book or a DVD is just as much an option for supporting creators as pledging to their next project (or a past one). That said, it is worth us helping our communities explore what share of the money spent on each option actually ends up with the people who created the work – and how clearly that support sends the signal people want it to send.

Most people, including most creators, certainly make the common-sense assumption that libraries already foster this kind of active appreciation and support of culture to a considerable degree. (And they are right to do so: both logic and evidence very much point this way!)

But we could do more both to celebrate what we already do and to find new ways to advance the principle of supporting creativity. (It helps that both these things would also give us further leverage in negotiations with recalcitrant publishers over price and terms of newer forms of published works, e.g. ebooks.)

For instance, we could (and should) act in an educational capacity – telling the story of what these new funding models enable. Not everyone will be interested, but just as we help people explore the world of books and then translate their tastes into purchases at the bookshop, there are genuine opportunities for us to support our communities in exploring these new channels – both as audiences engaging with original work, and as potential creators themselves.

We could also spell out the connection made at the start of this paper, between the need to protect privacy and the need to provide an alternative to the widget-sales model of cultural economics.

We could also do more to foster yet other ways for creators to engage their audiences, and for audiences to enable their creators to make a living, as some of the following suggestions outline. To this point I have largely focused on ways libraries can work in with existing or emerging systems that are independent of them. In the suggestions that follow, I will begin exploring ways in which our unique attributes and position enable us to offer opportunities unavailable elsewhere.


Libraries cultivating their own audience’s creative aspirations as a way to instil respect for other creators

As I’ve discussed previously, libraries are increasingly moving towards becoming libraries of their community as well as for their community, with a growing focus on supporting creativity among their patrons rather than simply gathering the best of what’s happening elsewhere.

There has always been an element of seeking to support local creators in libraries’ work; at the very least we are inclined to purchase their work, if not actively promote it to their community. After all, a work is more likely to be of interest to patrons if they have met its creator, and more likely to be relevant given the greater odds of a similar background.

Likewise, we have sought to foster new creators through programs like writers’ workshops, especially for young people. Similarly, as the internet has grown to greater social and economic prominence in people’s lives, we have sought to help our patrons learn how to navigate it.

I believe that we can fruitfully combine these two things and help new creators learn to navigate these systems to find support. Having done so, we can help our communities discover their local creators just as those creators are seeking their audience. And we can help those local creators to build on that audience and leverage it into wider success, and to network and support each other in making their way out to the wider world.

How does this translate into supporting creators? One necessary corollary of helping people create is that patrons who have attempted their own creative work, and to a lesser extent those who aspire to do so, will better appreciate the work involved, and the need for creators to have a sufficient income to continue to create. This is not entirely dissimilar to simply respecting those who make things we like, as in the previous point, but the respect is likely to be more nuanced and to include those who make things we don’t like but who make them exceptionally well.

Again, rather than leaving this as an implicit point of learning, libraries could make an effort to explicitly leverage these teachable moments to make this point. (As always, heavy-handedness can backfire, but the basic point is incontestible.)


Libraries as channels to contact creators/agents if their patrons are interested in work

If the library is to become a vector for the audience-creator relationship, clearly our greatest strength is on the audience side of that equation; it’s our relationship to creators that we will need to develop.

One possibility here might be to develop tools and protocols that enable our circulation and activity data – thoroughly anonymised, of course! – to become a resource for creators and their representatives.

One such option might be a standardised, automated interface for flagging that the library staff, on behalf of their patrons, are interested in the creator’s work, along with some capacity to suggest particular activities that might be of most interest, or to outline activities that are happening anyway that might offer opportunities for the creator to piggyback their own event onto. For instance, a library might report that their members would love a presentation from a particular creator, or might report that a book club are holding a cosplay event themed around a creator’s work.

There would be no expectation of a response – that would need to be up to the creator, who would have the information to dip into as their own interests suggest – but creators would have a potential insight into where their work was being appreciated… and where they might profitably be able to visit and engage their audience in whatever further ways they desire.

The obvious use of this is in finding hotspots for things like book tours, but creators who want to run things like workshops, or to engage with audiences in other ways (perhaps to gain audience input into new, more collaborative creative forms), could also use information from such an interface to target those efforts as well. In the book club cosplay event example above, the creator might get in touch with the library and offer to judge, plus hold a signing or a Q&A about the characters.

Such engagement need not take place within the library, though it is a logical venue for such things as creator talks, creative workshops, and so on. Local retailers (bookshops, music shops, etc) or other businesses might come on board to help organise, promote, and host the event. The creator might see sufficient demand in a region that they might hire out a larger public venue. The event might be a specialised activity requiring particular tech, furniture and/or spatial configurations, such as LAN gaming, a theatrical production, or an artistic installation.

In any case, the library could become both a channel for the creator to notice that demand exists, and a potential partner in letting the audience know about it. And it would provide a level of granularity in the detail as to where demand exists that is currently not possible – or at least not without invasive data mining. (I hope no library worker needs an explanation as to why supporting alternatives to mass snooping on the public is a good thing!)

Another (and related) option would be to have the library be the place where people learn how to reach out to the creators whose works they admire. A workshop on writing to creators and other public figures, where attendees can nominate who they want to contact, and which covers basic etiquette, reasonable expectations, understanding of the demands on public figures’ time, and maybe a little research into the specific creators’ preferred channels of communication and/or modes of relating to their audience, could potentially be a relatively easy way for individual libraries to start moving into this space. (I’m also quite sure it would be a remarkably popular program! Contact me if you’re interested in pursuing this further.)

Admittedly, the existence of celebrity stalkers means this could be somewhat fraught! But as with most situations, the conspicuously unbalanced individuals who make trouble for everyone are a tiny minority. In fact, by planting the seeds of reason at the beginning of someone’s engagement, libraries could do a great deal to avert the obsessive spirals such people fall into.


