Carvers Bay (SC) Branch Library: Gaming the Way to Literacy

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If you thought gaming in libraries is only for the big-city systems, take a look at this library next to a corn field in rural South Carolina.

By Betha Gutsche

A new library for a new century

Innovation happens in the most surprising places. If asked which US library is pushing the envelope on introducing interactive computer gaming in public libraries, how many would look to the most rural, poor, and isolated corner of a county in South Carolina? And if informed that this corner of the library world has a 30% illiteracy rate, a 15% unemployment rate, a poverty level exceeding 30% with up to 90% of school kids eligible for free or reduced-rate lunches, and a meager 2% rate for library card registration, what odds would you give that it can even keep its doors open?

 

The new library opened its doors in May 2006. The corn field next door belies the sophistication of the technology within. Photos by Felicia Vereen of the SC State Library.

Although the brand new Carvers Bay Branch of the Georgetown County Library System has its demographic challenges, it also has some visionary leadership, strong community support, and a bit of prodding from the primary funders. When director Dwight McInvaill approached the Frances P. Bunnelle Foundation to help build the new facility, the grantors pushed back with a request for something more than just books—something more cutting-edge; McInvaill responded rapidly with the gaming proposal. Having only opened its doors for the first time on May 13, 2006, this infant library stepped immediately into the fast lane of technology with the aim of reaching a new generation of library users. Not only is the building designed to be “a reader’s haven” full of books, natural light, and comfortable chairs, it is a gamer’s heaven with 10 Xbox 360s, 8 dedicated Dell Dimension 9150 gaming PCs, an auditorium with a 120”screen and surround sound, and more.* That’s an intense concentration of high tech in a place with only 7000 residents.

Where’s the literacy?

Located next to the middle and high schools, the library is physically convenient for the Carvers Bay teens, but director Dwight McInvaill knows that it takes more than proximity to get the kids through the doors. Gaming is the key. The library has extended its hours until 7 PM most nights to accommodate the students’ schedules. However, McInvaill intends for the new library to have an impact on the low literacy and high dropout rates, so he’s applying a few rules to the video game lure, linking reading with gaming. In the spirit of the game, kids can aspire to different levels of accomplishment.

 

The gaming consoles are filled to capacity. The library extended its weekday hours until 8 PM in order to accommodate the teens' school schedules. Photo by staff member Beverly Smith.

Level one: Any individual can use the games for two hours/week (“Just enough to whet the appetite” says McInvaill.)

Level two: Extra gaming time is earned by joining the Gaming Club.

  • Joining requires:
  • a current library card
  • good standing (no serious misbehavior)
  • a commitment to checking out four items/month, two of which must be books

Level three: Once in the Club, points are accumulated to be eligible for additional gaming time, group gaming parties, special prizes (headphones, memory units, gift certificates), or use of the conference room with the 46" TV.

  • Points are earned by doing at least one of the following:
  • writing book reports
  • attending an after-school program
  • participating in a youth service organization
  • embracing other positive, self-improvement activities

Although all funds for the gaming program come from the Bunnelle Foundation, the efforts are augmented by an exciting collaboration with the school district and the youth services organization Service Over Self. The school is using part of the grant to offer enrichment classes on some unconventional topics like photography and music as well as providing courses in test preparation. Service Over Self is helping to coordinate everything and is offering students the opportunity to do community service with the possibility of earning scholarships for college.

A touch of reverse mentoring

 

Hired to set up and assist the gaming program, high school senior Truman Winn (third from left) puts 12+ years of gaming experience to good use. Photo by Paul Carter of the Georgetown County Library.

This is all very promising so far, but how can you guarantee that the games and equipment will be compelling enough to today’s very discerning teens? Enter Truman Winn, the high school senior hired as the Gaming and Technology Assistant for the Carvers Bay Branch Library. Winn thinks he’s in a teen dream job—getting paid to play video games; his employers think he’s the perfect candidate for the job. Winn beat out college grads and older applicants with more work experience because he had just the right mix of technical know-how, interpersonal skills, and thirteen years of deep gaming experience. After all, he’s been a gamer since the age of four! He helped the library select the equipment and the games and set up the networks, and now he works with the gaming patrons.

The gaming program is ramping up nicely. As soon as the library opened in May, 40 youngsters joined the Gaming Club out of a potential pool of 550 high school teens. A month later, the number was up to 60, with 30 % of them checking out books to fulfill their commitments. Approximately 90% of the members of the computer club currently are African-American male teenagers, a very important demographic group to engage in using public library services in rural Georgetown County. McInvaill anticipates that things will really pick up when school recommences in August. He is already noting the positive energy of the program. “Isn’t it great to see the excitement on the faces of these young men? They actually think that being in the public library is really cool, indeed!”

Indeed! Carvers Bay Library is playing for some high stakes here –significant increases in literacy and brighter futures for the residents of the area. McInvaill anticipates that things will really pick up when school recommences in August Beyond the door counts, the real measures of achievement of the program will only be revealed over time. In the meantime, we’ll be rooting for all of the players in this library success game.

