Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Get your game face on: Understanding and serving gamers

As fellow library marketing enthusiasts, I'm sure most you will agree that attracting new library users involves much more than a "build it and they will come" service mentality. In terms of gaming and gamers, it isn't enough just to plug in a Nintendo or two and hope that masses of people will flood your building. To attract this population we need to truly understand who they are and what value-added services we can provide to connect with them on their terms. Here, then, is my next post in my gaming series that takes a closer look at gamers and what we can offer them.

By the way, if you want an EXCELLENT primer on gaming and library services, you really have to read Jenny Levine's Library Technology Report, Gaming & Libraries: Intersection of Services. In fact, most of the demographic data I'm sharing with you comes from that report, but you'll learn much more by picking up a copy and reading it over yourself.

That said, who the heck are gamers? As Jenny and others point out, most of us are gamers of some form or another. If you play cards, checkers, video games, or Sudoku, you're a gamer. This fact flies smack dab in the face of common stereotypes that make gamers out to be basement-dwelling, socially awkward teenage boys. In fact, Jenny cites a CNN study that found women over 40 years old are the biggest group of online gamers! Furthermore, according to other reports, the average gamer is 33 years old, and 67% of American heads of household play video and computer games. What's so amazing is that gamers span in incredibly wide range of ages, ethnicities, educational backgrounds, and income levels. And you don't have to look far to find just how monumental a force gaming is in the marketplace. Just look at this recent article from GameSpot that says the game Halo 3 broke the all-time record for preorders in North America. If these sheer numbers and demographics don't get your marketing senses tingling with excitement, I don't know what will. This is definitely a significant segment of the population we librarians should be taking a close look at.

While it's all well and good to know who gamers are, it's often not enough just to circulate copies of Mario Kart (though it's definitely not a bad place to start...). Good library marketers know that to be really successful, we must take a look at gamers' underlying motivations and tailor our services to accommodate those needs and preferences. Through some reading and attending the GLLS event last month, I have some ideas about how we can add value to the gaming experience to make it worthwhile for this group to come to the library. Most of my conclusions are based on the exciting case studies and research I heard about that were extremely inspirational. Here are my thoughts, but I also welcome comments from experienced librarian-gamers who have other insights:

  • Scale: It's amazing what altering the scale of an experience can do to draw people in. This point was driven home by the gaming initiatives at GA Tech and Lori Critz's summary of their Unreal Tournament. The Tournament featured a gigantic screen (also pictured here) that attracted many students because it created an ambiance they couldn't duplicate in their dorm rooms. It's sort of like the difference between going to a park and going to Disney World. Disney does things big, and sometimes big (big audiences, big attractions, and big events) are better.
  • Competition: Surprise! Gamers like to compete. And librarians can help them do that. Just take a look at Ann Arbor District Library's homegrown tournament scoring and management tools. Tools include a leaderboard and blogs that allow gaming patrons to keep up with how they stack up. By facilitating competition, librarians are structuring meaningful experiences for patrons - a HUGE added value. Fortunately for library-land, AADL is making its GT System available free of charge in the near future, and even hoping to have multi-library synchronized tournaments!
  • Community: What sold me completely on gaming in libraries is how games draw diverse people together. I was amazed by Eli Neiburger's account of a senior citizen challenging young patrons in DDR Tournament. (Apparently, he was a big hit). To my mind, libraries are not only great at bringing diverse groups together, but doing so is a responsiblity. Community is also an added value because it's not something that many people can find easily, but it's something that most people seek.
  • Fun: Ok, this is an obvious one, but fun can be a major attraction. Fun doesn't just happen though (I wish it did! And students in my library instruction classes probably do too! ;-) ). Fun, it turns out, is the result of planning and structure. Consider an article by my #1 librarian hero and the reason I got into reference work, Lisa Norberg. Lisa's article, Play Matters: The Academic Librarian's Role in Fostering Historical Thinking, describes how to make research fun by creating digital sandboxes and other tools that allow students to explore primary resources in a risk-free, engaging format. Digital sandboxes and the like don't create themselves. Librarians need to think strategically about how to make using their services and resources enjoyable.
  • Validation: Even though we're not therapists, we have an opportunity to provide some psychological support to patrons by validating their interests and hobbies. At the Symposium, I heard story after story about how just by offering games instead of chastizing patrons for playing them, librarians turned disgruntled youth into fervent library fans. In large part this is because by supporting activities like gaming, librarians give those people who engage in them the recognition and approval that they may not be getting elsewhere.
  • New Perspectives: If you haven't heard of Big Games, do yourself a favor and check out Gegory Trefry's talk from the Symposium. Basically, Big Games move games from boards and TV screens to real-life environments, even entire citites. Trefry talked about how libraries themselves could become gaming grounds where patrons could search for codes in books, for example. This point is related to the previous one about scale, but Big Games and related activities are more than just big - they force people to look at everyday objects and places in new ways. Framing environments in new ways is a value-added service (it's tough work and loads of planning!). Portraying the familiar in unfamiliar ways is a great way for librarians to attract gaming audiences.

My next post on this topic will be about how gaming principles can be applied to designing quality library services, and it will appear, appropriately enough, on the Designing Better Libraries blog. In the meantime, let me know what you think: How can we add value to library services for gamers?

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