Enabling creators to routinely see stats on loans/access to their works through libraries

The basic idea here is that thoroughly anonymized loan stats are fed into a centralized system and then made available to creators (or their deputized agents), so they can see a global heat map of the public’s engagement with their works in libraries.

Not only does this potentially feed into marketing for their next creative work, it also allows them to plan book tours, and even potentially help fund a holiday by picking up a little public speaking work in the destination country. And for creators who are more interested in direct relationships with their audience, this sort of information could be invaluable.

To be genuinely useful, this would need to distinguish number of loans and number of borrowers so that creators can tell when a library has a single obsessive re-reader or when they have a genuinely wide audience there.

Given that libraries in many countries already track some such usage statistics as part of public lending right schemes, and therefore some such central reporting already takes place through national libraries, in some ways this is not that much of a stretch from current systems – especially if the trend towards centralising and amalgamating library services continues, and given that library loan records are all electronic anyway.

In other respects I can see it being a political nightmare, on the one hand used by creators (and the megacorporations who benefit disproportionately from managing their rights) to lobby for higher lending payments or more restrictions on libraries, and on the other hand pushing for greater violations of privacy in the form of more detailed access to more-poorly-anonymized lending information. Certainly libraries would need to value this information appropriately as the tremendous resource it is, rather than simply giving such information away without a substantial tradeoff.

Just as crucially, libraries would need to recognise that such data is held in trust from the public, both as individuals and collectively. It is not an asset libraries own and are free to dispose of in their own interests, without regard to the interests of those from whom it is derived.

Lastly, this need not be limited to loans or other access data. As above, it could include information about activities (including those outlined below) taking place in the library relevant to a particular creator. Given that we also report on this sort of thing already to some degree, once again it’s just a case of making sure that the information is sufficiently detailed (specifically, that we are reporting on the subject of activities, rather than just aggregating headcounts under general headings like “story times” etc) and goes where it can be used.


Embedding portals to creators in library catalogues/metadata

[For those who read the post early and are just wanting to find the new stuff, this is the section that was added after publication.]

Given that we already have independent authority records for creators, and even have value-added subscription services such as Syndetics and OCLC providing expanded content for our records, to simply add a link from a work or a creator’s authority record to a URL they nominate seems pretty simple. All we need is some sort of central authority to track authors’ official “home pages” – something that could largely be automated and built into library deposit or public lending right schemes – and we’re already helping people connect with creators.

But this is only the least of the possibilities. We might for instance allow similar creator-controlled fields within bibliographic records, to take people to the official URL for a particular creative work, rather than just a standard link for the creator. The tools to manage this would be slightly more complex technically, and more work to manage, but would still be well within the realms of possibility.

Taking this even further, I can imagine a third-party service that provides (moderated!) embedded content to library catalogues directly from creators. As an example, when the publication date of the next installment of a beloved series is revealed, one of the channels for that announcement might be the catalogue pages of the previous installments. Obviously this sort of thing would need moderation – nobody should have unrestricted anytime access to the pages of the library catalogue – but a trusted third party working within agreed frameworks and standards could very easily make something like this a valuable tool for audiences, libraries, and creators.

We could even allow creators to post links to purchase copies of their work in ways that the creator feels best supports them. This might be referral links to online stores like Amazon, or it might be a service that lists local booksellers that stock particular works, or it might be a print-on-demand service. Simply putting this decision in the hands of creators would give them additional leverage in the creative economy – leverage that at present is very much with publishers and distributors – without the library being seen to misuse its position to favour one particular local (or other) business.

And naturally such things need not be limited to widget purchases. We might also – especially for works that we have included in the collection unpaid – allow crowdfunding links, such as those from services like Flattr or Patreon. These might be general “fund the creator” links, or they might be more specific “reward this particular work” links. Either way people who have found the work worthwhile can support the creator – and everyone is completely clear that the sharing of the work was beneficial to the creator.

In the interests of privacy, we might even consider becoming an anonymous channel for such support. One downside of direct patronage for some members of the public will be that such systems involve putting their support or appreciation for particular ideas or works on the record in ways that are not visible or accountable to them. Just as we are channels for anonymous reading, we could become channels for anonymous patronage. It would be a politically fraught process, with only the imperfect anonymity our readers enjoy; and it would be tremendously open to corruption (anonymity and money are never a good combination!), but it’s certainly a conceivable role for libraries to play.


Libraries as places to build community – and for communities to build themselves

We like to talk about libraries as the new village square, but it’s remarkable to me how little we do to enable public-driven usage of the space. I understand why: there are custodial obligations to our collections, spaces, and patrons that rule out or at least complicate a number of public activities. But in a true village square, activity is not predominantly programmed by public employees but often emerges organically from the interests of the people in the space at any given time.

Given those custodial obligations, which are real and too important to abandon, we can’t aspire to that level of unsupervised, unstructured public usage. But as I’ve touched on earlier in my two-way libraries paper, we could be doing a lot more to provide a degree of structure and mutual accountability that would allow more of this self-directed usage.

One such usage could be to encourage people to think of the library as a safe neutral (and somewhat anonymous) venue for shared cultural interests. We do this somewhat with book clubs, but rather than organising them ourselves and fixing the topic and activity, we could quite easily create tools based on pledgebanking systems that would allow the public to propose their own (suitably moderated) shared uses for our public meeting spaces and discover if there were interest for their ideas.

I think it’s quite likely that some such uses would include fan clubs for the various media we enable people to access – and this would be very much to the benefit of creators, especially in combination with the above reporting.

It is not a coincidence that the media that most require this sort of co-ordinated physical copresence, in this case to experience it at all not only to share appreciation, are the various forms of interpersonal play, especially social and tabletop games.


