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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2006

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Vol. 26 No. 5 — May 2006
How Gaming Could Improve Information Literacy
by Ameet Doshi

Some of you might recall a scene from the 1983 movie War Games in which a precocious high schooler (played by Matthew Broderick) is intensely concentrating in front of a microfiche reader at the school library. He’s not researching for a term paper or English assignment. Instead, he’s spending hours with the microfiche with the hopes of cracking into a secure computer network. His nefarious objective? To play a game! The film also makes a point of portraying Broderick as an early-adopting, non-conforming technophile. Interestingly, these are also characteristics that describe many of the “millennial” students we teach at academic libraries across the nation. I was struck by the tenacity of this character when it came to gaming; he would do anything to be able to play this computer game—even resorting to library research.

For the past 2 years, I have served as the resident librarian at the College of DuPage, a large community college in Glen Ellyn, Ill. As resident librarian, I’ve taught numerous library skills sessions, and am dismayed at the passive attitude I sometimes get from students forced to endure YALS (Yet Another Library Session). In an effort to learn how to build some excitement into my teaching, I attended the December 2005 Gaming, Learning and Libraries symposium sponsored by the Metropolitan Library System in Chicago. This article outlines some of the innovative ideas expressed at the symposium, as well as my own notions about the potential for integrating gaming with information literacy.

The Need for Interaction

If there is one thing that students and librarians can both agree on, it is the desperate need for more conversational, two-way methods of teaching library skills. Students are begging us to make these sessions more interesting. We need to move past the one-dimensional, pedantic demonstrations of good versus bad Web sites and handouts that never see the light of day. By integrating a gaming element into the library skills classroom, it is possible to improve learning in this critical area while also portraying libraries and librarians in a better (i.e., less “boring”) light.

As painful as it may be for us to hear, many students do not have a very positive opinion of librarians and libraries. The recent OCLC “Perceptions of Librar­ies and Information Resources” study clearly shows that an overwhelming majority of students go to search engines first when conducting research for their class assignments. Even more troubling is the fact that many of these students cannot differentiate between legitimate Web sites and corporate advertising. On the other hand, Constance Steinkuehler, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, said at the symposium that she has found that many of these same students possess superb talents when it comes to evaluating and applying information within the gaming realm.

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the need for more of the “usual” information literacy programs. We do not need more of the same. In fact, I believe that continued reliance on one-dimensional, one-way methods of teaching information literacy can backfire on us and ultimately drive students even further away from adopting good library skills.

So What Can You Do?

So, how can we as librarians, especially “next-generation” librarians, turn this tide? How can we engage students in reaching the common goal of improving information literacy? One possibility is for librarians and educators to stop demonizing the culture of gaming and, instead, recognize the possibilities to engage students in an environment that is relevant to their world view. By including a gaming element in library skills teaching, I believe the potential exists to excite this millennial generation about information literacy, and to infuse them with lifelong library skills.

Nondigital Options

First of all, it is important to recognize that gaming is not necessarily limited to electronic or digital games. For example, librarians at Williams College in Massachusetts challenge first-year students to solve the mystery of a rare book theft at the college by applying database search skills. The students need to leverage their ability to effectively search The New York Times in the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database and to speak with reference librarians in order to solve the mystery. This is an example of what Walt Scacchi, senior researcher at the University of California–Irvine, would call a “knowledge quest.” In his talk, Scacchi also noted that librarians can assist gamers as “game masters” or mentors. So, not only does this kind of game require only minimal computer program­ming skills, it also meets another important goal—portraying librarians as being approachable and “in touch” to first-year undergraduate students.

Another possibility is playing “evidence-based” games, like those being used at medical schools. Students could be asked to properly diagnose a patient’s symptoms using health databases, or perhaps to fix a car using the library’s automotive technology resources. By presenting students with real-world situations and allowing them to play a game by applying newly learned library skills, the concept of information literacy loses its abstract, theoretical quality and becomes a relevant part of their lives.

Simple Games

These evidence-based and role-playing games are certainly attractive options for those without the expertise or resources to create their own digital gaming realms. However, there are other plug-and-play technologies that require little or no programming expertise, and you can also use them in the library classroom. Here’s one example. This past spring, I worked with a member of the English faculty here at the College of DuPage to experiment with expanding information literacy teaching techniques in her courses. I met with her classes four times over the course of the semester, and we integrated a video tutorial component into the library skills teaching. For their final assessment, we used a system called CPS (Classroom Performance System) to play a Jeopardy!-like game. Students broke into teams and each team used a remote-control “buzzer.” Questions and scores were projected onto a large screen and students competed with each other to score the most points. Interestingly, I found that students were often more concerned with learning the correct answer to a question they got wrong than they were with losing or gaining points.

