Opening Remarks at the Libraries, Games, and Play Conference

[Note: I provided these remarks to kickoff the inaugural Libraries, Games, and Play Conference hosted at American University in partnership with FableVision Studios. The original planning committee included myself, Lindsay Grace, and Bob Hone. The event brought together librarians, teachers, and administrators to discuss innovative methods and models for using game-based education in libraries. The event existed on Twitter using #LGPConference.]


Hello and welcome! Before I begin, I want to say thank you, thank you to American University for this wonderful space and partnership, to FableVision Studios for helping to make this forum a reality, and to IMLS for their generous support.

My name is J Collins and many of you know me from my time working in the government. I led game-based education policy at the Department of Education under President Obama and coordinated game-based education policy for the executive branch under President Trump. I work now experimenting with new kinds of game-based education and computer science education at Hathaway Brown, an all-girls’ school near Cleveland, Ohio, and I am also the CEO of Liminal Esports, a game-based assessment startup.

You might have noticed that at no point in time did I say that I was a librarian. That’s true. I’m not. But I love libraries! The first time that I walked into the Library of Congress’s reading room was a near spiritual experience for me, and I am passionate about children’s literature as well. My children and I read books together every single day.

I am not a librarian, but I am a storyteller. And so I wanted to tell you two short stories today:

Because of my love for children’s literature, I stop by and tour libraries whenever I can. I head straight to their children’s section and browse a bit. Then I ask a librarian if they have any books that touch on LGBTQ representation. The answer is usually… “no” or “yes, but only a few”. There aren’t as many of these kinds of books out there as you would hope and trans children’s authors in particular are hard to find.

I got a surprising response at a recent visit. She said: “Maybe, follow me.” I did, and we walked back and back and back. Around other rows… past other people… until we made it to a small corner of the library. Here. Not on the first shelf… or the second… or the third or fourth… but the fifth shelf. Six feet in the air. There was a tiny collection of books separate from everything else. There was a book on grieving and the death of a dog and maybe 20 other books. She looked through that special rack and turned back to me, “I don’t see any, but if we did have some they would be in here. We get too many complaints if they’re out with the other ones.”

I imagined my son looking up into the air at their parent, shelved up on a tiny rack for dangerous books. Far too high for his little arms to reach. I tried to imagine what that would be like. I didn’t have to try too hard.

Every time that I walk into a video game store, I feel something similar. As a queer child, I came across row after row of games with angry white men holding guns on the cover. And I asked myself: where are my stories? Hidden in the corners of Steam, I can find “Gone Home” and experience someone else’s coming out story. I can find “That Dragon, Cancer” and discover someone else’s dance with that disease. But there they are again, shelved away. LGBTQ and grief. Out of the main racks because… people would complain. After all, how do you explain queer people to children?

And so today we will talk about standards and learning goals, adapting and growing, but I want you to take with you a lens of inclusion. Whose stories are we telling? Whose are we missing? And how can games fill that gap?

The second story that I want to tell you today occurred a few years ago. I was attending a major games conference and was visiting with a friend who lived in the same city. She’s a librarian, she’s a gamer, and she brings games into her library work with her.

I had been hounding her for years to attend the conference, but she always passed on it. I asked her again that year — I said, “I can get you in for free! You just need to come for a day. It’s down the street! We need your voice there.”

She looked at me and said: 
“If I leave, who is going to do story time for the kids? Who is going to run the ESL class? Who is going to fix the AC unit because last week it broke and spilled water and the books got wet and facilities said they won’t come and fix it for two weeks.

I read the news in the morning, and I see the ICE raids happening in our neighborhoods. I see my kids coming in. They’ve lost parents. Grandparents. Friends. Peers. Even some of my own kids don’t come back. I don’t know why. I don’t know where they are. But for those that do, I am here. I need to be here. The library is where they are safe.”

I couldn’t get her to that conference, and I couldn’t get her here today. But whose voices are missing? Ask yourself this in your panels and your lunch conversations. Who isn’t here?

If you look to your right and to your left, you will now know at least three leaders in libraries already. Take the conversations from here today and share them broadly. Bring them home, tweet them out, challenge others to answer these questions.

Games are more than just toys, they are windows into identity and exploration. I experimented with identity and stories in games as a child. I did the same with books. If anyone is going to help children find their stories, it is you.

Those are my two stories. And I would ask you to take these lenses with you throughout the day: Inclusion. Access. And building a network of people who will change the field.

Thank you so much for coming today and for being a part of this conversation. I am looking forward to hearing what all of you have to share.