Libraries to host networked meeting/lecture spaces to connect communities all over the world

Technologies to connect multiple groups in different locations into a single larger group have largely been the domain of corporate meetings. But they do already exist, and could provide some remarkable opportunities for libraries to connect their communities not only indirectly through the shared world of learning and culture that we enable our patrons to access, but by directly allowing them to share experiences.

This could – and should – include homegrown experiences such as local history events, talks by local creators, and so on. (“Sister City” arrangements could particularly benefit and be strengthened.) There is a lot to be said for horizontal grassroots sharing of this sort, though that’s another post.[3]

But it could also allow numerous libraries with smaller budgets to pool funds to pay for creator talks by famous creators, or other more-expensive-but-relatively-simple events, that would then be shared live throughout all contributing libraries. (In my view, any library worth its salt would talk to the creator about then posting such talks on the internet under some sort of free culture license, but having the chance to be in the live audience – and potentially interact with the public figures in question – would be the preserve of the participants in the actual libraries at the time.)

It would even make such events cheaper, since travel costs would be reduced to the distance to the nearest participating library – or the nearest other facilities capable of streaming such events.

And of course, combined with the above patron-driven approach to the use of spaces and facilities, new uses for this sort of capacity would be quick to emerge.

(Once again, I confess a non-personal vested interest, this time in the possibilities for International Games Day @ your library and especially my own volunteer project, the Global Gossip Game.)


Libraries supporting lobbying for more creative funding

Finally, I fully realise that libraries have plenty of lobbying to do for our own budgets. But if we’re going to be helping audiences and creators engage more anyway, we’re going to be de facto supporting one common cause that is likely to draw broad support from the creative sectors: improving funding for the creative sectors.

While limited public funds mean that ultimately there is a degree of rivalry or tension between funding creation and funding libraries, both are clearly essential, and proponents of both should be vigorously supporting each other. And it would certainly cement the library as a key ally to the creator.

This is a point worth stressing. The reason that the corporations of the “content industry” have so successfully imposed their clearly disproportionate demands on the internet is because they have portrayed themselves as the champions of the creators who make the cultural and intellectual works that we love and need. And, to be fair, they have enabled some truly astonishing work.

But publishing corporations are not the only ally to creators. (Indeed, in some cases, the relationship has not been an alliance but rather profoundly exploitative.) And the corporations (and the lobbying groups that represent them) have clearly abandoned any respect for the interests – let alone the rights – of the public, except insofar as those rights are the right to purchase their product.

As the institution that has always been about the public freely engaging with culture, the library can and should step up. We are here for our patrons, and because our patrons (and we) love culture, we are here for the people who create it as well. Perhaps we can even help publishers let go of the obsessive need to monitor and monetise every possible engagement with a creative work, and go back to their core job: finding and supporting original, amazing creators. There are wider social forces at work here, of course, but most publishers are already keenly aware of how despotic and bureaucratic they look at times (and how much money is wasted on their attempts to assert oligopolistic control over the Internet). They need only a sense that there is another way to make a living, that they are not abandoning their responsibilities to shareholders and creators, and it suddenly makes sense to simply walk away from the worst excesses of the widget-selling model of culture.

But they won’t do this without creators taking a lead, and creators too need to know that they can find a living elsewhere. That sense of tension, of competition for limited funds, evaporates when you look at the bigger picture of what the point of libraries and of creating original works actually is. This is why it’s important for libraries to advocate for funding not only for themselves and the audiences they serve, but for the creators they serve as well.

In this regard, it doesn’t hurt that – if the suggestions above and in that two-way library piece linked earlier gain traction – libraries will be directly supporting creation to a greater degree, such that funding one is funding the other!



We in the library business are deeply committed to creators, and always have been. Our whole reason for being is to help the communities we serve find the created works (whether artistic or referential) that most meet their requirements – a function that, while public-facing, also serves creators. Far more than a mere recommendation engine or discovery interface, we enable our patrons to explore and develop their own tastes rather than merely throwing back at them endless iterations on themes they already like. In doing so, we serve creators of both excellence and originality – and most of all those creators who offer both at once. In other words, we both broaden and deepen the market for culture.

But because we are public-facing, we are also custodians of the bigger picture of culture: that created works exist to serve a greater good. That’s the reason that copyright and similar elaborate legal mechanisms have been created and operate at such vast expense to the public – original work is important enough that we recognise the imperative to reward it.

However, creative/original thinking isn’t the only public good, and material incentives aren’t the only way to encourage it.[4] The right to access culture and information unmonitored, and the right to freedom of expression, are both central pillars of the kind of intellectual freedom fosters genuinely original thinking. And both are threatened by measures actively proposed by the corporate industrial interests supposedly speaking on behalf of creators.

Privacy is under assault by corporate forces that seek to prevent unauthorised copying by spying on everyone to make sure that only authorised – which is to say, remunerated – consumption of culture occurs. (To be fair, they are strongly supported in this by others who seek to spy on us for other reasons.) It is not possible technically to prevent copying the “wrong” data, but it is possible to combine the threat of ridiculously disproportionate penalties (tens of thousands of dollars and a criminal record for watching a TV episode without paying?) with highly visible, seemingly state-endorsed (and increasingly state-run) surveillance schemes to scare people into compliance. The fact that these systems can be – and are – abused to breach privacy is bad both for humanity generally and for creators specifically. Without privacy, creators are discouraged from exploring experimental, challenging, and/or personal works; these render creators vulnerable in different ways, but the hope of privacy can mitigate some of that disincentive. And of course in the bigger picture, lack of privacy fosters a climate of self-censorship and self-moderation which puts a system-wide brake on effective peaceful dissent against those in charge of these systems.

