Special guest post: Engaging with games the library way – Thomas Knowlton, NYPLarcade

Hi folks! From the Antarctic desert to the urban jungle, our third special guest takes us now to New York, NY, and Mid-Manhattan Library for another fantastic guest post, this time from Thomas Knowlton of the NYPL. Thanks Thomas!


One of the most exciting aspects of International Games Day (IGD) is the way in which it promotes game literacy and invites library patrons to join the conversation about games. At Mid-Manhattan Library, the day-long celebration is an opportunity for patrons to experience a new board game they’ve never played, try out a Playstation 3 or Steam for the first time, or even discuss synaesthesia in video games. This led me to wonder, “How could the public library provide a forum year-round for exploring and discussing games?”

In April 2012, I launched the NYPLarcade series at Mid-Manhattan Library, beginning with a four-week program highlighting the games of designer Jenova Chen, Creative Director at thatgamecompany. Chen had just released Journey, a downloadable title for the Playstation Network. Each event included a short 5 to 10 minute introduction of the game, as well as an opportunity for participants to the play the title, followed by a 15 to 20 minute guided discussion. Many of our discussions focused on Ian Bogost’s incisive article for the Atlantic, A Portrait of the Artist as a Game Studio, and Jenova Chen’s fascination with Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow.


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Atmospheric horror in spooky fairy story LIMBO (Playdead, 2010)


For the next program, Horror Games, I focused on a variety of horror-themed video games, including Playdead’s LIMBO (a Danish game inspired by Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart and Tove Jansson’s Moomin series), and experimental, free-to-download games like Slender: The Eight Pages, Hide, and SCP-087. Focusing on a genre allowed the discussions to consider related media: the Lindgren book mentioned above, horror movies, and internet lore such as “creepypasta” and the SCP Foundation.

International Games Day 2012 was a great opportunity to build on the video game programming the Library hosted over the year and promote upcoming NYPLarcade events as well. Last year we expanded our schedule and offered a rotating program of four music-themed video games throughout the afternoon—ranging from rhythm game Rock Band Blitz to synaesthetic racer Dyad. One of the highlights of the event was talking with participants about the selected titles and about games and gaming platforms in general: “What other synaesthetic games have you played?” “I’m actually designing a game with similar mechanics to BIT.TRIP BEAT.” “On which console is Rez available?”


Ambient landscape exploration in Proteus by Ed Key & David Kanaga (2013)

After IGD, I was eagerly reading through many of the year-end gaming lists, which inspired the idea for the NYPLarcade 2012 Video Game Showcase—a series of events featuring six video game titles from 2012 that were not covered by NYPLarcade that year. The Showcase highlighted some of my favorite games from the past year—prominent independent releases like Papo & Yo and Sound Shapes, along with smaller, inventive titles like Super Hexagon, Dys4ia, and Proteus. The series drew a lot of attention to the curatorial aspect of library game programs—many of the participants mentioned they had been meaning to play titles like FTL: Faster Than Light and Hotline Miami, but the Library provided them with the opportunity to try them out. Polygon, the video game news site, posted a great article about both the Showcase and NYPLarcade titled “New York Public Library Adds Video Games to its Film and Book Discussion Groups”.

 This Spring, NYPLarcade featured a five-week, chapter-by-chapter play-through of Spec Ops: The Line, developed by Yager and published by 2K Games. The game has a provocative, yet ambiguous narrative inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which is told through relatively self-contained, linear gameplay – making it a perfect fit for this program’s format. It was our first time playing a larger budget, mainstream release. It was also our first time discussing a single game over a multiple-week period, which allowed us to have a deeper discussion about the game’s design and gave us an opportunity to utilize Brendan Keogh’s book-length treatment of the game, Killing is Harmless.


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Gung-ho combat action that questions its own premises in Spec Ops: The Line by Yager (2012)


If you are interested in starting a game program at your library, the three most important things I’ve learned from my experience with NYPLarcade are:

1) Play and discuss a wide variety of games. Although it seems like the most popular and best-selling games will draw the biggest crowds, it’s often the niche titles and experimental releases that attract gamers and non-gamers to library events and provoke the most interesting conversations among participants.

2) Pick a theme. In my experience, it’s essential to pick a theme (game designer, genre, era, etc.) for each series, which naturally lends itself to compare/contrast questions and helps draw larger audiences. While digital distribution has helped to diversify the selection of games, as it offers an enormous variety of new releases, curating these into series can help patrons draw connections between games as well as discover new titles they enjoy.

3) Make your library gaming program unique. I often think of the advice given by Eli Neiburger (Ann Arbor District Library)—that the key to successful gaming programs is to create something that patrons can’t find anywhere else. This could be as simple as offering a forum for 30 people to all play and discuss a single game (not something they are likely to find at home in their living room) or it could be as complex as inviting local designers to demo and talk about their games.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or are interested in starting a similar program at your library. You can reach me by email at thomasknowlton@nypl.org or on Twitter at @thomasknowlton.

Thomas Knowlton is a senior librarian at New York Public Library. He holds a Master of Arts in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Rutgers. Over the past 10 years, he has curated a variety of independent, foreign, and cult film series at the University of Georgia and New York Public Library. His most recent project, NYPLarcade, offers participants the opportunity to play and critically discuss video games in a public library setting and has been featured on Polygon, Gamasutra, and NPR.

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