Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services

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.

Seth Priebatsch: The game layer on top of the world

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.

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world


19 thoughts on “Applying Game Dynamics to Library Services”

  1. I’ve been chewing on ways to apply game dynamics to library-based maker spaces. It seems like a good fit in that almost all of your thought experiments would work.

    Completing simple projects that use basic tools can “unlock” more complicated projects and tools and show overall skill progress. Mastering skills could unlock the ability to teach basic skills to others, which could be a way to earn currency (like materials or time at the laser cutter).

    This not only gives in-game recognition but builds community between people. When you can see who’s good with one set of tools, that’s the person you want to teach you. If you have a project idea, you can get a quick idea of what badges you might need to earn to create it (i.e. what tools you need to know how to use). And getting to teach others is a big confidence boost and helps you learn tools/skills in a deeper way while you support new users.

    I also think that failure is an important part of gameplay. If you throw yourself against World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros for hours and never make it through, you don’t win an award for hours played. Every action doesn’t earn credit. If I ran a bunch of searches in the library’s catalog, couldn’t find the book I wanted, and leveled up anyway, I’d have a very low opinion of that status. So it’s good to pay attention to what people are already motivated to do. Reward them for stretching, for accomplishing something significant or contributing to the community.

    That’s my two cents. :)

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for the comment! That playing Super Mario Bros for hrs without making progress sounds familiar, haha :) I agree with you that the reward would be meaningful only when the task is challenging. But it should be also achievable with some efforts to hook people in. So there is a delicate balance to strike. Also for more challenging tasks, it should be clear what type of effort is required to make progress not to discourage people. (There gotta be good clues so that people can feel that they are on track.)

      I also like your comment on the social aspect of learning, which I couldn’t cover in this post but the gameplay can certainly create and facilitate. How to channel people’s motivation to something productive without losing the fun aspect of a task would be key to success in applying game dynamics to library services.

  2. It is important to be careful in applying reward-based gaming systems to library services. Much of gamification is based upon external rewards for motivation.

    It is a tempting tool, and I would urge anyone considering using these tools to do more research on the potential long-term harm they can do if used incorrectly.

    External rewards are easy to use. Educational research on motivation by Deci and Ryan tell us that if we use external rewards in a way that users perceive as controlling, then we undermine internal motivation.

    To put that into libraryspeak:
    If we give users a reward for reading, then we hurt their internal motivation for reading. Instead, the user attaches a negative reaction to awards to their desire to read. If you then ever take away the reward, the user is less likely to want to read than before the rewards were given.

    According to this research, if we have reward-based summer reading programs for kids, then we will harm the desire for many of those kids to continue reading as teenagers once they outgrow summer reading.

    The typical use of gamification in library is a gold-star program for everyone, so the risk is significant.

    I’ve been focused on this in my research, and have an article on how to use game elements in meaningful and responsible ways at

    1. Thanks for your comment, Scott. I will check out your article. While the distinction between internal/external motivation is interesting, I am sure external rewards can be designed to be a part of the process that allows one to discover and increase the internal motivation for a certain activity. But yes, being aware of the potential harm would be important. In reality, I would love to see a library program that could compel people to be engaged in library-related activities for purely external rewards. That would be unlikely to happen but would probably count as a great (addictive) game design in a sense! : )

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, I discovered about the library games after I wrote the post and it looks pretty interesting. I had a great time speaking to one of those who created the library game, Iman Moradi, soon after I posted this with several other librarians. And one of our ACRL TechConnect folks is planning to do an in-depth interview with Iman. So stay tuned! : -)

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