By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

Wouldn’t it be more instructive, helpful and convenient (for patrons, as well as librarians) if library orientations could occur individually, online, and whenever needed, rather than having to be arranged as in-person, group events within the facility?  

That possibility pushed School of Information Studies (iSchool) Associate Professor Scott Nicholson to propose–and be awarded a grant to develop–a prototype for academic libraries that creates a customizable alternate reality game for patrons to learn about key library resources on their own schedule.

Nicholson’s proposal, “Developing an Alternate Reality Game Toolkit for Libraries,” has been awarded $150,000 as a National Leadership Grant through the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Nicholson, a game designer and former academic librarian, now is beginning an 18-month effort to develop the prototype for this toolkit. Nicholson directs the Because Play Matters game lab at the iSchool, which will be the home for the project.  He will serve as principal investigator and work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Education Arcade, the American Library Association (ALA), and a team of iSchool students to create the tool.

The project has three phases: research, development, and testing. Initially, Nicholson said, he plans to coordinate with 10 academic librarians whom he has met through the ALA and who already have game experience.  He will lead this panel of experts in developing the user needs for the toolkit. The infrastructure will permit libraries to insert their own local content and resources to customize the gaming experience to meet local needs without having to build the entire educational game from the ground up, he noted.

Secondly, Nicholson will lead a team of iSchool students to design and develop a template infrastructure that will permit plugging in specific information about facility systems, resources, and places. Developers will create customizable game aspects based on themes, and the technology will generate puzzles around the informational content provided, Nicholson explained. Libraries can select various themes (such as a murder mystery, a scavenger hunt, or a futuristic game) as a story-based setting for their facility and resource orientations. The outcome will be an orientation activity that can be accessed online, from anywhere, at any time, as often as needed–and without library staff or patrons having to be present at the facility, according to the professor. 

Nicholson will be looking for students who are familiar and comfortable with game and puzzle design and development, as well as those who can do web development, graphics, and online media, to work on the project. Their efforts, and that of a graduate student to oversee the development project, will be funded by the grant. That work is slated for the spring and summer 2013 semesters.

The MIT Education Arcade will serve as a consultant to the game developers during the game-design phase. Professor Nicholson spent the 2011-2012 year as a visiting professor in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and became acquainted with the Education Arcade through that experience.

Field testing (phase three) will take place with participating libraries next fall. They will be asked to use the game toolkit during their orientation activities and provide feedback and evaluations regarding the experience. That information will be used to fine-tune the toolkit, Nicholson said.

If testing on this web-based technology goes well, additional funding could be sought to expand the concept to other types of libraries and beyond a web-based setting, Nicholson noted.  An eventual goal is to provide the technology to the ALA, so the organization can make the toolkit available to all member libraries. In addition, the technology is adaptable for mobile applications, such as tablets and smartphones, although those phases would require additional grant funding, according to Nicholson.   

The usefulness of the technology can be illustrated by the fact that many students have not been exposed to, or have been engaged with, an academic library before they arrive on a college campus, Nicholson said. Because those libraries are structured differently than high school and public libraries, “many students may have no prior exposure to those differences, even though they are expected to learn it.  In most classes, faculty assumes that students have an awareness of the library’s resources,” he noted. The reality, though, is that “most students would not have a good understanding of the variety of resources an academic library provides, both in person and online,” he observed.

The toolkit is designed to provide the ability for any library to customize the length of the game, add their own images and sounds, customize the level they want but also make it easy as possible to create something quickly.  Puzzle generators will take the information that a library plugs in and turn that into a puzzle. “That’s one of the things I look most forward to with this project is coming up with interesting puzzles and challenges,” Nicholson remarked.

“What’s interesting is that the tool kit can be used for any sort of subset of a library, too,” the professor said. If a public library has a genealogy library, “the facility could use this toolkit to create an alternate reality educational game for the specialty library, and even someday, to reference the materials needed for a specific course.”

Ongoing developments about this project can be found at the game lab’s research blog, Because Play Matters.