Freedom of expression is, of course, inherently inhibited by copyright laws around use of fictional characters and settings – that’s more or less its point, to prevent people other than the creator of a work from making free with it! And that’s fine – I’ll be the first to admit the undeniable benefits, both economic and intellectual, to allowing the originator of an idea or work to maintain a voice and a financial stake in how it is published, and further developed and explored. But the system we have in place now stifles genuinely original reworkings of past culture under mountains of licensing and permissions red tape (making the use of, for instance, music samples prohibitive to most people not already signed up to one of the labels with the legal departments who run the show).

It makes it impossible for scholars and archivists to preserve our legacy, by criminalising digital preservation of works without clear permission from a creator who may be untraceable – or entirely unknown. (And even if you throw principle aside and argue that a work being abandoned in this way makes it a safe bet that you can get away with unauthorised copying, there are people who would consider it just as safe a bet that they can falsely claim to own the copyright and sue.) I’ve read a number of statistics about the percentage of works from the early days of the current copyright period – which is to say, the earlier part of the 20th Century – being lost to posterity because of this. They vary, but all are shockingly high.

And it has created a remarkable new tool for censorship: simply allege copyright infringement through an automated online tool and you can get even private companies to take down material they host, pending a counter-complaint by the original poster. This has already begun to be used as a tool for removing – even if only temporarily – material that is unwelcome to some unaccountable soul at some particular moment. Governments and corporations have attempted to claim copyright in the material their critics are using to criticise them. Antagonists in various culture wars have targeted each other with false copyright claims. Far from encouraging reasoned discourse or promoting the development of cultural works, copyright has become a tool to suppress unwanted views.

Controlling the reproduction of created works in these ways is only justified if this is our mechanism for rewarding creators. If we can achieve that goal of offering incentives to creators to create in some other way, what is now seen as theft (enabling others to access a creator’s work) becomes a supportive act, an act of endorsement – which is how many people actually experience the act of sharing the works they love.

By reaffirming our commitment to supporting creators (and taking the lead in exploring new ways to do so), libraries can help break the industrial-age connection between reproduction and remuneration, helping creators to continue to prosper from their work without having to endorse – and divert ridiculous amounts of resources into – these oppressive, wasteful, and anti-creative systems.

And of course, it frees up the infosphere for us and our patrons too.



— Footnotes ——-


[1] ‘Rule by spies’. Technically, there is no effective way to encrypt something that ultimately has to be human-readable. So the only way to prevent unauthorised copying of content is to scare people into not doing it – and that can only happen if they have a reasonable expectation of their private activity being watched and recorded while online, or even by their own personal property.

[2] One could quite plausibly argue that this is already somewhat the case (*cough*Murdoch*cough*Walden Media*cough*), but at least under the current system there is some mechanism for finding support from a mass audience – even if that support is typically funnelled through (and heavily taxed by) a large number of institutional middlemen who contribute nothing to the actual creative work.

[3] Briefly: by encouraging people to pay attention not to the centralised culture industry with its necessarily skewed perceptions and priorities but to other everyday folks, we get a counterbalance for the mass-produced monoculture that distorts our sense of ourselves and our place in the world… though of course until EVERYONE has access to the networks this would create, distortions will still be built into the system.

[4] In fact I would argue that there is an inherent human drive to create, one which (history shows) finds expression regardless of such incentives. Further, the massive external incentives we’ve created for the creation of culture have – as external incentives typically do – distorted the activity they’re supposedly incentivising. Rather than becoming a tool to remove daily survival pressures and free people to express the burning truth or beauty inside them, it’s become a prize to be won by creating experiences that compel attention – regardless of whether it’s worth creating for its own sake, or whether that experience (or the compulsion) is healthy. Of course, it has also enabled a great deal of extraordinary work, and even more research into why people like what they like – I’m not saying it’s all bad. Just something to consider.

Up for air! (Briefly)

Hey folks! Just a quick post to say that International Games Day 2014 is over and was a huge success – so that’s off my plate – but thanks to increasing family responsibilities I will continue to be sporadic in updating this blog.

I’m updating the site a bit more frequently as I add more details on services that I offer (and sometimes new services!) but those are largely incremental updates. The big things that I’ve added and will be working on in 2015:

  • I’m selling a bundle of tabletop games for libraries that also comes with a substantial discount on training – and the discounts are stackable across library services, meaning if you buy enough bundles the training is potentially free!
  • I’m offering Australian libraries access to a service called OnePlay which enables ebook-style e-lending of PC and Android games. It’s a promising start on lending for media we struggle to enable our users to access!

Contact me if either of these, or any of my services, interest you. And to be updated when I do get a chance to post more substantive articles – which are coming – please follow me (using the button at the bottom right of your browser window, or by signing up to the RSS feed).

Otherwise, all the best for the end of this year and all of next!

The Game of Life

Sometimes it’s just SO interesting you can’t tear yourself away!

(And sometimes the grind just won’t let up…)

Aside from International Games Day @ your library, which I’m helping run again this year (and yes, the Global Gossip Game is part of it again), I’ve also been working on a semi-original design, attempting to put… something… together to give games a boost here in Oz, helping out a little with James Portnow’s Games for Good, and having an attack of Real Life (entirely too Real in some cases) on a few different fronts.

More substantive (and hopefully exciting!) posts soon, I think. But meanwhile, if you’re interested in helping to share games and play with your local community, IGD@yl has pages for librarian and non-librarian gamers who might want to get their local library participating. I encourage you to support your libraries’ forays into games and play!

Talking points: Games, systems, and systems literacy

[First posted on the IGD blog on October 14, 2013]

Welcome to the fifth and final entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned! (Click here to start from the beginning.) I hope you’ve found them interesting and informative – or at least useful in making the case for games as having a place among the many modes of culture the library supports. I would be very interested to hear feedback in the comments! Anyway, here’s the summary of this final Talking Point from the original post:

Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words.

As we’ve discussed, games are culture that creates connections between people; they force us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness; and they are as capable of seriousness and at least as capable of fun as any other medium. But we have not yet talked about perhaps the single most important aspect of games: their existence as systems of rules. (And in some cases nothing more – no physical components at all!)

