This is the story of Library Quest (iPhone, Android), the App That (Almost) Wasn’t. It’s a (somewhat) cautionary tale of one library’s effort to leverage gamification and mobile devices to create a new and different way of orienting students to library services and collections. Many libraries are interested in the possibilities offered by both games and mobile devices, and they should be. But developing for mobile platforms is new and largely uncharted territory for libraries, and while there have been some encouraging developments in creating games in library instruction, other avenues of game creation are mostly unexplored. This is what we learned developing our first mobile app and our first large-scale game…at the same time!
Development of the Concept: Questing for Knowledge
The saga of Library Quest began in February of 2012, when I came on board at Grand Valley State University Libraries as Digital Initiatives Librarian. I had been reading some books on gamification and was interested in finding a problem that the concept might solve. I found two. First, we were about to open a new 65 million dollar library building, and we needed ways to take advantage of the upsurge of interest we knew this would create. How could we get people curious about the building to learn more about our services, and to strengthen that into a connection with us? Second, GVSU libraries, like many other libraries, was struggling with service awareness issues. Comments by our users in the service dimension of our latest implementation of Libqual+ indicated that many patrons missed out on using services like inter-library loan because they were unaware that they existed. Students often are not interested in engaging with the library until they need something specific from us, and when that need is filled, their interest declines sharply. How could we orient students to library services and create more awareness of what we could do for them?
We designed a very simple game to address both problems. It would be a quest or task based game, in which students actively engaged with our services and spaces, earning points and rewards as they did so. The game app would offer tasks to students, verify their progress through multistep tasks by asking users to input alphanumeric codes or by scanning QR codes (which we ended up putting on decals that could be stuck to any flat surface). Because this was an active game, it seemed natural to target it at mobile devices, so that people could play as they explored. The mobile marketplace is more or less evenly split between iOS and Android devices, so we knew we wanted the game to be available on both platforms. This became the core concept for Library Quest. Library administration gave the idea their blessing and approval to use our technology development budget, around $12,000, to develop the game. Back up and read that sentence over if you need to, and yes, that entire budget was for one mobile app. The expense of building apps is the first thing to wrap your mind around if you want to create one. While people often think of apps as somehow being smaller and simpler than desktop programs, the reality is very different.
We contracted with Yeti CGI, a outside game development firm, to do the coding. This was essential-app development is complicated and we didn’t have the necessary skills or experience in-house. If we hadn’t used an outside developer, the game app would never have gotten off the ground. We had never worked with a game-development company before, and Yeti had never worked with a library, although they had ties to higher education and were enthusiastic about the project. Working with an outside developer always carries certain risks and advantages, and communication is always an issue.
One thing we could have done more of at this stage was spend time working on game concept and doing paper prototyping of that concept. In his book Game Design Workshop, author Tracey Fullerton stresses two key components in designing a good game: defining the experience you want the player to have, and doing paper prototyping. Defining the game experience from the player’s perspective forces the game designer to ask questions about how the game will play that it might not otherwise occur to them to ask. Will this be a group or a solo experience? Where will the fun come from? How will the player negotiate the rules structure of the game? What choices will they have at what points? As author Jane McGonigal notes, educational games often fail because they do not put the fun first, which is another way of saying that they haven’t fully thought through the player’s experience. Everything in the game: rules, rewards, format, etc. should be shaped from the concept of the experience the designer wants to give the player. Early concepts can and should be tested with paper prototyping. It’s a lot easier to change rules structure for a game made with paper, scissors, and glue than with code and developers (and a lot less expensive). In retrospect, we could have spent more time talking about experience and more time doing paper prototypes before we had Yeti start writing code. While our game is pretty solid, we may have missed opportunities to be more innovative or provide a stronger gameplay experience.
Concept to conception: Wireframing and Usability Testing
The first few months of development were spent creating, approving, and testing paper wireframes of the interface and art concepts. While we perhaps should have done more concept prototyping, we did do plenty of usability testing of the game interface as it developed, starting with the paper prototypes and continuing into the initial beta version of the game. That is certainly something I would recommend that anyone else do as well. Like a website or anything else that people are expected to use, a mobile app interface needs to be intuitive and conform to user expectations about how it should operate, and just as in website design, the only way to create an interface that does so is to engage in cycles of iterative testing with actual users. For games, this is particularly important because they are supposed to be fun, and nothing is less fun than struggling with poor interface design.
A side note related to usability: one of the things that surfaced in doing prototype testing of the app was that giving players tasks involving library resources and watching them try to accomplish those tasks turns out to be an excellent way of testing space and service design as well. There were times when students were struggling not with the interface, but with the library! Insufficient signage, space layout that was not clear, assumed knowledge of or access to information the students had no way of knowing, were all things became apparent in watching students try to do tasks that should have been simple. It serves as a reminder that usability concepts apply to the physical world as much as they do to the web, and that we can and should test services in the real world the same way we test them in virtual spaces.