[Editor's note: If you want to see what other libraries are doing with interactive gaming, check out the listings on the Library Success wiki.]

   

  • 10 Xbox 360s
  • 1 unit in the Conference Room, connected to the 46” LCD television and 5.1 Surround Sound audio system
  • 1 unit in the Auditorium connected to the overhead LCD projector with a 120” screen and 7.1 Surround Sound audio system
  • 8 units with High Definition video and audio signals, 2 wireless controllers, Dolby headphone stereo adapter, 4-port headphone distribution amplifier, and 2 headphones
  • 8 Dell Dimension 9150s Gaming PCs
  • With 2G memory, high-end graphics card, and a 20” wide aspect flat panel display
  • Coming soon: Dolby headphone stereo adapter, 4-port headphone distribution amplifier, and 2 headphones for each unit
  • 6 Children's Computers
  • Planned for near-term acquisition: child-sized computer carrels with special software configurations modeled after systems in use in other branches (provided by the Gates Foundation)
  • 120 Data Ports
  • Including strategically located CAT-5 cabling and allowance for future wifi ports Intended to provide maximum flexibility for regrouping of systems for LAN Gaming Parties

Article reprinted with permission from WebJunction. Originally posted on Aug 1, 2006. Publisher: WebJunction ©OCLC 2006

Gaming: More than Just Playing

When most of us think about “video games,” we tend to envision the stereotype of a 13-year old boy, huddled in front of a television screen in a darkened basement by himself. While there are certainly some gamers who fit this profile, it turns out that video games are a very social activity -- even more social than reading a book -- and they’re enjoyed by more than just teenagers.

In order to understand why our stereotypes about video games and gamers are as outdated as those of shushing, bun-wearing librarians behind a desk, we need to realize that the definition of gaming itself has become much broader over the last 30 years. And yes, it really has been 30 years since video games started going mainstream!

For example, “gaming” doesn’t just mean using a dedicated gaming console like the PlayStation or X-Box anymore. It can also mean playing games on a computer, on a handheld like the Nintendo DS or PlayStation Portable, on a cell phone, or on the internet. And in each of those formats, there are games available that you can play against other players in real-time, making the game a social activity you can do from almost anywhere.

This has broadened the types of people who play games to the point where teenage boys are no longer the largest group of online players. Who is in that group? Middle-aged women who play games like Tetris, Bejeweled, Bookworm, Shape Shifter and more, on the web, late at night, to relax.

Not only that, but 38% of all game players are women, and the average game player is now 33 years old. “In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31%) than boys age 17 or younger (20%).” So it’s not just that there are more types of games than ever before and that Americans are playing more of them, but there are more people in the “mainstream” population doing it.

When viewed through this lens, it’s easy to see why gaming suddenly seems to be everywhere, and, with the help of next generation consoles like the Nintendo Wii, why more people are interested in them than ever before. With its motion sensing remotes, the Wii lets players swing their arm to hit a tennis ball, bowl, swing a bat, wield a sword, or even throw a cow or skip rope.

In addition, the overwhelming majority of video games sold in 2006 (85%) were rated “E” (Everyone) or “E10+” (Everyone 10 years of age and up), which is just one reason why gaming and libraries are such a good fit. Another is that, as gaming becomes more and more social, it becomes a group activity that requires a bigger space. All of this is happening at a time when we have more gamers in the library than ever before and when we have more games to play than ever before.

Libraries can make gaming more engaging in the same ways they do that for books. They can provide a safe, non-commercialized environment for kids and families (anyone, really) to play together without being bombarded by advertising or pressured to buy things. Libraries are also a safe space in which younger children can play with and against older children (or even adults) in ways that simply can’t happen in the divided culture of our schools and in society in general.

Why should a library offer Dance Dance Revolution, the popular (and exertive!) arcade game that has users stepping on a dance pad in time to arrows moving on the screen? How does this serve the mission of the library? It does so the same way knitting groups, book discussion clubs, showing movies, craft programs, and even storytime do, as Eli Neiburger notes in his new book “Gamers…in the Library??”

“…libraries are all about content…. We’ve found how beneficial it can be to take the content our users would normally consume individually, at home, and make a social event out of that consumption. We’re adding value. Sure, Dad could check out and take home Who Took My Hairy Toe?, and read it at bedtime and that’s great, but it’s even better when parent and child can come to the library together, hear Shutta Crum read it her way, and laugh, smile, and be scared along with other parents and children.The added value is the quality of the storyteller, the distinct, engrossing experience, and the social interaction for kids and parents that at-home consumption of content does not provide.”

Recent research suggests that more than 75% of public libraries support gaming in one form or another, whether that’s letting folks play games on library computers, providing board games, hosting a chess club, or offering video game play, among other activities. This trend is expected to grow in 2008 when the Ann Arbor District Library opens up its online tournament software to all libraries for free. This means libraries across the country can organize local, regional, and even national tournaments, and players will be able to track their scores on a national leaderboard.

If your library doesn’t already offer gaming services, be sure to let them know you’d be interested in them providing some gaming events, whether you like board, computer, or video games.

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