Three years ago, Eli Neiburger was just an IT guy at the Ann Arbor District Library in Michigan. It was no secret at work that Neiburger loves videogames – he has a Triforce tattooed on his arm – so when Erin Helmrich, a librarian who focuses on teens, wanted to bring gaming into the library, she turned to him for advice.

Less than a year and about $8,000 later, Neiburger and Helmrich had set up one of the first and largest gaming tournaments at any municipal library in the country. Kids came out of the woodwork to play Mario Kart: Double Dash and Super Smash Bros: Melee. Roughly a quarter of them had never been to a library before.

According to Neiburger, “One kid told us videogames are gateway drugs for libraries.” Now he gives presentations and holds sample tournaments for librarians across the country. He’s one of about a dozen crusaders who see videogames as a way of attracting kids, especially teenagers, to the library, and among them, Jenny Levine is considered the overlord.

A self-described “technology-training evangelist,” Levine works on internet development for the American Library Association, but recently the bulk of her work has gone into gaming. In 2005, she organized the first gaming in libraries symposium.

“These days, it’s a pretty easy sell to tell libraries they should have a blog, RSS or instant messaging,” she said. “But you talk about gaming, and so many times there’s just this immediate negative reaction.” She spends a lot of time getting librarians to try Dance Dance Revolution.

Levine started thinking more about gaming in 2005, when she attended a conference in Madison, Wisconsin, on the educational and social values of games. The keynote speakers were Henry Jenkins and James Paul Gee, both college professors who are well-known for their academic work with games.

Levine said she was “blown away” by the topic of education in videogames. Her stepson Brent, who was 9 at the time, was slumping in school, and the speakers’ ideas about games as educational tools resonated. “I did a blog post in which I talked about how I could see that Brent was not learning what he should be,” she said. “To me, schools spend too much time teaching things like handwriting, and the kids are barely learning science and math.”

Despite this revelation, the conference made no mention of libraries, and Levine couldn’t understand why. “I decided that in the age of No Child Left Behind, there’s just no way you can do this in the school without starting in the school library,” she said. Since then, she’s been reading about the subject, posting about it on her blog, The Shifted Librarian, and introducing gaming to her peers at conferences and workshops.

Modern librarians worry about appearing uncool in the eyes of teens – the stereotypical old lady in a knit cardigan, always shushing. Librarians fear if they can’t connect with young adults and children now, they’ll have a hard time getting taxpayer funding when those kids grow up. If getting their attention means sacrificing an emphasis on books in favor of a little fun and games, so be it.

“I’ve heard people say public libraries are here to foster lifelong learning,” Eli Neiburger says, “but the fact is the mainstream audience ain’t interested in learning.”

Neiburger stresses that libraries should be places for recreation, too. Their size, resources and virtually unlimited membership mean they can do gaming kids can’t do at home, like hold a Mario Kart tournament with eight TVs or broadcast the matches on cable access television. For that reason, Neiburger and others push harder for tournaments than for circulating games, a common practice with CDs and DVDs.

“That’s one way to do it,” Neiburger said, “but what I’m always telling people is it’s extremely difficult to offer a videogame collection that doesn’t look like crap next to what’s offered at Blockbuster.”

The tournament program in Ann Arbor is actually a gaming season that plays out over a few months, culminating in one final tournament. Prizes are given to the winners, and gamers who grow out of the teenage bracket have a chance to enter the Hall of Fame.

“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.

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