Development: Where the Rubber Meets the Phone
Involving an outside developer made the game possible, but it also meant that we had to temper our expectations about the scale of app development. This became much more apparent once we’d gotten past paper prototyping and began testing beta versions of the game. There were several ideas that we developed early on, such as notifications of new quests, and an elaborate title system, that had to be put aside as the game evolved because of cost, and because developing other features that were more central to gameplay turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. For example, one of the core concepts of the game was that students would be able to scan QR codes to verify that they had visited specific locations. Because mobile phone users do not typically have QR code reader software installed, Yeti built QR code reader functionality into the game app. This made scanning the code a more seamless part of gameplay, but getting the scanner software to work well on both the android and iOS versions proved a major challenge (and one that’s still vexing us somewhat at launch). Tweaks to improve stability and performance on iOS threw off the android version, and vice versa. Despite the existence of programs like Phonegap and Adobe Air, which will supposedly produce versions of the software that run on both platforms, there can still be a significant amount of work involved in tuning the different versions to get them to work well.
Developing apps that work on the android platform is particularly difficult and expensive. While Apple has been accused of having a fetish for control, their proprietary approach to their mobile operating system produces a development environment that is, compared to android, easy to navigate. This is because android is usually heavily modified by specific carriers and manufacturers to run on their hardware. Which means that if you want to ensure that your app runs well on an android device, the app must be tested and debugged on that specific combination of android version and hardware. Multiply the 12 major versions of android still commonly used by the hundreds of devices that run it, and you begin to have an idea of the scope of the problem facing a developer. While android only accounts for 50% of our potential player base, it easily took up 80% of the time we spent with Yeti debugging, and the result is an app that we are sure works on only a small selection of android devices out there. By contrast, it works perfectly well on all but the very oldest versions of iOS.
Publishing a Mobile App: (Almost) Failure to Launch
When work began on Library Quest, our campus had no formal approval process for mobile apps, and the campus store accounts were controlled by our student mobile app development lab. In the year and a half we spent building it, control of the campus store accounts was moved to our campus IT department, and formal guidelines and a process for publishing mobile apps started to materialize. All of which made perfect sense, as more and more campus entities were starting to develop mobile apps and campus was rightly concerned about branding and quality issues, as well as ensuring any apps that were published furthered the university’s teaching and research mission. However, this resulted in us trying to navigate an approval process as it materialized around us very late in development, with requests coming in for changes to the game appearance to bring it into like with new branding standards when the game was almost complete.
It was here the game almost foundered as it was being launched. During some of the discussions, it surfaced that one of the commercial apps being used by the university for campus orientation bore some superficial resemblance to Library Quest in terms of functionality, and the concern was raised that our app might be viewed as a copy. University counsel got involved. For a while, it seemed the app might be scrapped entirely, before it ever got out to the students! If there had been a clear approval process when we began the app, we could have dealt with this at the outset, when the game was still in the conceptual phase. We could have either modified the concept, or addressed the concern before any development was done. Fortunately, it was decided that the risk was minimal and we were allowed to proceed.
Post-Launch: Game On!
As I write this, it’s over a year since Library Quest was conceived and it has just been released “into the wild” on the Apple and Google Play stores. We’ve yet to begin the major advertising push for the game, but it already has over 50 registered users. While we’ve learned a great deal, some of the most important questions about this project are still up in the air. Can we orient students using a game? Will they learn anything? How will they react to an attempt to engage with them on mobile devices? There are not really a lot of established ways to measure success for this kind of project, since very few libraries have done anything remotely like it. We projected early on in development that we wanted to see at least 300 registered users, and that we wanted at least 50 of them to earn the maximum number of points the game offered. Other metrics for success are “squishier,” and involve doing surveys and focus groups once the game wraps to see what reactions students had to the game. If we aren’t satisfied with performance at the end of the year, either because we didn’t have enough users or because the response was not positive, then we will look for ways to repurpose the app, perhaps as part of classroom teaching in our information literacy program, or as part of more focused and smaller scale campus orientation activities.
Even if it’s wildly successful, the game will eventually need to wind down, at least temporarily. While the effort-reward cycle that games create can stimulate engagement, keeping that cycle going requires effort and resources. In the case of Library Quest, this would include the money we’ve spent on our prizes and the effort and time we spend developing quests and promoting the game. If Library Quest endures, we see it having a cyclical life that’s dependent on the academic year. We would start it anew each fall, promoting it to incoming freshmen, and then wrap it up near the end of our winter semester, using the summers to assess and re-engineer quests and tweak the app.
Lessons Learned: How to Avoid Being a Cautionary Tale
- Check to see if your campus has an approval process and a set of guidelines for publishing mobile apps. If it doesn’t, do not proceed until they exist. Lack of such a process until very late in development almost killed our game. Volunteer to help draft these guidelines and help create the process, if you need to. There should be some identified campus app experts for you to talk to before you begin work, so you can ask about apps already in use and about any licensing agreements campus may have. There should be a mechanism to get your concept approved at the outset, as well as the finished product.
- Do not underestimate the power of paper. Define your game’s concept early, and test it intensively with paper prototypes and actual users. Think about the experience you want the players to have, as well as what you want to teach them. That’s a long way of saying “think about how to make it fun.” Do all of this before you touch a line of code.
- Keep testing throughout development. Test your wireframes, test your beta version, test, test, test with actual players. And pay attention to anything your testing might be telling you about things outside the game, especially if the game interfaces with the physical world at all.