The world we live in is full of systems. Many of these are natural systems, such as the immensely complex system of air and water circulation that moves heat around the planet and (for instance) allows the west coast of Ireland to be far warmer than it has any right to be out there in the Atlantic with nothing between it and the Arctic. Or the migration patterns of birds and insects, or the dance of subatomic particles within every atom of matter, or the myriad physiological systems (nervous, digestive, circulatory, immune, endocrine…) whose interactions enable the individual existences of every complex living organism on the planet – including us.

Then there are the hybrid natural-human systems on which we depend, such as agriculture, water storage and distribution, various forms of power generation and resource gathering, shipping, fermentation, various medical interventions, and many more.

And lastly, of course, there are the entirely anthropogenic systems – languages (and for that matter language as a whole); the high technology of the internet and its billions of electronic components (including the computer on which I write this and the device on which you read it) which of course are themselves systems; government, the military, cities and towns; economies, corporations, production systems, workplaces; architecture, narratives, music, culture… We have always been surrounded and pervaded by systems of tremendous complexity, but increasingly and for an increasing number of us, the systems with which we interact are either heavily influenced by human intervention, or human-created.

(And we ignore to our peril the inescapable reality that all these systems which can so easily engross and consume our attention are themselves embedded in and emergent from the larger natural systems which surround us, supplying their raw materials, enabling and/or constraining their processes, and being affected by their outputs.)

One of the many extraordinary things about humanity is its capacity to perceive not just the moment-to-moment flow of phenomena, but – indirectly – the systems which underlie the endless tumble of events. It’s like trying to work out the inner workings of a tremendous factory by peering through the windows – only the factory is the size of the universe, some of its machines are smaller than atoms, and each of us only gets one window a few centimetres across.

It is my firm belief – and I am far from alone in this; Plato, Einstein, and many other great minds agree – that this capacity is intimately linked to our capacity for play. Play is about consequence and experimentation, about if-this-then-that and what-if-this-happens? It is hard to imagine a behaviour better adapted to learning and responding to the parameters of a system.

Games, as codified play, are themselves systems. Some are incredibly simple systems – Tic-Tac-Toe or Snap – while some are tremendously complex systems which attempt to approximate reality (or some imaginary version thereof) – particularly the “crunchier” or more rules-heavy end of the tabletop roleplaying genre and the wargames from which it evolved, which have their roots in genuine military attempts to simulate various actual battle – and economic and ecological – conditions, and which typically by their nature need to be able to respond to player actions outside a rigorously predefined set of possibilities.

I am not an especially good Chess player, and barely know Go, but in both cases I know enough to see that one of the keys to successful play is the ability to successfully visualise the myriad interactions of a single move both on the board at the time and in the branching possibilities that arise from the new game state – the way it shifts the interfering patterns of support and protection. If I move my rook here, it protects my king, but leaves my bishop vulnerable, and if that goes my queen has nothing to protect it either. Of course, this is just one aspect of play; the ability to use the shift of pieces to manipulate your opponent into making key mistakes is another (and according to some, though I personally disagree, even more important) dimension – playing on your opponent through your play on the board.

Clearly these are skills which are worth cultivating – as our ancestors have known for millennia, as evidenced by the prestige rightly accorded excellence at Go, Chess, and similar games by cultures all around the world. This same ability to visualise and anticipate multiple interlocking influences and consequences is vital to biology, medicine, climate science, economics, physics, engineering, advanced manufacturing and informational workflows – pretty much any advanced discipline, and especially cross-disciplinary work and even advanced generalisation. (If you’re interested in further reading, the pioneering work in systems thinking – the art of understanding system dynamics – done by Donella Meadows and others is an excellent place to start developing the general skill of analysing systems.)

So that’s one aspect of this topic: the inherent merits of games as practice for life in the same way that fiction is – as a playful practice of necessary analytical skills with very real applications. But as we discussed last month, games aren’t just systems, they’re poetic systems – systems which are designed to express and/or induce particular emotions, ideas, or other responses.

And this is for me perhaps the most valuable aspect of games as culture: they teach us that systems are not neutral, that they can and do embody particular values and weight themselves towards particular outcomes, and that these outcomes are expressive of the way the system is designed at least as much as they are of the qualities of particular participants in or elements of the system. Given that many of the systems which are most negatively impacting most of us at this point in time are human-created, and many of the natural systems affecting us negatively are human-influenced, this is an essential lesson for us to learn – and apply.

This concludes our Talking Points series! I hope it has helped to persuade those who need persuading that there is substantial value to be found in games, and that they have the capacity to be the active, dynamic complement to the pensive, contemplative cultural mode that books foster. We need both reflection and decision in our lives; I would argue that we need both games and books as ways to keep those parts of our psyches in good health without being overloaded in reality.

There is a great deal more to say about games – the lessons they teach us (through game theory) about mutual support, competition, community, and more; the mental health benefits; the extraordinary range of social and technological innovations they have driven; the fact that gaming culture, although (somewhat deservedly) having a reputation for being riddled with nasty online behaviour, is in many ways ahead of the mainstream in identifying and constructively attempting to address bigotry and discrimination. But those posts are for later.

[EDIT: Follow this link to read those later posts.]

Talking points: Games, seriousness, poetry, and fun

[First posted on the IGD blog on September 10, 2013]

Welcome to the fourth, and penultimate, entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from the original post:

Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?)

We’ve seen that games are culture that creates connections between people, and forces us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness. All of these points were made to show that the assumption that games are mere bits of fun not worth being taken seriously by libraries is an ill-considered kneejerk reaction, and hopefully that point has been made.

So now I want to take a step back and reflect on that notion of “mere fun” – the idea that something fun inherently has less value or meaning, and should be treated dismissively – especially in reference to games.

