The Library As Game: What NYPL is Doing Right

I’ve been fascinated ever since I heard about New York Public Library’s all-night geekfest, Find the Future: The Game.  Ostensibly, this is an event to celebrate the library’s centennial.  I think it’s also a grand and bold way to help rebrand the library and its historical holdings as relevant to today’s youth.  Here are some of the major design elements of The Game and why I think they are pretty brilliant:

  • Time and setting.   The Game will be held overnight – players will be locked into the Schwarzman Building (you know, the one with the lions out front) and will be given access to normally closed stacks to play between 8 pm and 6 am.   This combines two forbidden elements to tantalize prospective players… getting exclusive access to a normally public place and getting to stay there during a time when that public place is usually sealed off from access.  Since they are aiming for a young demographic, offering the Game all night (as opposed to a Sunday evening, for example) will naturally weed out non-target participants.  (There’s a reason younger people stay up late.)
  • Technology.  Players will be challenged to locate 100 historical items in the collection, but they are required to supply a smartphone (to read QR codes and similar) and will also be using laptops.  Using technology to augment the interaction with (possibly) unfamiliar historical objects, participants will be able to bridge the gap between their personal experience and the object quickly and easily. 
  • Premise.  The product of this game is a book.  If you just asked patrons to come into the library, check out a few historical items, and write a page to contribute to a commemorative book then I think you’d end up with a pretty dry product.  The Game only lasts eight hours – there is no time to overthink what will be written, and I predict that the sense of urgency among the players will be high.  Sometimes these conditions combine to result in a much better written product than when you have oodles of time to deliberate.  Constructing a game in order to elicit emotions to write a book will eliminate some of the players’ inhibitions – resulting in a more raw, real, and authentic product.
  • Competition.  Players don’t just show up, they have to enter to win a spot as one of the lucky 500.  As of my writing, the chances of being picked are about 1 in 3, which builds healthy anticipation and creates a sense of exclusivity around the event.  They must prove their worthiness by responding to this prompt: “Imagine what extraordinary thing you might achieve in the next ten years and complete this phrase: ‘By the year 2021, I will be the first person to…'”
  • Scope.  500 players will (presumably) be split into teams of five to interact with 100 historical objects in eight hours… if every team must locate and use each object, that means they must maintain an average of 12 objects an hour.  Players will be challenged to cover a lot of physical ground – “into the underground stacks of the Library, where more than 40 miles of books are waiting to be discovered.”   This quest-type atmosphere will definitely have appeal to young gamers, who will encounter challenges in way-finding and interpreting their surroundings, especially if they are unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes settings of a major library.
  • Publicity.  The teaser trailer video is amazing: watch it here.  A diverse cast of young players enter the library, their live shots interspersed with Ken Burns-style panning through cutaways of a vintage piece of art featuring librarians deep underground among vacuum tubes and book stacks.  Then, the music picks up and the video begins to resemble a Hollywood production starring the young players.  The result?  I felt that by entering the competition, I would be an intrepid explorer… like a young Indiana Jones or Rick O’Connell (from The Mummy).  By tapping into previously established tropes of adventure movies, the promo video gives this Game strong appeal to the target audience.

I will be eager to see the results of The Game and what sorts of things players will be inspired to write as a result of their explorations.  This event provides a lot of inspiration for those of us looking to shake things up and offer different, provocative experiences to users of our collection – what sort of Game would your community play in YOUR library?

3 thoughts on “The Library As Game: What NYPL is Doing Right

  1. seanmurgatroyd says:

    The great thing for me is how the gamification elements you describe here all work to support the overall theme – adventure, creativity, time, the search for knowledge.

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