- Be aware that mobile app development is hard, complex, and expensive. Apps seem smaller because they’re on small devices, but in terms of complexity, they are anything but. Developing cross-platform will be difficult (but probably necessary), and supporting android will be an ongoing challenge. Wherever possible, keep it simple. Define your core functionality (what does the app *have* to do to accomplish its mission) and classify everything else you’d like it to do as potentially droppable features.
- Consider your game’s life-cycle at the outset. How long do you need it to run to do what you want it to do? How much effort and money will you need to spend to keep it going for that long? When will it wind down?
Fullerton, Tracy. Game Design Workshop (4th Edition). Amsterdam, Morgan Kaufmann. 2008
McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World. Penguin Press, New York. 2011
About our Guest Author:
Kyle Felker is the Digital Initiatives Librarian at Grand Valley State University Libraries, where he has worked since February of 2012. He is also a longtime gamer. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on twitter @gwydion9.
Embedding the library in campus-wide orientations, as well as developing standalone library orientations, is often part of outreach and first year experience work. Reaching all students can be a challenge, so finding opportunities for better engaging campus helps to promote the library and increase student awareness. Using a mobile app for orientations can provide many benefits such as increasing interactivity and offering an asynchronous option for students to learn about the library on their own time. We have been trying out SCVNGR at the University of Arizona (UA) Libraries and are finding it is a more fun and engaging way to deliver orientations and instruction to students.
Why use game design for library orientations and instruction?
Game-based learning can be a good match for orientations, just as it can be for instruction (I have explored this before with ACRL TechConnect previously, looking at badges). Rather than just presenting a large amount of information to students or having them fill out a paper-based scavenger hunt activity, using something like SCVNGR can get students interacting more with the library in a way that offers more engagement in real time and with feedback. However, simply adding a layer of points and badges or other game mechanics to a non-game situation doesn’t automatically make it fun and engaging for students. In fact, doing this ineffectively can cause more harm than good (Nicholson, 2012). Finding a way to use the game design to motivate participants beyond simply acquiring points tends to be the common goal in using game design in orientations and instruction. Thinking of the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) principle from a students’ perspective can help, and in the game design we used at the University of Arizona with SCVNGR for a class orientation, we created activities based on common questions and concerns of students.
SCVNGR is a mobile app game for iPhone and Android where players can complete challenges in specific locations. Rather than getting clues and hints like in a traditional scavenger hunt, this game is more focused on activities within a location instead of finding the location. Although this takes some of the mystery away, it works very well for simply informing people about locations that are new to them and having them interact with the space.
Students need to physically be in the location for the app to work, where they use the location to search for “challenges” (single activities to complete) or “treks” (a series of single activities that make up the full experience for a location), and then complete the challenges or treks to earn points, badges, and recognition.
Some libraries have made their own mobile scavenger hunt activities without the aid of a paid app. For example, North Carolina State University uses the NCSU Libraries’ Mobile Scavenger Hunt, which is a combination of students recording responses in Evernote, real time interaction, and tracking by librarians. One of the reasons we went with SCVNGR, however, is because this sort of mobile orientation requires a good amount of librarian time and is synchronous, whereas SCVNGR does not require as much face-to-face librarian time and allows for asynchronous student participation. Although we do use more synchronous instruction for some of our classes, we also wanted to have the option for asynchronous activities, and in particular for the large-scale orientations where many different groups will come in at many different times. Although SCVNGR is not free for us, the app is free to students. They offer 24/7 support and other academic institutions offer insight and ideas in a community for universities.
Other academic libraries have used SCVNGR for orientations and even library instruction. A few examples are:
- University of California – San Diego uses SCVNGR for their orientations. They created a LibGuide specifically for their SCVNGR orientation where they also post the scoreboard and photos.
- Oregon State University uses SCVNGR for international student orientations to increase awareness and support the university initiative to increase the OSU international population from 5 to 10% of the student body.
- Boise State is using SCVNGR for instruction rather than a focus on orientations. They have provided information to students who then go on to create their own SCVNGR orientations as an assignment.
- University of California – Merced recently wrote about SCVNGR in their campus-wide orientations, incorporating other areas on campus into the library’s orientation. They decided to try out SCVNGR from UCSD’s positive feedback, but had some issues with student turnout and discuss possible reasons for this in the article.
How did the UA Libraries use SCVNGR?
Because a lot of instruction has moved online and there are so many students to reach, we are working on SCVNGR treks for both instruction and basic orientations at the University of Arizona (UA). We are in the process of setting up treks for large-scale campus orientations (New Student Orientation, UA Up Close for both parents and students, etc.) that take place during the summer, and we have tested SCVNGR out on a smaller scale as a pilot for individual classes. There tends to be greater success and engagement if the Trek is tied to something, such as a class assignment or a required portion of an orientation session that must be completed. One concern for an app-based activity is that not all students will have smartphones. This was alleviated by putting students into groups ahead of time, ensuring that at least one person in the group did have a device compatible to use SCVNGR. However, we do lend technology at the UA Libraries, and so if a group was without a smartphone or tablet, they would be able to check one out from the library.
