Playful Design

Last month’s ALA TechSource’s Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium (GLLS) transformed my thinking about library services and, in particular, my thinking about designing user experiences. During the conference, I was enthralled by speaker after speaker who described how games not only draw in hard-to-reach patrons, but how they inspire a greater level of engagement among those patrons. School children, for example, who resist cracking open textbooks eagerly consume lengthy, complicated gaming guides and spend endless hours trying to master new gaming skills. Why do they expend the extra effort? The answer, in part, is play.


According to James Paul Gee, GLLS speaker and author of the book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, marketers figured out something that teachers and librarians have yet to master: sound learning principles sell complexity. In the case of games, those principles have been applied to play so that learning, in effect, becomes fun. It follows that if librarians were to apply some or all of these learning principles to designing library experiences, patrons would enjoy using the library and even become more likely to take on the complicated aspects of using our services.


Using play to encourage deeper learning is not a new idea in library circles. In her article, Play Matters: The Academic Librarian’s Role in Fostering Historical Thinking, librarian-extraordinaire Lisa Norberg proposes creating digital sandboxes full of rich primary source materials that encourage students to explore and have fun with the resources. Then, if they want, they can continue to learn more about how to locate them using library search tools. In doing so, librarians can engage patrons on an emotional level before “leveling up” to more advanced techniques.


What, then are the key learning principles librarians should apply to their services? Gee mentioned 12 during his talk at the Symposium, which I’m paraphrasing liberally here:

  1. Lower the consequence of failure. In other words, make libraries risk-free zones.

  2. Put learning before competence. No one is born knowing how to use a library so patrons shouldn’t feel as though they’re expected to be experts on their first visit.

  3. Make players/patrons co-designers so that their actions matter and make a difference. This could mean inviting patrons to make design decisions from the earliest planning stages to implementation.

  4. Order challenges so that they become progressively more difficult (like levels in a game).

  5. Arrange challenges in cycles. Players/patrons are given the chance to test a skill, perfect it, then move on to another challenge where they can build on the skill.

  6. Test players/patrons to the outer edges of their abilities so that challenges are not too difficult or too easy.

  7. Ask players/patrons to consider situations and relationships, not just facts.

  8. Foster empathy for a complex system (the library?) by making players/patrons a part of it.

  9. Give verbal information just in time to be useful.

  10. “Situate” meanings by enabling patrons to associate the meanings of unknown words and symbols within proper contexts. (As an example, Gee mentioned how difficult it is for students to learn Geology terms because they’re given word definitions for phenomena they have never personally experienced or have a frame of reference for).

  11. Encourage “modding,” or allowing players/patrons to change what they don’t like about a situation to better fit their preferences.

  12. Give feedback and assessment. (The Ann Arbor District Library knows just how important rankings are among gamers, which is evident in their popular tournament leaderboards).

Maybe it seems unrealistic to incorporate every one of these principles into all of our services, but it is striking just how few of them we seem to apply. As Lisa Hinchliffe pointed out in her GLLS talk, the OPAC, for example, is not reaffirming for patrons because it doesn’t let them know whether or not they conducted a successful search. If we employ the above principles to our OPAC including giving assessment, allowing modding, providing needed information just in time, and so on, we could improve patron’s search skills while making research more enjoyable.


When designing library services, play is a serious consideration. Play enhances enjoyment, encourages people to develop skills, improves learning outcomes, and forges emotional bonds between patrons and libraries. Thinking about how these 12 principles can improve our services is a good place to start for more playful library designs.

2 thoughts on “Playful Design”

  1. Fascinating! I’d never thought about games in relation to libraries. One cautionary note: take a look at the use of games and simulations in higher education generally over the last 40 years. Find ones that succeeded and spread over the long haul, and imitate them. There aren’t many. Let me focus on games embodied in software. A major problem has been that, just as the game is beginning to become a bit more widely used, changes in operating systems, or networking standards, or expectations about user interfaces require that the game/simulation be rebuilt from the ground up. These new versions often cost as much, or more, than the original. But the incentives to invest are less, and the game usually dies at that point. There are exceptions and it’s important to learn from them.

  2. I recently heard a talk by G. Sayeed Choudhury, Associate Dean for Library Digital Programs and Hodson Director of the Digital Research and Curation Center at the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University, titled “What Video Games Might Teach Us About Library OPACs” at the annual meeting of the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois. It was fascinating, not only because of the cool screenshots of old video games, but because the topic as he related it to libraries was fresh, innovative and thought-provoking. He went through the history of video games outlining a progression of technological innovations: graphics, use of color, the scrolling screen, photorealism, complex story lines, multitasking elements. A few things I wrote down from his talk:

    “Hard fun” is defined as that point between being too easy and too hard. With ‘good’ video games you have this element and you are also challenged over time and are pushed to another level; you adjust your behavior over time, and you have some degree of control over your environment (you have the ability to save your state).

    Children who play video games can process tremendous amounts of visual information. They have a different expectation for how they interact with information.

    For today’s ILS, the most problematic feature is that we don’t have a compelling narrative (unless it’s a personal narrative of having to get the research done!).

    These points and Gee’s principles are food for thought for academic academic librarians trying to address library instruction. You can look at these points on a macro level as well, I think. For instance, building progressive modules for library/research instruction into the curriculum of, say, a psychology course of study speaks to Gee’s fourth point in your post. (Skills taught in a 200 level course form the foundation of the skills to be learned in a 300 level course.) This macro view isn’t always apparent to the student, however, and I think we lose students along the way; they aren’t aware of the meta-narrative (the payoff at the end) that drives the ‘game’ of research, or don’t take it to heart or something. Or we librarians don’t always do a good job of keeping the narrative alive or in focus.

    Thanks for the post and for making me think some more about this topic.

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