"These kids feel totally differently about the institution than they ever did before," Neiburger said, "because we're meeting them where they want to be rather than trying to shove classics down their throat."
Certainly there are skeptics, parents and librarians whose arguments are that games are degenerative and mind-rotting, "the same things that parents have been saying about their children's content for decades," Neiburger said. He always makes the point that people have said the same thing about certain books. Even now, plenty of people use the library to borrow trashy romance novels. Still, Neiburger said it sometimes pays to be careful and avoid more violent games when a program is starting out. "Parental backlash can kill a program dead," he said. "That's why our first game was Mario Kart. I mean, who can complain about Mario Kart?"
Last fall, Levine wrote an 80-page paper on gaming and libraries, simply titled "Gaming and Libraries: Intersection of Services." It's partly a how-to manual, with game ideas, cost ranges and sample materials. But there's no denying the paper's "anyone can do it" attitude, and it partly reads like a promotional brochure for the completely oblivious.
The meat of the paper is the section of case studies, where Levine researches gaming in school, academic and public libraries around the country.
It's harder to make the case for gaming at academic libraries, Levine said, because university students can easily gather in their dorm rooms. However, the same idea of bringing people to the library for a good time applies. "I don't think that's a bad thing for an academic library to do," Levine said.
College campuses also have the potential to use games for more academic purposes, and this is where Levine's paper diverges from the basic tournament model. In one case study, professors at James Madison University in Virginia are creating a game that teaches "information literacy" (librarian-speak for being able to find and process information). It's an extension of what games already do - present players with lots of data at the same time and require them to sort it out logically.
For Levine, helping people become better at finding information is the ultimate goal, and gaming isn't the only answer. She points out that there are plenty of interactive tools, such as board games, interactive fiction and online quizzes, that are better for teaching research skills to kids than lectures and textbooks.
"Librarians think teaching information literacy means standing up in front of crowds and talking," she said. "That just doesn't work anymore."
Even if Levine's motives are grander than Neiburger's, she still thinks it's important just to have kids show up at the library to play games. If it gets kids in the door, as Neiburger found, it can be a gateway to bigger things.
"Whatever needs they have in the future, if [gaming in libraries] gets them to think about the library, that's really my goal," Levine said.
Two books on the subject will be released this year. Beth Gallaway, a library consultant from New Hampshire, is the author of one, and Neiburger is writing another. "I think this is starting to hit some critical mass," he said.
For this July, Levine is organizing a second gaming in libraries symposium in the Chicago area. Neiburger will be there, as will Jenkins and Gee. While there's no data yet on how widespread library gaming has become, board game aficionado and Syracuse University professor Scott Nicholson has been conducting a survey and will present his results at the symposium. Levine hopes his study and attendance at the conference will give her a better sense of how big gaming in libraries has become.
"There's a growing group, but no formal organization of it," Levine said. "And I think that's what's going to change this year."
Jared Newman is a New York City-based journalist. He also writes a gaming blog at www.jarednewmabn.com/blog.