We first piloted a trek on an American Indian Studies student success course (AIS197b). This course for freshmen introduces students to services on campus that will be useful to them while they are at the UA. Last year, we presented a quick information session on library services, and then had the students complete a scavenger hunt for a class grade (participation points) with pencil and paper throughout the library. Although they seemed glad to be able to get out and move around, it didn’t seem particularly fun and engaging. On top of that, every time the students got stuck or had a question, they had to come back to the main floor to find librarians and get help. In contrast, when students get an answer wrong in SCVNGR, feedback is programmed in to guide them to the correct information. And, because they don’t need clues to make it to the next step (they just go back and select the next challenge in the trek), they are able to continue without one mistake preventing them from moving on to the next activity. This semester, we first presented a brief instruction session (approximately 15-20 min) and then let students get started on SCVNGR.
You can see in the screenshot below how question design works, where you can select the location, how many points count toward the activity, type of activity (taking a photo, answering with text, or scanning a QR code), and then providing feedback. If a student answers a question incorrectly, as I mention above, they will receive feedback to help them in figuring out the correct answer. I really like that when students get answers right, they know instantly. This is positive reinforcement for them to continue.
The activities designed for students in this class were focused on photo and text-based challenges. We stayed away from QR codes because they can be finicky with some phones, and simply taking a picture of the QR code meets the challenge requirement for that option of activity. Our challenges included:
- Meet the reference desk (above): Students meet desk staff and ask how they can get in touch for reference assistance; answers are by text and students type in which method they think they would use the most: email, chat, phone, or in person.
- Prints for a day: Students find out about printing (a frequent question of new students), and text in how to pay for printing after finding the information at the Express Documents Center.
- Playing favorites: Students wander around the library and find their favorite study spot. Taking a picture completes the challenge, and all images are collected in the Trek’s statistics.
- Found in the stacks: After learning how to use the catalog (we provided a brief instruction session to this class before setting them loose), students search the catalog for books on a topic they are interested in, then locate the book on the shelf and take a picture. One student used this time to find books for another class and was really glad he got some practice.
- A room of one’s own: The UA Libraries implemented online study room reservations as of a year ago. In order to introduce this new option to students, this challenge had them use their smartphones to go to the mobile reservation page and find out what the maximum amount of hours study rooms can be reserved for and text that in.
SCVNGR worked great with this class for simple tasks, such as meeting people at the reference desk, finding a book, or taking a picture of a favorite study spot, but for tasks that might require more critical thinking or more intricate work, this would not be the best platform to use in that level of instruction. SCVNGR’s assessment options are limited for students to respond to questions or complete an activity. Texting in detailed answers or engaging in tasks like searching a database would be much harder to record. Likewise, because more instruction that is tied to critical thinking is not so much location-based (evaluating a source or exploring copyright issues, for example), and so it would be hard to tie these tasks and acquisition of skill to an actual location-based activity to track. One instance of this was with the Found in the Stacks challenge; students were supposed to search for a book in the catalog and then locate it on the shelf, but there would be nothing stopping them from just finding a random book on the shelf and taking a picture of it to complete the challenge. SCVNGR provides a style guide to help in game design, and the overall understanding from this document is that simplicity is most effective for this platform.
Another feature that works well is being able to choose if the Trek is competitive or not, and also use “SmartRoute,” which is the ability to have challenges show up for participants based on distance and least-crowded areas. This is wonderful, particularly as students get sort of congested at certain points in a scavenger hunt: they all crowd around the same materials or locations simultaneously because they’re making the same progress through the activity. We chose to use SmartRoute for this class so they would be spread out during the game.
When trying to assess student effort and impact of the trek, you can look at stats and rankings. It’s possible to view specific student progress, all activity by all participants, and rankings organized by points.
Another feature is the ability to collect items submitted for challenges (particularly pictures). One of our challenges is for students to find their favorite study spot in the library and take a picture of it. This should be fun for them to think about and is fairly easy, and it helps us do some space assessment. It’s then possible to collect pictures like the following (student’s privacy protected via purple blob).
On the topic of privacy, students enter in their name to set up an account, but only their first name and first initial of their last name appear as their username. Although last names are then hidden, SCVNGR data is viewable by anyone who is within the geographical range to access the challenge: it is not closed to an institution. If students choose to take pictures of themselves, their identity may be revealed, but it is possible to maintain some privacy by not sharing images of specific individuals or sharing any personal information through text responses. On the flip side of not wanting to associate individual students with their specific activities, it gets trickier when an instructor plans to award points for student participation. In that case, it’s possible to request reports from SCVNGR for instructors so they can see how much and which students participated. In a large class of over 100 students, looking at the data can be messier, particularly if students have the same first name and last initial. Because of this issue, SCVNGR might be better used for large-scale orientations where participation does not need to be tracked, and small classes where instructors would be easily able to know who is who in the data for activity.
Both student and instructor feedback was very positive. Students seemed to be having fun, laughing, and were not getting stuck nearly as much as the previous year’s pencil-and-paper hunt. The instructor noted it seemed a lot more streamlined and engaging for the class. When students checked in with us at the end before heading out, they said they enjoyed the activity and although there were a couple of hiccups with the software and/or how we designed the trek, they said it was a good experience and they felt more comfortable with using the library.
