Special Guest Post: Scott Mason, Perton Library, South Staffordshire, UK

Hi folks! Today we’re holding off on our monthly Game News post a little. This last weekend was Gen Con, the biggest tabletop gaming convention in the US, so we’re aiming to provide some coverage from folks who attended – once they’ve had a chance to get settled back in! (If you made it, we’d love to throw your perspective into the mix – be in touch!) Meanwhile, here’s a guest post from a very energetic young chap from the UK talking about how – in true gamer fashion – he overcame obstacles and solved problems to hold a highly successful International Games Day in the UK before the day even was officially International. Take it away, Scott!

My name’s Scott Mason and I’ll be your guest writer today, talking about how I’ve been spending the last few years helping to bring IGD@yl to the UK ^_^. I’m 25, live in South Staffordshire, England and I work for Staffordshire Libraries, currently as the Supervisor for Perton Library (but I’ve been here in one job or another going on 7 years now!).

Gaming has always been a big part of my childhood and something that has grown with me to become a real passion of mine. A lot of people always give me strange looks when I describe ‘games’ that way, but to me, it’s just another medium the same as books, film, music or art and when it’s perfectly acceptable to love each of those as much as people do, I hold no shame in my love for games.

We all play games from birth, testing the rules and limits around us. It’s part of what learning as a human is, only when we’re younger we call it ‘play’. But I’m starting to sound a little pretentious[1], so I’ll start from when I was 5, as that’s when I had my first games console. I think it was my 5th birthday rather than Christmas, I woke up to this thing called a ‘Mega Drive’! It came with 2 games, Altered Beast and Quackshot, and I loved it! First school break times then usually consisted of discussing games with mates and swapping the occasional cart (back in the days before DRM was even a twinkle in game publishers’ eyes).

Right now, my favourite part of computer games is seeing the narrative quality of the medium improve as much as it is. I won’t tell you the amount of games that have had me crying in the last 2 years. When I was much younger though, it was all about sharing those games with mates. Huddled around a Gameboy link cable for hours trying to get all three starter Pokemon on Blue and Red versions. Seeing which of me and my mates can run through Sonic 3 & Knuckles the fastest. Hooking up the light guns to the Sega Saturn and blowing through Area 51. Introducing my Dad to Doom, playing till midnight and my first time trying Warhammer 40K with him. The day me and an old friend Ashleigh spent a solid day fixated on finally playing Resident Evil 3: Nemesis from start to finish. Discovering Xbox Live and the countless hours spent with ‘The Lads’ on Halo 3’s Team playlists. Even more recently (and I mean at aged 22), rediscovering Yu-Gi-Oh! and realising that the best thing about gaming as a young adult is you can actually afford whatever you want! Not that it lasted very long. You know, the costs of independence and all that. I’m sure you can see that I have a long history with games. Mostly computer games to be honest, but with a good amount of board, card and table top games in between.

But what does this history have to do with Libraries?

Well, my first job here was as a Saturday assistant when I was 17. It was only my second job and I won’t lie, I was in it for the money. I was quite an avid reader until I hit about 9/10 years old, but with the move to Middle School and more homework mounting up, I have to say that out of the hobbies and interests I had, books got the chop. I’ve always read every day, but for many years, it wasn’t with printed fiction. I played a lot of text heavy RPGs which, as we all know in the 90s, voice acting was still quite rare. I read magazines, comics/graphic novels, textbooks and a few years later when we got our first family PC with Internet access, I spent a lot of time reading on the web. I still do now. Not to mention all the reading I do for Uni. Books though? Fiction in physical form? Right now I might finish one a year.

But that’s OK!

A lot of customers I deal with at work always say it must be lovely to work in a library, and really, it is. But not because I love books. It’s because I love learning. My skill set is not based around being well-read or having a knowledge base full of books to recommend, it’s based on acquiring information and problem-solving. I don’t need to know what books to recommend because I have the skills and resources to find that out myself. I don’t need to know the answer to every problem because I have the skills and am willing to try solve whatever is thrown at me.

Where did I get those skills and that willingness?

Playing Games.

We say it ourselves, “Libraries are more than just books,” and it’s true. I don’t really see the modern library as primarily a repository for books anymore. You go to the gym to keep your body fit. You go the library to keep your mind healthy. Be it reading a book, joining a club, taking a class or just talking and sharing your experiences about what you know with other people in the oldest public forum, you’re expanding on what you can do by taking in information, testing yourself and then applying it to do something you couldn’t do before. Something games have been making fun for centuries. So if we have space for all these other things in libraries, then surely they have space for games?

