App Supported Games in the Library

By Emma Fish

As my library’s game collection cruised past its first birthday, I was faced with a question that presented a bit of a sticky wicket for me. We had a patron very enthusiastically donate several different versions of games from the Unlock! series, pleased at the idea of getting to share games their family loves with the library’s collection. This game series is app dependent. You get a set of physical cards that lead you through an escape room style puzzle game, and players must use a free app, provided by the game publisher, to activate a timer, see if they’re solving puzzles correctly, and get guidance through hints if they get stuck. I always enthusiastically welcome donations, although patrons know that a donation is not a guarantee that a game will be added to the collection. Here lies the question that consumed me for several days: does a game that has specific, and for some prohibitive, technology requirements have a place in my public library’s collection?

My library serves a small, largely rural, population. Many use our library specifically for the Wi-Fi, because it’s either unreliable or unavailable in their part of the county. A large percentage of our patrons are also part of a low-income population. When we started offering digital programming and increasing our online resources during the pandemic, the feedback we got was that much of our area just didn’t have the technology at home to be able to interface with these offerings. This game series was on my radar when I launched the collection with 11 games, but I chose to hold off in the first year. My worry with adding these games to the collection was that they would disenfranchise or alienate patrons who use the games collection specifically as a form of unplugged entertainment.

On the other hand, however, I know from experience that these games are very popular, and great for families to play together. They can only be played once per group (because you solve the puzzle as you play, and it only has one set solution). This works well in a library, where one game can be checked out by 30 groups, and it makes a good alternative to people who shy from purchasing a single use game that might not be to their taste.

With pros and cons swimming in my head, my first step was to go to my director. She weighed my points and agreed with my assessment, but pointed out that the game collection has grown large enough (40+ games) that theoretically there should be something for everyone. If this game doesn’t work for a patron because of their technological limitations, there are lots of other games we can suggest. Next, I reviewed the rest of our Library of Things collection to see if there was any precedence. We offer a number of STEAM kits, from circuitry to birdwatching. Some have optional support apps, but none required them.

Still on the fence, I turned to the League of Library Gamers Facebook group to see how other organizations handle app dependent games. The feedback was immediate, and very helpful. Some provided circulation feedback, saying how well the games had done in their areas. Others suggested different tags and disclaimers that they choose to add to make patrons aware of the technology requirements before checkout. Some just commiserated, and talked about the difficulty of these kinds of choices. All made me feel a little less crazy for weighing this decision so heavily, and made me glad to have such a wonderful platform available for a sounding board.

In the end, following the advice of my fellow game managers, we added the Unlocked! game to our collection, with a bright warning tag. With a precedence set, I feel more comfortable about seeking out similar games going forward. Difficult decisions come up every day in collection management, even with games. Having a community of Library Gamers to check in with eases so many of those daily concerns. And, after all of that, since being added to the collection Unlock! hasn’t sat on the shelf between check-ins for more than a day. So we must be doing something right.

Emma Fish is a Senior Library Assistant who manages a board game collection for the Lebanon Public Library in Lebanon, Oregon. The collection started in the late summer of 2020, and has grown several times over since being launched.

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