Next time, I would be more careful about using text responses. I had gone down to our printing center to tell the current student worker what answers students in the class would be looking for so she could answer it for them, but they wound up speaking with someone else and getting different answers. Otherwise, the level of questions seemed appropriate for this class and it was a good way to pilot how SCVNGR works, if students might like it, and how long different types of questions take for bringing this to campus on a larger scale. I would also be cautious about using SCVNGR too heavily for instruction, since it doesn’t seem to have capabilities for more complex tasks or a great deal of critical thinking. It is more suited to basic instruction and getting students more comfortable in using the library.
- Ability to reach many students and asynchronously
- Anyone can complete challenges and treks; this is great for prospective students and families, community groups, and any programs doing outreach or partnerships outside of campus since a university login is not required.
- Can be coordinate with campus treks if other units have accounts or a university-wide license is purchased.
- WYSIWYG interface, no programming skills necessary
- Order of challenges in a trek can be assigned staggered so not everyone is competing for the same resources at the same time.
- Can collect useful data through users submitting photos and comments (for example, we can examine library space and student use by seeing where students’ favorite spots to study are).
- SCVNGR is not free to use, an annual fee applies (in the $900-range for a library-only license, which is not institution-wide).
- Privacy is a concern since anyone can see activity in a location; it’s not possible to close this to campus.
- When completing a trek, users do not get automatic prompts to proceed to the next challenge; instead, they must go back to the home location screen and choose the next challenge (this can get a little confusing for students).
- SCVNGR is more difficult to use with instruction, especially when looking to incorporate critical thinking and more complex activities
- Instructors might have a harder time figuring out how to grade participation because treks are open to anyone; only students’ first name and last initial appear, so if either a large class completes a trek for an assignment or if an orientation trek for the public is used, a special report must be requested from SCVNGR that the library could send to the instructor for grading purposes.
SCVNGR is a good way to increase awareness and get students and other groups comfortable in using the library. One of the main benefits is that it’s asynchronous, so a great deal of library staff time is not required to get people interacting with services, collections, and space. Although this platform is not perfect for more in-depth instruction, it does work at the basic orientation level, and students and the instructor in the course we piloted it on had a good experience.
Nicholson, S. (2012). A user-centered theoretical framework for meaningful gamification. Paper Presented at Games+Learning+Society 8.0, Madison, WI. Retrieved from http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/meaningfulframework.pdf.
About Our Guest Author: Nicole Pagowsky is an Instructional Services Librarian at the University of Arizona where she explores game-based learning, student retention, and UX. You can find her on Twitter, @pumpedlibrarian.
In my last post, “Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services,” I presented several ideas for applying game dynamics to library services. After the post, I have received a comment like this, which I thought worthwhile to further explore.
- What about the risk of gamification – the fact that it can deprive people of internal motivation for serious activities by offering superficial external rewards?
We tend to associate the library with learning, research, scholarship, and something serious. By contrast, games make us think of fun. For this reason, it is natural to worry about a library or any library-related activities such as reading, studying, researching becoming frivolous and trivial by gamification. In an effort to address this concern, I will point out that (a) gamification is a society-wide trend (and as such, highly likely to become not so frivolous after all), (b) what to avoid in gamifying libraries, and (c) what the limit of gamification is in this post. The key to successful gamification is to harness its impressive power while being fully aware of its limit so that you won’t overestimate what you can achieve with it.
Gamification is not just a hot topic in libraries or higher education. It is a much bigger society-wide trend. In a similar way in which Facebook has evolved from a single website to practically ‘the’ social platform and layer of the real world with over 900 million active users as of May 2012, now a game layer is slowly being built on top of the real world. Just as the social layer effectively fused social elements into the world, the game layer brings gaming elements into reality. A game layer that we can compare to Facebook has not yet emerged. Nor is clear how far gamification will penetrate our daily activities. But we can imagine what a semi-universal social platform is going to be like from location-based smartphone apps such as Foursquare and Gowalla. Instead of building a virtual world for a game, these apps gamify the real world. Our mundane everyday activities in the non-game context turn into gaming opportunities for rewards like badges, points, rankings, and statuses.
But why apply game design elements to the non-game context in the first place? The short answer is that people are more motivated, engaged, and often achieve more in games than in the real world. Why are people better at a game than in real life? It is because games offer an environment intentionally designed to provide people with optimal experience by means of various gaming mechanisms and dynamics. Games make people perform better in the way the real world does not. It was in this context that a game designer and game studies researcher, Jane McGonigal, stated that reality is broken.”1 Gamification aims at extracting those game mechanisms and apply them to reality in order to make the real world experience more interesting and engaging.
Gabe Zichermann’s definition of gamificaion as “the process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems” expresses the goal of gamification well.2 In this definition lies a good answer to the question of why libraries need to pay attention to games and game dynamics. Game dynamics can raise library users’ level of engagement with library resources, programs, and services. They can help library users to solve problems more effectively and quickly by making the process fun. A good example of such gamification is the NCSU Mobile Scanvenger Hunt, which was described in the previous post here in ACRL TechConnect blog.
