Making a game for a Library
A library can easily and should very well be a place of discovery, collection, curation and learning. In many ways, facets of the traditional library user experience are analogous to games and that’s what I’ve been interested in for a few years, since 2007 to be exact. One manifestation of it has been Librarygame and this is the abridged story of how one small company turned this idea into a living and breathing product.
Observing Libraries and their game like qualities
If you spend your time designing for entertainment and education, Libraries present themselves as really interesting interactive systems which are worth exploring. With a cursory glance and even a shallow understanding of how libraries work, you can draw parallels between libraries and games.
Libraries are akin to games in that they have rules and barriers to use, they invite players of different abilities in with open arms, they have rule-keepers, they house special items, even the fact that libraries offer finite resources introduces an interesting dose of scarcity into the mix, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that these are all potential building blocks for compelling game mechanics.
By amplifying some of these inherently game-like facets and augmenting them with more explicit interactions that are game-like, such as competition, reciprocity and value assignment, we arrive at an experience which is gamified, run it parallel to the challenge and joy of learning and you’ve got something that is potentially very fun!
Game Components at a glance (ones we were interested in)
Goal Based Activity
Choice / Control Paradoxes
Mastery of significant challenges
Conversation / Messaging
Points and Rewards
In gamified experiences we’re using structures that make games work, to catalyse, augment and enhance interactions between patrons and in effect, shape their behaviour to promote positive outcomes. There is nothing new about this concept, but about a decade ago when I first started looking at this area following my MA (and after a failed research funding bid), I couldn’t find anyone who was implementing these ideas in a Library setting. Even when we started seriously investing our time, researching and fleshing out the area at Running in the Halls and coming up with the concept of Librarygame as it currently stands, we couldn’t find any examples that purported to do what we were trying to do as effectively as we had in mind.
Why do it?
There are many reasons why looking at this area makes a lot of sense in the context of libraries.
One significant positive outcome and direct motivation for neophiles like us to developing a gamified platform for a library was directly related to promoting the use of the library in a way that hasn’t been attempted before. We were reading a lot about how public library membership was in decline back in 2009 and we were interested in using methods prevalent in good interaction design and our ideas of gamification to make a difference to that trend. How could we make a Library more visible on social channels? Could we affect declining use by making it more visible?
We had to start somewhere and the place we felt most comfortable and experienced in was the design of software. Incentivising tasks such as reviewing a book which ordinarily have no recognition of a contribution associated with them within a software system, had the potential to be quite compelling and contribute to positive outcomes such as an enhanced discovery environment that would help bring back the joys we’d associate with libraries so we wanted that aspect be a big part of what we made. How about making the library more accessible and it’s digital interfaces more attractive? These are the things that excited us as designers and still do.
Merging our desire to build our own social software with the opportunity to spark social interactions, getting patrons to meaningfully connect and contribute to the enrichment of the library in an enjoyable way was a no brainer and aligned with all of our aspirations. Subsequently turning all of this into a product which would eventually sell and be refined through our efforts was an exciting prospect indeed.
The Story of Librarygame
Back in 2010, at Running in the Halls, we were a small independent company, barely a year into operation and keenly interested in the library world. Without an in-depth knowledge of how library systems function behind the scenes and without any assumptions of what is possible, we began looking at crafting a system specifically for libraries which would act as a motivator and instigator of behaviour and fit within the ecosystem of the library management systems, discovery systems, signage systems, portals and catalogues and the people who use them. We saw this as a personal mission inasmuch as we thought it was our business to be doing something in this area. If we talk about a valiant challenge, this would be ours and we didn’t want to do it by halves.
We absolutely loved libraries when growing up and in more recent years we were frankly appalled (and still are) with the poor usability present in OPACs and how far behind we thought they were in terms of accessibility, user experience and interface design aesthetics, so we considered improving upon them and doing things better by using our expertise in the areas of interface design, application design and making games. We wanted to embed the polish and lustre that we would give to our clients to the library environment that we loved. We had in our mind an idea of the quality of product we should be aiming for and what we wanted to avoid and improve on and in many ways, that was better than a singular specification to spur us onwards. We also wanted learn as much as we could about the environment and challenges present from every angle we could observe or ask about.
We didn’t set out with a master business plan to conquer the library world so we were free to carve our own niche for the clients we chose.
We didn’t seek to replace any existing systems along this journey but looked at finding ways of augmenting them. Affecting the user experience positively and creating something which users would love was an infinitely larger motivation factor for us than writing another piece of software and making money off it. When you have that kind of motivation you then become willing to invest a serious amount of time and focus to making it happen. Although our operation had to be commercially viable right from the start (and thankfully it was) we were prepared to make a significant investment to see it gain some traction.