Contrary to that common assumption, the fact that games are fun is not, in fact, a mark of triviality. On the contrary, it is a sign that they speak to something deeply embedded in what it is to be human. When music evokes strong emotional reactions, that is understood to be a mark of its quality; visual arts likewise. Prose or poetry that move us are recognised as being important for that reason. That games typically evoke different emotions, emotions more suited to active engagement rather than reflection, does not mean that we are less obliged to attempt to understand why and how they do so, or that we will be less rewarded by the attempt.

Part of the problem seems to come from the assumption that fun and seriousness are somehow opposites. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Fun”, the spirit of play, is a distinguishing characteristic of humanity at its most fully engaged, as pioneering psychological thinker Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi explores in his seminal work Flow. The flow-state he describes in this book is attained by finding a sweet spot where the mind is focused and highly but not overwhelmingly challenged, much like the best physical exercise. Flow, unsurprisingly, is highly conducive to happiness and mental health. Notably for libraries, Csiksentmihalyi’s work on flow is also deeply concerned with its relationship to learning.

It is no coincidence that one of the communities where his work is most widely known is in the game design community, with pioneering indie game development company thatgamecompany actually naming one of their earlier games (or possibly two) after it. Fun and seriousness can be inextricably intertwined – if you’ve ever fallen in (requited) love, or played with a child to whom you have a close bond, odds are that you’ve experienced this firsthand.

Even in less intensely intimate interactions, people engrossed in play may be laughing their heads off, but still be taking the experience very seriously; conversely, players maybe concentrating intently, and even to outward appearances grimly, and inwardly having an exhilarating, even transcendentally joyous experience.

Outside the context of formal play, encountering truly poetic works in any medium (“poetic” here used in the broader sense of “beautifully made for its moment”, as in “poetic justice”) also inspires this same mixture of an upwelling of joy and exhilaration with a state of profound awareness and reflection. That games more often approach this intersection from the side of fun rather than seriousness does not mean they cannot reach it. And given that they can, surely we should be cultivating the medium – as we do others – to assist them to do so as often as possible.

Even if “fun” and “serious” were opposites, there is nothing saying that they are synonymous with “insignificant” and “important” respectively. We all know people who are both deadly serious and deathly dull, and conversely people who are alight not only with fun but with intelligence, wisdom and wit as well. In fact, I would say that being serious without a sense of fun is more likely to be a dangerous quality than having a sense of fun untempered by seriousness, and that combining both fun and seriousness is significantly preferable to either alone.

This has been recognised by thinkers throughout history. James P. Carse wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games which is well worth reading (and not only in this connection). And it’s no coincidence that the quote chosen to start off the world’s first Global Gossip Game was from no less a figure than Playto: “Life must be lived as play.” (Technically this is a translated paraphrase, but it’s widely quoted in this form. I mention this point because it’s important to be accurate, lest distortions creep into our communication and we end up with “He bites snails.”)

Now, none of this is to say that anything that gives someone a giggle or whiles away an hour is noble and enduring and should be in our collections. isn’t A Comedy of Errors. (Ah, the power of italicization.) But we stock Mills & Boon novels, and I’m pretty sure not all of those are classics to be preserved for the ages, and I’m also pretty sure that the people reading them are already about as literate as they’re going to get from reading Mills & Boon. None of this is to say that we should stop stocking those books; I’m just pointing out that this does suggest that we recognise the value of sharing culture purely for the sake of the pleasure it affords. So even if we decide that games by their nature cannot be serious or improving, that still would not be a sufficient basis on which to ignore them. And we cannot in good faith decide any such thing when examples and evidence to the contrary abound.

Given that, as we’ve previously discussed, games can be powerful cultural experiences, that they exercise the brain, that they improve our capacity to analyse systems and to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, that they are well-suited to the library, and that the library is well-suited to them – and that on top of all that, they’re fun – surely it’s time we started engaging with them more rigorously, bringing the best of the intelligent, widely cultured library perspective to games, and bringing the best of games to the library experience.

(Click here for our last Talking Points post – “Games, systems, and systems literacy”.)

Talking points: Games and theory of mind

[First posted on the IGD blog on August 12, 2013]

Hello folks! This is the third of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from that original post:

Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking.

Games are culture that you have to share, and which reward intense engagement with other people. That in and of itself fosters the ability to model what other people know, might be thinking, and are more or less likely to do – known as “theory of mind”. (Because the key capacity is the ability to theorise about other minds… Which, when you think about it, is a truly extraordinary achievement: to be able to model something as complex as a human mind inside another human mind. Yes, the process is fallible and we resort to all sorts of cheaty shorthands, formalised conventions and external encodings. But that it’s possible at all is pretty incredible.)

Two things make games uniquely good at fostering this crucial (perhaps most crucial) aspect of intelligence.

First, as alluded to in the last Talking Point post, games license a closeness of attention that is often inappropriate and even uncomfortable outside the magic circle of a game.

Second, and relatedly, games like Werewolf and poker explicitly require bluffing, misdirection and outright lying. Not only do these acts require the exercise of theory of mind (you can’t lie convincingly without an idea of what others might find plausible) in and of themselves, but because they are built into the structure of the game, they also require you to be able to spot them – which requires even more active reading of your opponent, because you’re not even sure what their goals are. Are they trying to persuade you to fold, or to increase your bet? Are they trying to persuade you to eliminate that person because they sincerely believe that their target is a Werewolf? Because they know? Or because they’re a Werewolf themselves?