What to avoid in library gamification
Since games can induce strong motivation and spur a high level of productivity, it is easy to overestimate the power of game dynamics. Perhaps, everything we do will turn into a game one day and we will be the slaves of omnipresent games that demand ever more motivation and productivity than we can summon! However, not all games are fun or worth playing. Designing good game experiences is nothing but easy.
The first thing to avoid in gamification is poor gamification. Gamification can easily backfire if it is poorly designed. Creating a library game or gamifying certain aspects of a library doesn’t guarantee that it will be successful with its target group. Games that are too challenging or too boring are both poorly designed games. Naturally, it is much more difficult to design and create a good game than a bad one. The quality of the game – i.e. how fun it is – can make or break your library’s gamification project.
Second, one can over-gamify and make everything into a game. This is quite unlikely to happen at a library. But it is still important to remember that people’s attention is limited in amount. The more information we have to process and digest, the scarcer our attention becomes. If a library offers many different games or a variety of gamified experiences all at once, users may become overwhelmed and tired. For this reason, in pioneering the application of game dynamics to libraries, the best approach might be to start small and simple.
Third, a game that is organization-centered rather than user-centered can be worse than no game at all. A game with organization-centered design uses external rewards to increase the organization’s bottom line in the short term.3 Games designed this way attempt to control behavior with rewards. Once users feel the game is playing them rather than they are playing the game, however, they are likely to have a negative feeling towards the game and the organization. While a library doesn’t have the goal of maximizing profits like a business, which can easily drive a business to lean towards organization-centered gamification, it is entirely possible for a library to design a game that is too heavily focused on the educational aspect of the game, for example. Such gamification is likely to result in lukewarm responses from library patrons if what they are looking for is fun more than anything else. This doesn’t mean that gamification cannot make a significant contribution to learning. It means that successful gamification should bring out learning as a natural by-product of pleasant and fun experiences, not as a forced outcome.
Harnessing the power of game dynamics
Games are played for fun, and the fun comes from their being ‘not’ real life where one’s action comes with inconvenient real-world consequences. For this reason, when a goal other than fun is imposed on it, the game begins to lose its magical effect on motivation and productivity. It is true that games can achieve amazing things. For example, the game FoldIt revealed the structure of a specific protein that long eluded biochemists.4 But people played this game not because the result would be revolutionary in science but because it was simply fun to play.
It is probably unrealistic to think that every task and project can be turned into a fun game. However, games can be used to make not-so-fun work into something less painful and even enjoyable to some degree, particularly when we lack motivation. In his book, Game Frame, Aaron Dignan cites the story of tennis player Andre Agassi.5 Agassi played a mental game of imagining the tennis ball machine as a black dragon spitting balls in an attempt to smite him. He did not hit 2,500 balls a day purely because it was fun. But by making the grueling practice into a game in his mind and tying the game with his own real-life goal of becoming a successful tennis player, he was able to endure the training and make the progress he needed.
In applying game dynamics to library services and programs, we can take either of two approaches:
- The ultimate goal can be simply having fun in some library-related context. There is nothing wrong with this, and at minimum, it will make the library a more friendly and interesting place to patrons.
- Or, we can utilize game dynamics to transform a more serious task or project (such as learning how to cite literature for a research paper) into something less painful and even enjoyable.
Gamification with little investment
Gamification is still a new trend. A pioneering gamification app, Gowalla lost to Foursquare in competition and was acquired by Facebook last December, and it is yet to be seen how Facebook will put Gowalla to use. Another gamification tool, Budge is closing down at the end of this month. For this reason, those who are interested in trying a gamification project at a library may wonder if the result will be worth investment.
In this early stage of gamification, it will be useful to remember that gamification doesn’t necessarily require complicated technology or huge investment. For example, you can run a successful game in your library instruction class with a pencil and paper. How about rewarding your library patrons who write to your library’s Facebook page and get most “likes” by other patrons? Or perhaps, a library can surprise and delight the first library patron who checks in your library’s Foursquare or Yelp page by offering a free coffee coupon at the library coffeeshop or simply awarding the Early-Bird badge? In gamification, imagination and creativity can go a long way.
What are your gamification ideas that can engage library patrons and enliven their library experience without huge investment? Share them with us here!
- Jane McGonigal. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 3. ↩
- Gabe Zichermann and Christopher Cunningham. Gamification by Design: Implementing Game Mechanics in Web and Mobile Apps. (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2011), xiv. ↩
- The distinction between games with organization-centered design vs. those with user-centered is from Scott Nicholson, “A User-Centered Theoretical Framework for Meaningful Gamification,” (pre-print) http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/meaningfulframework.pdf. ↩
- Elizabeth Armstrong Moore, “Foldit Game Leads to AIDS Research Breakthrough.” CNET, Sep. 19, 2011, http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-20108365-247/foldit-game-leads-to-aids-research-breakthrough/. ↩
- Aaron Dignan, Game Frame: Using Games as a Strategy for Success, (New York: Free Press, 2011), 80. ↩
There is a lot of talk about games at libraries. Public libraries in particular have been active in incorporating games in their programs and collections. Even for academic libraries, gaming is no longer a foreign topic. The 2012 Horizon Report sees Game-Based Learning to be on the 2-3 years horizon for adoption. That is not a very long time away from the present.
