Conference Report: Games and Gaming at ALA Annual 2017

This year’s ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, Illinois, was brimming with opportunities to experience and learn about games. The Games and Gaming Round Table (GameRT) started with Escape to the Library, a pre-conference about escape experiences and breakouts in the library. Attendees at this sold out event received an overview of escape rooms and breakouts, experienced three different custom breakouts, and received guidance in approaching the design process. Three custom breakouts were constructed by three different types of libraries: public, public school, and academic.

In The Lab, created by Brian Mayer and Liesl Toates of the School Library System of the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, attendees find themselves in a backroom confronted by the ghost of a professor who passed away unexpectedly from his work on an ancient, but deadly virus. Players worked their way through several stations tracing the history of the virus as they retrace a dig journal through the earth’s geographic layers, sequencing and extracting key glycoproteins from the viral envelope and constructing electron shells from clues to help isolate the key additive element for constructing the antiviral medicine.


In Denton Haunts, created by the University of North Texas Media Library, attendees were led through the city of Denton, Texas by a ghost dog looking for her master. This breakout required players to use library resources and original documents to solve puzzles related to local history. Players solved puzzles that required deciphering maps, searching newspaper stories for information about missing persons, searching digital records, and using touch to read braille. In the end, players were successful in reuniting the loyal dog with her master, Blind Sheriff Hodges.

In the Gray Man Breakout, an escape room created by Donald Dennis of the Georgetown County Library System and the Games in Schools and Libraries Podcast, participants learned about South Carolina local history. They did this as they solved a scenario related to the Gray Man of Pawley’s Island, the spirit of a man who died racing a great storm so he could be with his beloved when the hurricane made landfall. Seeing him on the beach is thought to be a warning about the approach of a perilous hurricane.

All 11 of the Gray Man Breakout puzzles were based on South Carolina history; in some cases real and in others folklore. The story started with the Goose Creek Men a travelogue and maps hidden in lanterns. The puzzles eventually revealed how both cotton and indigo became important crops due to their seasonality, the difference between doubloons and pieces of eight, the historical game of Hazard using dice created from musket balls and how eggs may have been used to pass secret messages. Not all of the puzzles related to colonial South Carolina; participants looked even further back into the history of our local indigenous tribes, the grass beads they created, and the shell middens which have been in use for thousands of years.

Time flew past as each group moved through the three scenarios which led to a final clue that unlocked the rest of the presentation. Participants left with hands on experience of the value of escape rooms and breakouts for immersive learning.

ALA Play
ALA Play went off with a bang at the Hilton Chicago on Friday night. This free event featured game publishers and distributors who ran demos and open play of many popular and upcoming titles.

Asmodee North America was there previewing the upcoming expansion for Splendor as well as titles from their Unlock Series. Paizo was also previewing their highly anticipated Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Wizards of the Coast had 10 table league play with prizes and featured the newest release Amonkhet. There were giant versions of Word Winder and Tsuro. Also on hand were Northstar Games, Set Games, Haba, Konami, Renegade Games, Arc Dream, Gigamic, and Looney Labs.

One of the hottest areas was the Paint and Take area run by PHD and Ninja Division Games, where attendees go to learn how to paint game miniatures and were able to take those home with them.

Breakout Edu was also on hand to run table escape experiences for attendees to hone their puzzle solving skills.

A new addition this year’s ALA Play was a STEM and Maker playground. Bloxels was on hand with an 8-foot Bloxels building board and speed building competition with prizes. Also featured was 20 tables of resources and activities including:  Sphero, Dash and Dot, Chibitronics, Ozobot, AR/VR Gear, littleBits, LightUp, Twenty One Toys, Osmo, Rokenbok Education, Squishy Circuits, Brown Dog Gadgets, SAM Labs Modular Robotics, Hopscotch, Terrapin, Primo Toys, Little Robot Friends, 3Doodler, Robo 3D, Inventables, ABC Mouse.

On the Exhibit Floor
Breakout Edu, a GameRT booth guest, ran an escape room experience, The Mysterious Library Box, in the exhibit hall next to the Gaming and Graphic Novel stage every half hour. The slots filled up fast! Librarians in groups of 10 had to help the librarian in Monowi, Nebraska (population 1), save her library.

Game publishers, Paizo, Ninja Division, Northstar Games and PHD Games ran demos in the Gaming Lounge during exhibit floor hours.

Saturday Conference Sessions
GameRT co-sponsored a session with ALCTS on Enhancing Discovery of Unique Collection: Get Ahead of the Game. This presentation, with about 80 attendees, discussed the use of standards, discovery layers, facets, controlled vocabularies, and genre terms to meet users’ needs when cataloging a large collection of tabletop games.

The GameRT presentation Keywords to Mastery Game was a hands-on workshop that encouraged librarians to use an active learning approach to discover research topics. Attendees worked to build and play their own low-tech game created to help students gain keyword and natural language processing skills for database searching.





GameRT Sharing Sessions
Sunday gave attendees another opportunity to learn about how libraries manage their collections during the GameRT Sharing Sessions in the Gaming Lounge on the Exhibit Floor. These four sessions were:

  • Further Conversations on Escape Experiences allowed attendees to learn how to use escape experiences in your library to engage your patrons.
  • Teen Driven Game Programming gave tips and tricks for a successful teen run gaming program.
  • Enhancing Discovery of Tabletop Games discussed best practices for providing access to tabletop game collections.
  • Using LibGuides to Promote Your Game Collection introduced librarians to using libguides to make game collections more visible.

Tabletop Games 101
A panel of game industry publishers and distributors (Sito Sanchez of PHD, Anthony Boyd of Ninja Division, Yumi Hoashi of Yuh-Gi-Oh, Michael Parker of Alliance distributors) alongside Donald Dennis of The Georgetown County Library System and the Games in Schools and Libraries Podcast held a lively introduction to tabletop games on Monday morning at the Graphic Novel/Gaming Stage.  Pierce Watters of Paizo Publishing roamed the floor with the mic so attendees could ask questions.

The panel managed to cover a lot of useful information over course of the session. Not only did they hit the basics like “what are the different kinds of games” but they also discussed a variety of ways to use games at the library. The ideas included integrating games into existing library activities, creating game-centric programs, and even how publishers and distributors can assist your library to meet it’s gaming goals. Also, here were some great questions from the audience that helped broaden the scope of the discussion. But the topic was too big for just one session, once the presentation was over the conversation continued at the Games & Gaming RT lounge. It was a great session for librarians just getting into games, as well as gamer librarians looking to bolster their game programming.

Overall it was a banner year for GameRT at the ALA Annual Conference. Be sure to add next year’s conference in New Orleans, Louisiana to your calendar. GameRT will be there to help you start, use, and manage your library’s game collections.

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