Games folks on libraries: Susan Gold & James Portnow, the Global Game Gift

This month we’re joined by not one but two luminaries of the games world: Susan Gold and James Portnow. Their individual bios will speak more about them, but I want to highlight the thing they have in common: the Global Game Gift. Recently launched, this initiative aims to bring the audience and creativity of world-leading game studios to the work of global non-profits through week-long game jams aimed at producing short, PSA-style games that help communicate something about the non-profits’ work and then draw their audience to the organizations’ websites.

I’m highlighting the Global Game Gift because (a) it’s awesome; (b) it’s new; (c) it was the point of contact that got us these interviews (I provided some volunteer assistance along the way); and (d) it highlights opportunities for us in libraries. While the Global Game Gift is aimed at NGOs whose mission is worldwide, it could perhaps provide inspiration – and maybe even a working model – for collaboration with creators at a more local level. I’ll be following it with interest – and would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the two of them, both for the Global Game Gift and for their time!

Susan Gold

Susan Gold is Professor of the Practice of Game Design at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Susan was one of the founders of the Global Game Jam, the world’s largest game jam and one of the world’s largest grassroots creativity exercises, which has generated thousands of games in over 70 participating countries since 2009.  Along with James Portnow, she recently launched the Global Game Gift to partner AAA developers with non-profit organizations to raise awareness through the development of new games.

Thanks for your time, Susan! Tell us about your general experience of libraries to date.

I have so many library stories, growing up I didn’t have the internet, so I had to go to the library all the time. I remember having to learn the Dewey Decimal system and using card catalogs. But one of my favorite memories is when I was a freshman at the University of Iowa and found that they had original manuscripts from Kurt Vonnegut. He had been to the famed Writer’s Workshop and his work from his time was a part of the archive. I found the room they were located in and just sat in the stacks looking through everything they had. It was a total fangirl afternoon seeing his hand written notes, I was awash in his genius.  Libraries are so many things, but for me they are an oasis of knowledge, plethora of resources and opportunities for learning.

How you see libraries at this moment?

The modern library is in flux. For so many of us, the internet age means answers at our fingertips with no good reason to go to the library. You can find info by just accessing databases that were once only home to the library. I can browse catalogs of holdings in faraway locales, so I don’t even have to do a book request. I think modern libraries are trying to find where they can best service their communities, with each trying to find a niche that works for their patrons.

Where do you see libraries and games overlapping in future?

I’m really lucky, at Northeastern University I have the Digital Medium Commons located in the Snell Library. It is a whole floor of our library, and is comprehensive facility with PC/Mac workstations and set-ups for audio and video (green screen too) as well as tools for all sorts of multimedia projects. They have software for animation, 3D-modeling, GIS, CAD, and all the game-design software that we use in our classes. This allows faculty & students outside of our program and any visitors to create in the library. I like that it is not just allocated for students in special classes, but allows everyone to experiment with the tools and make games and other multimedia projects. It is a place where we can have collaboration across the university and where we hold the yearly Global Game Jam here in Boston. The space is open and allows people to “work across disciplinary boundaries to build complex simulation models and explore innovative solutions to real-world problems.” That’s what it says on the website at least. What is also cool is that it has 3D printing and recording studios and it is the type of thing that I think will increase entrepreneurship & indie development in our community. I can only see this as a positive way where libraries can create new ways of facilitating the needs of a modern patron.

James Portnow

James Portnow is the CEO of Rainmaker Games consulting agency and the Writer/Creator of the hit web series Extra Credits with over 300,000 subscribers on Youtube. James also channels his experience as a game designer and consultant in the educational field into the Games for Good initiative, which highlights the ways games do good for our society through a range of projects, from compiling bibliographies (ludographies?) of games that promote social good, to the Global Game Gift, which he launched in partnership with Susan Gold.

James, thank you too! What has been your history with libraries?

It may seem like a silly story, but when I was a young man, when I was in that awkward phase of trying to discover who I was and what I was passionate about in this life, I fell into a life long love of classics due to a card game and my local library.  I actually remember it perfectly to this day: I was maybe 13, my friends and I were playing Magic: the Gathering; someone flipped over a Frozen Shade, I leaned across the table to read it and on the bottom were written these words:

There are some qualities — some incorporate things,
That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.

– Edgar Allen Poe, Silence

There was a music, a life, to this language I hadn’t experienced before.  It was something more magical, more essential, than anything I’d gotten in my pulp fantasy and sci-fi novels.  So that day, I ran to my local library and found this book; I read it cover to cover… then I did the same with every book quoted in the game I loved so much.  I ended up getting my bachelor’s in Classics and to this day, more than my masters in Entertainment Technology, more than anything I’ve learned on the job, I use that love of classics, the love that libraries made possible for me, in my work and in my life to guide me on my way.

How do you see libraries at this moment?

I think libraries are in a period of adjustment, they’re re-finding their footing now that the internet has taken over much of their place as a repository of knowledge.  I have seen them start to undergo a metamorphosis into communal centers and places of learning where a love of reading and education can be shared.  To me this is excellent direction and an essential role for the 21st century.

Where do you see libraries and games overlapping in future?

Games can be used as an entry point, a way to get people engaged in literature or philosophy.  Many games use the great works as touchstones – as points of reference or central themes –  this can be used as a entry point into those works themselves.  Much as I was engaged by Magic to pick up books I would have otherwise never read, libraries can open up whole new worlds of understanding and expose people to the works that have shaped our world by relating them to something that the library-goers already love.

As much as I would like to see games in libraries, as much as I would love to see libraries be a place for critical analysis of the medium and discussion groups, even more would I like them to be a place where games can open up people’s passion for literature and ideas, and I think they can do so with no real cost, no major shift in stock or policy, so if I had one place I’d like to see games and libraries overlap, it’s there.

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