I am not going to talk about games here, of which I am a rather poor player in general. Instead, I would like to talk about game dynamics and how they can be applied to library services. I am really late for writing about this idea, which I heard about a few years ago. But probably now is as good a time as any as the Horizon Report this year mentions gaming.
A light bulb in my head lit up when I listened to the TED talk, “The game layer on top of the world” by Seth Priebatsch during my commute. (See the video below.) There, he talks about the game layer as something that is being built now after the social layer that Facebook has pretty much established. Just as the social layer has fundamentally changed the mode of human interaction and the way of our lives as a result, Priebatsch sees a similar potential in the game layer.
What has attracted my attention in this talk about the game layer was not so much the game per se as the impressive power the game dynamics wield to human beings. Once you hear those examples of the game dynamics, their impact is immediately obvious. But until now, I haven’t had a conscious understanding about how successful well-designed games can be at providing people with such engaging and immersive experience.
According to Priebatsch, among those game dynamics are: (a) appointment dynamic, (b) influence & status, (c) progress dynamic, and (d) communal discovery. (He says that there are three more but he only mentions four in the talk.) Since he details what each of these dynamics mean in the talk below with clear examples, I am not going to repeat the explanation.
To simply put, these game dynamics are very powerful motivators for human action. Did you know that Farmville can change the behavior pattern of over 70 million people by simply changing a rule for how often a Farmville user needs to water the crop? The power of these game dynamics stems from the fact that they require meeting relatively simple conditions in return for attainable rewards. Games usually begin with simple tasks that award you with some goods and elevation in your status or level. Then gradually, the tasks become complicated for more challenging rewards. The game dynamics drive game players to plan and perform simple to complicated actions. These often motivate individuals to exert a significant level of diligence, creativity, and resourcefulness.
What is really cool about these game dynamics is that they are applicable to any human action in the real world, and not just in the gaming world. Sure, you can create a game to tap into people’s creativity and diligence. (In another TED talk, “Gaming can make a better world,” Jane McGonigal explores the possibility of harnessing the human energy and creativity spent on gaming to solve the real-world problems. See the video below.) But, you do not have to. You can just as easily embed these game dynamics outside the traditional game sphere. These dynamics tend to be quite effectively utilized in games. But they do not have to be restricted to online games.
So my question is whether these game dynamics can be applied to make library services more engaging and interesting to library users? Can libraries take advantage of these game dynamics to help library users to attain the goals that they themselves probably want to reach but often fail to?
Here are some of my thought-experiments applying game dynamics to library services.
- Provide level-up experience for library users.
Suppose your user logs into a library proxy system every time for browsing library’s databases, e-books, and e-journals. How about based upon the time spent and the number and frequency of log-ins, allowing the user to level up from ‘novice library user’ to ‘super researcher’? Of course, you would probably want to use way more appealing terms such as “Paladin level 20 Killer Ninja Researcher” instead of “Super Researcher.”
- Award some status and powers associated with library use that can be admired (with the addition of visible tokens for them).
Allow users to tweet, Facebook, and G+ their updated status and powers as they level up, so that it can be boasted to others. Status and power is meaningless unless it is looked up to by others in one’s own community. How about re-issuing library cards as in Judo with some sort of belt system: red belt, black belt, brown belt, white belt etc.? Add up some sleek mini-posters that celebrate some of those high belt status in the library space where everybody can see. Or even better something users can boast in their Facebook pages. It might just work to motivate library users to study more, read more, and research more.
- Show the progress bar in library catalog.
The progress bar makes you goal-oriented. It gives you satisfaction whenever you move the bar one notch to the right. It makes you feel that you are moving towards something good. Why not show the progress bar in the library OPAC? If a user run a search, show the progress! If a user selects a record in the search results, move one notch up in the progress bar. If s/he clicks holdings or the links in the record, how about showing the Happy Face or a Dancing Penguin for a second before moving on? Humans have such a soft spot for positive feedback that if a required action is simple and easy enough, they might just do it for fun.
- Color-code the status of checked-out books.
In the library’s “My Account” page, mark past-due books as red and newly checked-out books as green. Items that are about the midway of the check-out period can be in yellow. Or show it as an hourglass that loses its sand on the top part as you pass the due date of library books. This may make people more compelled to return the overdue items.
- Library currency to accumulate and spend?
Let users to boast taking out and returning books from the library to others. Maybe give them points per transaction? Social reading is already a big phenomenon. Combined with a library, it can create even more fun experience. Maybe it can be just like Gowalla or Foursquare. Maybe users can trace their reading history and find others with a similar reading pattern. How about letting library users to accumulate and spend library points (or currency) for coffee at a library cafe? Now some students may seriously start reading.
Game dynamics are significant because they can be used to build a foundation for our willing participation in a project for our own optimum performance. Libraries have been an indispensable means for individuals who aspire for learning, experience, and knowledge, and serving those individuals has been always a crucial mission of libraries. Game dynamics can be utilized to help libraries to serve such mission more effectively.