Honestly, games and libraries are not two things I’d have ever put together when I first started working here. Working in a library was my job and playing games was my hobby, that was it. Then, sometime in early 2011, my line manager at the time (who knew I was very into gaming) told me about this training course coming up called “Across the Board: Gaming in Libraries” and asked if I’d be interested. Naturally, I jumped on it quicker that a head crab (I hope you get the reference!).

The day was great. We all talked about the things that make games special and how libraries can be the place for them. Naturally, we played games and the focus was predominantly on board and card games, but I think that was most likely due to the logistics of carting around TVs and enough controllers. I came away from the day excited, but I knew I had a lot of thinking to do. I thought to myself, getting games into a library is the easy part. It was selling the idea that would be the challenge. None of our libraries in Staffordshire have even lent games out in years, so with no real prior association, how do I go about getting people involved in bringing together two seemingly diametrically opposed ideas like a loud “kids’” hobby and the supposedly quiet library environment? We all know that games certainly aren’t just for kids and at least in our libraries, we don’t enforce the hush-hush attitude associate typically associated, but that was exactly the problem. Preconceptions. That knee jerk reaction that an unstructured concept would provoke.

So, I did my research. The most interesting thing I learned about was the concept of gamification (which with the amount of reading I’ve done, that’s a whole other post in itself!) but it didn’t take long to find out that gaming in libraries had already come a long way in America and the (as then) National Gaming Day sounded absolutely perfect for what I wanted to be doing. I think during 2011, I signed up my Library for NGD as an international participant and we were one of only perhaps two or three from across the UK at that point. I would hope in future years, more UK libraries will participate and we could organise our own inter library activities in the same vein as this year’s Minecraft Hunger Games and previous years’ Smash Bros Tournaments. I’ve tried to participate in these before, but the hurdles of network restrictions and time zone differences have proved too much for the moment. Back to our first NGD though!

Once I’d done my reading and decided that I’d like to take part this year, I discussed it with my line manager and got the green light. I decided to volunteer my time to organise and run the event that year and it certainly was a task organising an event that size for the first time, but I like a good challenge. I had to do it because in the words of my line manager, “Why do the training and not put it into practice?”

So, where to start?

I had a budget of zero, no staff resources and 2 months to plan, organise, advertise and deliver, so I had my work cut out. My first choice was scale. Not what can I do with the resources I had, but where would a nice target point be? Something big enough to prove the demand if it was successful, but not too huge that it became unmanageable. I decided to aim for double our normal Saturday footfall. Double is always a nice thing to put on reports rather that “x amount more”. With that in mind, knowing we open for 6 hours on a Saturday, that not everyone will come at once and that not all people are going to be engaging with the event, I figured I’d need enough games out for 40 people to be playing at any one time. Do I have the space and tables for that? Yes. Do I actually have the games?… well, after 15 years of gaming myself, yes. The library already owned a selection of Warhammer 40K equipment and armies as we run a club that I helped develop with another member of staff. So that was tabletop gaming covered.

Computer games were easy for me as between my in-use setup and what I had in storage, I had around 15 consoles. Whilst I do take good care of my collection, I’m not precious at all, so I didn’t mind using some of them that day. I picked out a selection of 5 that I had enough controllers for and that covered me for 14 players. I went for the Wii with Super Smash Bros. Brawl, an Xbox 360 with Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing supported with a Sega Saturn, Dreamcast and Gamecube running Wipeout, Powerstone 2 and FZero respectively. With the Warhammer stuff, that totalled about 20, so half way there.

On a side note, you can no doubt notice the limit to racing and fighting games. After a quick chat with our legal team about allowing children access to age restricted materials, we decided that we could only really use PEGI 7 games at the highest. This is down to the fact that a child aged under 7 needs to be accompanied by an adult in our libraries and so the responsible adult would be able to determine if the content was suitable.

When looking at computers though, there’s always the challenges of 1. Sockets, 2. TVs, 3. Connections. Thankfully, my library is loaded with underfloor sockets, so that wasn’t a real problem other than consideration during the floor planning stage. Next up, TVs. I had my own 14-inch TV which I didn’t mind using, and in our function room we have a wall mounted projector, so that was two, but where do you get 3 free TVs from? A little website called Freecycle was my saviour. Old style CRT TVs don’t carry any value these days, so in a few weeks, I managed to grab a pair of 28-inch and a 14-inch CRT, for free! Another man’s trash, as they say. Lastly, connections. With a selection of composite, coaxial, HDMI, SCART and VGA in various combinations between the projectors and setups, this took a bit of forethought. I had to drop a few quid on the odd new cable, but I didn’t mind spending on my own machines.