Speaking purely personally for a moment, my own ongoing fascination with Werewolf and similar social deception games lies in precisely this learning about lying, and even practising it. This isn’t because I am comfortable with falsehood – quite the contrary; though I’m quietly spoken, if anything I’m slightly too honest when I speak outside games (though thankfully the people I’m close to value that quality too), and my engagement with the wider world has always been through organisations that have strong commitments to independent, objective and rigorously verified truth-telling (particularly Amnesty International). But engaging with deception, understanding how it works and how it develops a consuming momentum that can entrap you, has made me both less susceptible to, and more understanding of, liars – and thereby improved the quality of my honesty, because what I’m saying is less likely to derive from ignorance or other people’s false statements. In other words, lying for fun has made me a more truthful person.

(Or is that just what I want you to think?)

It makes sense: there are few things more interesting than people. If games let us think about people, what they’re thinking and feeling, what they might do, and the entanglement of all those things, maybe they’re not entirely frivolous cultural pursuits after all…?

(Click here for our fourth Talking Points post – “Games, seriousness, poetry and fun”.)

(P.S. This being a relatively short Talking Points post, I don’t want anyone to feel shortchanged. So here – have another bonus TED talk, this time on the neuroscience of making moral judgments about intentions. You come across such interesting stuff when you start taking games seriously…)

Talking points: Games, sharing culture, and connecting people

[First posted on the IGD blog on July 5, 2013]

Hello folks! This is the second of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. Here’s the summary from that original post:

If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language.

We’ve previously established that games are culture. And it’s in the nature of games that most of them require playing with other people, and reward engaging attentively with the people with whom you’re playing.

When it comes to sports – i.e. body-games – these benefits are undisputed, or even (somewhat self-fulfillingly) exaggerated. There are undeniable bonding effects to exercising together for a common purpose, as anyone who’s ever undertaken strenuous physical labour with others can attest. But it seems likely to me that a considerable part of the bonding effects of sports (and especially where that bonding occurs across team lines, where time spent exercising in close proximity is not a factor) is about the intensity with which you are having to anticipate the actions of others – to imagine yourself in their position.

Everyone from mixed martial arts fighters and football players to poker and go players (or practitioners of both, such as chessboxers) speaks of the importance of understanding your opponent. And in a team context, knowing the actions (and temperaments) of your team is just as important. Clearly, any game which involves more than one player is going to reward an ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.

(And even a single-player game can reward the same kind of engagement with its creators, and analysis of their themes and arguments, as a book; but as with books, it’s a much more serial relationship, with the creator thinking about the audience only at the time of creation, and the audience thinking about the creator only after publication. Game players are interacting more simultaneously and – especially if they’re playing over a common tabletop – immediately.)

And when that understanding is paired with an activity which one finds inherently pleasurable – such as the brainwork of a game – it’s no surprise that friendships are formed at least as often as rivalries. And because games are fundamentally informational in nature, the point of commonality has no inherent link to any characteristic such as fitness, gender, age (barring the very young, because of their lack of neurological development), race… meaning games can be the basis of friendship between wildly disparate people.  Think of the intense relationships formed over the chessboards of World Championships, where there may not even be a common language, and you can see how this might work.

In fact, there is a long history of games being consciously used as bonding exercises. The modern obsession with sports, which has its roots in the character-building (and in more cynical cases, army-building) ambitions of the Victorian-era educators, is just the most recent incarnation. It’s mentioned as early as Book One of the first work of Western history, Herodotus’s Histories: the ancient Lydians, faced with a famine, used games to keep their community together through 18 years of grinding hunger, eating only every second day, and playing games on the days they didn’t eat. And in the context of a starving populace, it seems hard to believe that this was Olympic-style athletic games; the games here were probably something like modern tabletop games.

This is very much applicable to the library, if we choose to use them this way. It’s a recurring theme in the comments about past IGDs. It was also an ongoing motif in the study trip I took from Australia to the States, where I spoke to people from over a dozen library services about the uses of games. Games were used to provide constructive channels for socialisation, especially for teens; but targeted appropriately, they were just as effective for adults and indeed for groups of mixed ages. (The lack of links here is because this was not regarded as worth documenting: the games were not catalogued, their use was not recorded, patron feedback was not monitored, and no metrics were captured. After all, it’s only games…)

So if you have stories about games encouraging people to socialise across demographic boundaries, share them below!

(Click here for our third Talking Points post – “Games and theory of mind”.)

Talking points: Games as culture

[First posted on the IGD blog on June 6, 2013]

Hello folks! This week, the first of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. (Normally we’d be doing these in the second week of the month, but… well, you’ll see.) Here’s the summary from that original post:

Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too – especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino.

Play is one of the foundational human activities: so much so that in 1938, Dutch historian, cultural theorist and philosopher Prof. Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo ludens, arguing that not only was play an important part in culture but that it was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for culture. I am not sufficiently well-read to make a definitive statement on the subject, but based on the reading I have done I am prepared to state with some confidence that there have been very few societies in the entire history of humanity that have not featured some kind of more-or-less formalised or ritualised play – which is to say, games.

That ritual or sacred dimension to play is worth noting. Just as theatre and literature have roots in the mystical, games also have similar links. The ancient Egyptians played a game called Senet as a meditation on the soul’s journey. Snakes & Ladders was based on an Indian game with a strong element of moral teachings (which was copied in at least some Victorian boards, with prideful behaviour at the head of a snake leading to a downfall at its tail; some modern boards still feature these little parables). Even modern playing cards are based on the cards of the tarot.

And the importance of games even in our own modern culture is hard to deny: even setting aside the crass indicators of the recent incredible surges in money being spent on games (they say videogames are now making more money than movies, and tabletop games are also undergoing a sharp growth in popularity and public interest), consider the incredible importance placed on the Spassky-Fischer chess matches in the Cold War – or the ubiquity and importance of poker in US culture – or the deep respect accorded to go masters in Japan, China and Korea. Skill at all these games is meaningful beyond the pleasure of winning, showing that it is possible for a game to demand, and therefore symbolise, qualities which a culture considers emblematic of the virtues it holds dear. (And of course the language reflects this ubiquity, with game terminology well-represented in everyday turns of phrase and cliches, such as “playing the hand you’re dealt”.)