This is a simple but effective example of gaming. Even with such a basic idea, I could see a palpable difference in student engagement when compared to the traditional “one-way” lectures or demonstrations.

Want More Advanced Gaming? Don’t Hate—Collaborate!

Now, some of you may be saying to yourselves, “All this is fine, but gaming has the potential to be so much more …” And you are certainly correct! Let’s take a look at some more interesting possibilities for integrating “knowledge quest” games with information literacy.

It is indeed possible to create more complicated, graphics-intensive, and networked games, but this requires strong programming ability and a dedicated amount of staff resources. Nevertheless, librarians can partner with computer science or engineering departments. Indeed, one of the most popular new curriculums in computer science departments is the burgeoning field of game programming. I am amazed at the number of fascinating graphics programming projects that are never applied to any real-world situations; they sit collecting dust on some campus ser­ver. Sadly, there is a remarkable amount of talent that is being wasted on cutting-edge graphics projects that no one ever uses or sees. I recommend contacting computer science professors who specialize in graphics and/or gaming and discussing the possibility of facilitating partnerships between librarians and interested students for library skills game programming projects. Furthermore, such partnerships could serve as a way for computer science and engineering students to create portfolios (which many game companies now require to get hired) while simultaneously contributing their talents for the good of the library and campus community.

Another opportunity to consider is partnering with larger, more developed “game research laboratories.” Some examples include the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois–Chicago and the Game Culture and Technology Lab at the University of California–Irvine. Contact these institutions to inquire about being included as a beta site for one of their grant projects. You may even want to pursue external funding sources from governmental agencies and philanthrop­ic foundations on your own.

Open Source Tools and Commercial Graphics Software

Finally, systems librarians, program­mers, and library technophiles have a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of a growing number of open source gaming and graphics toolkits. One example for game developers is the Open­GL high-performance graphics API. I recall working on a project in graduate school and using OpenGL to create a very simple “virtual world.” Other, more user-friendly commercial software suites for creating game-quality graphics include Maya and Softimage. Both are also used by architects to build “fly-through” computer animations of their buildings. While commercial software suites such as Maya are expensive and do require a significant amount of devotion to learning graphic programming fundamentals, they are more accessible to those without a computer science background. Other programming options include the popular Macro­media Flash and Java language. Again, some of you may be thinking that you do not have the time or interest in programming a game from scratch, but there may be some budding programmers among you who do have an interest in working with these tools.

Furthermore, I see many parallels between the open source gaming community and librarians. Both are governed by a set of ethics that places the greater good of the community above individual reward.

Finally, by partnering with students in computer science, architecture, art, or graphic design, it may be possible to attract a new, tech-savvy generation of gamer/programmers to the field of librarianship. This is just one of the many valuable residual effects of integrating game development with library and information literacy goals.

The Final Score

Hopefully I’ve presented you with some new ideas to pursue. Make no mistake about it: We are staring right into the face of a cultural revolution. Librarians are in a remarkable position to engage with this new generation of gamers. Otherwise, we risk living in a state of continued perceived obsolescence.

Keep in mind that it isn’t necessary to create a library version of the popular game “Grand Theft Auto.” A simple, even nonelectronic, game is a great place to start. Get the ball rolling, develop some partnerships, raise awareness and interest, and eventually it will be possible to create more complex games.

We should quit force-feeding information literacy to students on our own finicky terms. As Eli Neiburger, librar­ian and gaming advocate extraordinaire at Ann Arbor (Mich.) District Library, eloquently stated at the Gaming, Learning and Libraries symposium, “Libraries should be doing things to induce gasps of amazement!” By learning more about this phenomenon and by reaching out to the gaming community, we can teach vital information literacy and library skills in a powerful, and even (gasp!) fun manner.

Further Reading

Cote, Denise. “The online college library: an exploration of library services to distance education students.” Community and Junior College Libraries. 10 (2001): 61–77.

Procter, Jo. “Williams College Libraries’ Orientation Breaks All the Stereotypes.” Williams College News. 19 Jan. 2006. 1 March 2006.

Resources Discussed

Classroom Performance System (CPS):

Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois–Chicago:

Game Culture and Technology Lab at the University of California–Irvine:

Gaming, Learning and Libraries Symposium:


Macromedia Flash:



“Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources” (PDF):

The Shifted Librarian (Jenny Levine):


Ameet Doshi is resident librarian at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He holds an M.S. in information science from the University of Tennes­see in Knoxville. His e-mail address is

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