PS. Also check out the talk below by Jane McGonigal about her explanation regarding why people are so much more successful at games than at the real life and how we may perhaps harness that potential to solve the real life problems.
The academic world has been talking about gamification of learning for some time now. The 2012 Horizon Report says gamification of learning will become mainstream in 2-3 years. Gamification taps into the innate human love of narrative and displaying accomplishments. Anyone working through Code Year is personally familiar with the lure of the green bar that tells you how far you are to your next badge. In this post I want to address a related but slightly different topic: personal data capture and analytics.
Where does the library fit into this? One of the roles of the academic library is to help educate and facilitate the work of researchers. Effective research requires collecting a wide variety of relevant sources, reading them, and saving the relevant information for the future. The 2010 book Too Much to Know by Ann Blair describes the note taking and indexing habits taught to scholars in early modern Europe. Keeping a list of topics and sources was a major focus of scholars, and the resulting notes and indexes were published in their own right. Nowadays maintaining a list of sources is easier than ever with the many tools to collect and store references–but challenges remain due to the abundance of sources and pressure to publish, among others.
New Approaches and Tools in Personal Data Monitoring
Tracking one’s daily habits, reading lists and any other personal information is a very old human habit. Understanding what you are currently doing is the first step in creating better habits, and technology makes it easier to collect this data. Stephen Wolfram has been using technology to collect data about himself for nearly 25 years, and he posted some visual examples of this a few weeks ago. This includes items such as how many emails he’s sent and received, keystrokes made, and file types created. The Felton report, produced by Nick Felton, is a gorgeously designed book with personal data about himself and his family. But you don’t have to be a data or design whiz to collect and display personal information. For instance, to display your data in a visually compelling way you can use a service such as Daytum to create a personal data dashboard.
In the realm of fitness and health, there are many products that will help capture, store, and analyze personal data. Devices like the Fitbit now clip or strap to your body and count steps taken, floors climbed, and hours slept. Pedometers and GPS enabled sport watches help those trying to get in shape, but the new field of personal genetic monitoring and behavior analytics promise to make it possible to know very specific information about your health and understand potential future choices to make. 23andMe will map your personal genome and provide a portal for analyzing and understanding your genetic profile, allowing unprecedented ability to understand health. (Though there is doubt about whether this can accurately predict disease). For the behavioral and lifestyle aspects of health a new service called Ginger.io will help collect daily data for health professionals.
Visual cues of graphs of accomplishments and green progress bars can be as helpful in keeping up research and monitoring one’s personal research habits just as much as they help in learning to code or training for a marathon. One such feature is the personal reading challenge on Goodreads,which lets you set a goal of how many books to read in the year, tracks what you’ve read, and lets you know how far behind or ahead you are at your current reading pace. Each book listed as in progress has a progress bar indicating how far along in the book you are. This is a simple but effective visual cue. Another popular tool, Mendeley, provides a convenient way to store PDFs and track references of all kinds. Built into this is a small green icon that indicates a reference is unread. You can sort references by read/unread–by marking a reference as “read”, the article appears as read in the Mendeley research database. Academia.eduprovides another way for scholars to share research papers and see how many readers they have.
Libraries and Personal Data
How can libraries facilitate this type of personal data monitoring and make it easy for researchers to keep track of what they have done and help them set goals for the future? Last November the Academic Book Writing Month (#acbowrimo) Twitter hashtag community spun off of National Novel Writing Month and challenged participants to complete the first draft of an academic book or other lengthy work. Participants tracked daily word counts and research goals and encouraged each other to complete the work. Librarians could work with researchers at their institutions, both faculty and students, on this type of peer encouragement. We already do this type of activity, but tools like Twitter make it easier to share with a community who might not come to the library often.
The recent furor over the change in Google’s privacy settings prompted many people to delete their Google search histories. Considered another way, this is a treasure trove of past interests to mine for a researcher trying to remember a book he or she was searching for some years ago—information that may not be available anywhere else. Librarians have certain professional ethics that make collecting and analyzing that type of personal data extremely complex. While we collect all types of data and avidly analyze it, we are careful to not keep track of what individuals read, borrowed, or asked of a librarian. This keeps individual researchers’ privacy safe; the major disadvantage is that it puts the onus on the individual to collect his own data. For people who might read hundreds or thousands of books and articles it can be a challenge to track all those individual items. Library catalogs are not great at facilitating this type of recordkeeping. Some next generation catalogs provide better listing and sharing features, but the user has to know how to add each item. Even if we can’t provide users a historical list of all items they’ve ever borrowed, we can help to educate them on how to create such lists. And in fact, unless we do help researchers create lists like this we lose out on an important piece of the historical record, such as the library borrowing history in Dissenting Academies Online.
What are some types of data we can ethically and legally share to help our researchers track personal data? We could share statistics on the average numbers of books checked out by students and faculty, articles downloaded, articles ordered, and other numbers that will help people understand where they fall along a continuum of research. Of course all libraries already collect this information–it’s just a matter of sharing it in a way that makes it easy to use. People want to collect and analyze data about what they do to help them reach their goals. Now that this is so easy we must consider how we can help them.