Some scoff at the idea of games as art, a prominent recent example being film critic Roger Ebert (he specifically spoke against videogames but his argument applies equally well – or rather poorly – to non-electronic forms). Such people claim that games cannot be art because the outcome is determined not by the artist but by the player(s), denying any chance of the work expressing any meaningful authorial intent.

This ignores the reality that many forms of art are not experienced in a strictly linear, artist-defined fashion – architecture, sculpture, improvisational performances, procedural art and more all allow the audience to control the pace and/or content of their experience to some degree, and are no less artful for that. (And it is no less possible for them to express a particular sensibility, or for audiences to read design intent from them.) Art can be made of anything (when you know what has gone into paints and pigments throughout history, you know this to be indisputably true), and that includes arrangements of rules and decisions and restrictions and consequences, let alone the other art (in writing, in the design of boards/cards/pieces, or in the design of models, animation, audio, music and so on) that a game may incorporate.

Ebert’s error, understandably enough, was to look at the artfulness of games and judge it in terms of the artfulness of movies. Each artform has its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s certainly true that the game will probably never be as good at showing a coherent, tightly-controlled piece of audiovisual narrative or exposition as film can, or as good at describing the inner psychology of its protagonists as prose. But games have their own extraordinary ability: they may not be great at describing subjectivities, but they are amazing at inducing them, and/or allowing people to explore decision and consequence. Brenda Romero’s* discussion of her The Mechanic is the Message series in this video is well worth viewing if you have any doubts about whether this can produce meaningful capital-A Art.
* Her name at the time was Brenda Brathwaite; you may find more of her work under both names.

So, OK, games are culture and they might even be worth taking seriously. But what has that got to do with libraries?

Libraries are the place where a community comes to share information and ideas and culture. In most libraries that have any kind of recreational/cultural component to their collections, we have already expanded our holdings to include other media, such as movies, TV series, and music.

Games, as stated above, are a form of culture which it is (in most cases) simply not possible to experience without sharing that experience with other people. They are, if anything, the single form of culture which most requires the sharing-focused community that a library supports, fosters and houses. (Further, games are one of the single best ways to create ties between community members, as we’ll discuss in a later Talking Points post.)

And if you were to design an institution to support games, it would probably look a lot like a library. It would have places people could sit together and engage in cultural pursuits. In order to maximise the pool of potential players, it would be open to all the members of a given community, subject to appropriate behaviour. It would probably even have some books, since getting good at any game requires you to get smart at thinking about probability and systems and psychology, plus reading up on the history of the game and notable past matches, plus other specific knowledge that may be useful (or just interesting) to players of a given game.

So games and libraries are already a great fit. But there is a further impetus to inclusion of games in libraries.

There currently are no public institutions dedicated to supporting the actual playing of games. There are local game stores, but those have none of the public profile of the kind of institution I mean; those are book stores rather than libraries. Then there’s the (fast-vanishing) games arcade, the economics of which almost mandate nickel-and-diming and heavily favour electronic games, and therefore rule out huge swathes of gaming possibilities. The only real high-profile venue for games in most cities is the deeply-exploitative casino, most of whose “games” are closer to Skinner boxes operating on a variable-ratio schedule, designed that way to maximise their addictive qualities.

Regardless of the intentions of their owners and staff, neither of these institutions has any kind of inherent interest in getting people to engage critically and creatively with systems and human psychology – in fact they have a vested interest in not doing so. But fostering that kind of well-read, reflective, creative mindset in the citizens we serve is what libraries are all about – and games, especially integrated into our existing activities, give us an excellent opportunity to do just that.

(Click here for our second Talking Points post – “Games, sharing culture, and connecting people”.)

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

Hi folks! I’m going to repost a series I wrote for the International Games Day @ your library blog during my 2013 editorship thereof, both because I am happy enough with the way they state the case that I want them to find more readers, and because I am reasonably likely to refer to them a fair bit and it is easier to link content on my own blog 🙂

I’ll post the introduction today and then an additional entry each following day.

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

[First posted on the IGD blog on May 22, 2013]

Hey everyone! So one of the things we’re planning on doing is offering you some talking points for those conversations about why games are even happening in libraries. This first post will give the overview, and then we’ll go into more detail on each point as we go along.

Before we begin, it’s important to recognise that libraries are about books. It’s right there in the name, after all – “Library” is closely derived from the Latin word for “[place] of books”.

But libraries have always been about more than books being in a place. They have been about storing them, yes, but also about making them accessible. Hence the physical care of books is only part of a library’s job – we also catalogue them.

Even that is just a means to an end, though, and it’s important to recognise this as the familiar physical medium of books – the bound codex – moves into the electronic realm. Ultimately what a library is about is providing a place where a community can share culture, information, ideas, beauty – where human thought can be made accessible for people to engage in self-directed study and exploration. And the community is an equally important part of the equation.

Take the iconic library, the Library of Alexandria. It’s estimated it held half a million scrolls. (Note: scrolls. Not codices, not books as we know them. Physical form is not the point.) In addition to shelves, chairs, tables and study spaces, it also held lecture theatres and even dissection rooms. Again, the community of self-directed learners was as much the point as the works they studied (and in turn produced – which leads us onto a whole fascinating tangent for another time).

So that’s great and all, but what relevance does it have to games in libraries? Well:

  • Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture (pretty much) has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too – especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino. [Full post up here.]
  • If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language. [Full post up here.]
  • Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking. [Full post up here.]
  • Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?) [Full post up here.]
  • Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words. [Full post up here.]

We’ll come back to each of these points over the coming months, but hopefully that will get some ideas flowing. Let us know what you think!

(Click here to start reading the series in order.)

Bonus TED video: Your brain on video games (because who doesn’t enjoy the occasional TED talk?)