Next up were the card and board games. I had a large selection of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon cards, so making up a few rental decks wasn’t difficult, but really with enough local players, I was content just advertising a ‘play space’ as managing the day myself there was no chance I’d have time to teach someone new how to play. Scope for improvement in the following years!

I also had a selection of playing cards and board games scattered around my dad’s house that were just collecting dust, so that helped, but the real problem was covering a big enough age range. Ideally the kind of games you can pick up and play in ten minutes, enjoy, then move on from. Monopoly and Risk were not in that category. I can tell you now, you ever need board games on the cheap? Charity shops. I dropped £10 of my own money on them and walked away with 6 games, which with the rest was easily enough to keep 20 people happy.

So far I’d spent about £15 and with board, card, table top, and computer games, I’d reached my target…. but it’s always good to have more. I rummaged YouTube and TED for gaming related videos to loop throughout the day. I wanted to have an educational aspect to the day, so I went through the Common Sense Media, PEGI, ESRB and BBFC sites which were all gold mines for information. I also had a browse through the (as of then) Android Market and Appstore found some free games and made up QR code posters for the best ones. This way, anyone walking in with a smartphone could get involved. Lastly, I managed to get in touch with a local Role Play Gaming group who happily came along (with the promise of tea, coffee, and biscuits) and got a good number of kids making up fantasy characters and doing a quick dungeon crawl.

So that was it. Planned and ready to go, just needed to advertise it. As I said before though, it was a difficult concept to explain the point of, so posters couldn’t quite get the message out other than the when and where. Our social media presence at the time was non-existent, inclusion in local publications is based entirely on good will, and with no permissions to do leaflet drops, I was worried that I wouldn’t have the time left to properly advertise the event. Thankfully though, we have very good connections with the two local first schools and I managed to get into an assembly at one and have a teacher do a shout out for me at the other. I’ve pinned down the methods for advertising in the years since, but it was a close call that year. It’s all for naught if no one knows about it!

In the end, the day was a great success for us. I beat my target of doubling the day’s footfall (hitting 260% of the day’s average actually), countless positive comments and not one real negative one. A few inquisitive parents and borrowers as to the purpose, but it didn’t take much effort to get them thinking.

The first NGD proving a success managed to secure some funding to buy an Xbox 360 and kickstart a long-running, and moderately successful games program across the district. Each International Games Day at Perton has performed well each year. In 2013, we tried delivering similar games days at 3 of our other libraries, admittedly with mixed results, but always resulting in positive comments. My favourite moment was at the end of Brewood Library’s Games Day, 3 separate groups of kids left that library that day as friends and the parents told us barely a single one of them knew each other when they came in. We’ve also run many other events, including a semi-regular Pokemon group who meet on Sundays to compete. During the last Olympics, we hosted a “Digital Olympics”, using a pair of Kinect-enabled Xboxes and a Wii to compete in a half day of tournaments. We hold regular “Paint & Play” days for Warhammer players. This summer we’ve pulled together a program of events with volunteers that contain 20+ events, of which a good 50% are game related, including a Mario Kart 8 Race Day, a FIFA World Cup Redux, Minecrafternoon and the ‘Mythical Maze Dungeon Crawl’, a Dungeons & Dragons-based event themed on this year’s Summer Reading Challenge that we run in UK Libraries.

It’s a slow campaign to convince the right people that there is a place for games in Libraries, but coming up to 3 years of trying, it’s starting to feel like it’s getting noticed. There’s a long way to go for my library and there’s even further to go before gaming is adopted as a part of our library offer, but I hope that some of you reading this can see that, if you’re not involved with IGD, you don’t need to break the bank to reap the benefits and for those of you looking to return for IGD 14, I hope you can keep the momentum going.

You can find me on twitter here: @The89thGuardian

You can challenge me on Xbox Live, PSN, Steam, or Nintendo Network: The89thGuardian

Or you can check out my newest Facebook page where I’ll be posting all my game related events: /GameShareSouthStaffordshire

For IGD this year, I’ll be trying to focus on co-operative games, but really, I’m a month or so away from even beginning to plan this year’s IGD event. That being said, if anyone would like to hear what I do get planned or how things went after the day, I’d love to come back and write about how things went. Good luck everyone!

P.S. I’ll keep it a bit shorter than this time ^_^

 

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