Along the way however, across the board (especially in public libraries) we came face to face with a paradoxical culture of embracing new ideas with open arms yet being very slow to get the ball rolling. This was utterly sobering, and we did wonder if we were doing something wrong. We’re not talking weeks and months slow, we’re talking years.
Even if we were offering them a free product and investing thousands, effectively subsidising nearly all costs, we found that the libraries couldn’t spend a penny without endless and frankly ridiculous, overly conservative and safe decision making processes, or when they were happy to spend they didn’t have the technical expertise to help integrate. In retrospect maybe we were just too small for them to trust with an entirely new product. We get that, no-one wanted to take that risk, especially not with a new product, but Universities were in the right place at the right time.
In many ways our interactions with the public sector were an eye opener for us, to actually realise how seemingly under-equipped public services are (especially in post economic crash Britain) and how poorly managed they can be.
This was a stark contrast to what we were used to in the private sector and our attention on public libraries could very well have sunk us as a venture if we didn’t have the other work rolling in. It felt as though that our public library aspirations no matter how close we ever were to signing a dotted line remained firmly in incubation.
After getting our aspirations in order and figuring out the initial logistics and embracing the immense technical challenges, we began work on Librarygame 1.0 in earnest.
I have to point out here, that if it wasn’t for my colleagues Sam and Alison and our helpful friends in the Library world none of what we've achieved with Librarygame so far would be possible on the scale we currently have. As with any collaboration I’m a very small part of this picture and the fact that I’m telling this story is because I quite like telling stories.
Sam’s technical grasp and extreme meticulousness has meant that we’ve created a system that runs exceptionally smoothly and bug free to the point that it can run without a much intervention from us or our partners. We’re a team of 3 so this is a hallmark of Running in the Halls work and our style of managing things, we make sure that code that leaves the house is triple checked or if there’s anything wrong with it it gets fixed fast!
While me and Sam worked on Librarygame on a day to day basis for months at a time, whether it was design or development work that needed doing, Alison was supporting Running in the Halls with big chunks of client work on scarily ambitious commissions, this paved the way for Librarygame’s continued growth. I still marvel at how we’ve pulled every resource together to be a service company and a product company simultaneously for 4 years!
We started our journey by conducting our own user research (literally walking into libraries and asking questions, speaking to people, taking pictures, observing) and gradually prototyping our vision in visual mockups. Once we had an idea of what we wanted to make, we started approaching libraries which we were familiar with by showing them what we were working on, early on we had feedback entering the design loop, in terms of who helped initially it was our town library and the University we once studied at, the University of Huddersfield. The University wanted a version of Librarygame which we have actually supported to this day. We wanted to specify as much as we could before we ended up at the coding stage and we wanted to learn as much as we could while we were doing so. Academic Libriaries and Public libraries required vastly different approaches but the core of the product was still very much the same and the interactions were quite similar.
Initial Design Goals
In pitching and ultimately designing a library game that used our findings from the research stage, our primary design goals started forming more coherent targets:
- Providing an enhanced discovery tool and interface to help patrons find items that they would enjoy and find beneficial.
- Enhancing general usability and accessibility through design.
- Transforming a solitary experience of a library patron into a social one.
- Marketing the activities in the library on the most used social channel of patrons. At the time we set our target as Facebook.
- Compelling users to use the library more through harnessing knowledge of user motivation and understanding user psychology.
- Providing utility for a reader, whether it’s tracking something they’re reading so they could build a bibliography easily, allowing them to make annotations, or receiving recommendations on what they might find interesting.
What is Librarygame
In a nutshell Librarygame can be classed as library enhancement software. It’s a software layer which interacts with the library systems already in place via special hooks and listeners (It’s now evolved into a very robust API). The systems it can interact with include the catalogue, the LMS, the library website, email notifications or any third party enhancements, eBook portals, eResource delivery mechanisms and even things like physical access points (turnstiles, barriers and card readers). By listening into interactions within those systems and reading data from them it builds (with the users consent) a profile for them which is interactive and allows for further enrichment activities. It allows them to play a game that uses their data in a game like context.
How to play
To begin playing the game a patron would sign up to the flavour of Librarygame which their library has signed up to using their library card or library authentication credentials, to verify they are in fact who they say they are. As they go about interacting within the library (whether online, in app or in person) their activity is tracked automatically by Librarygame and used as the basis of participating in game interactions. These interactions could include visits to the library, checking out items as well as engaging with such activity with a friend or at particular times. Let’s say you visit the library during lunch time or with a friend, this is a respectively significant factor in determining whether you get a lunchtime user achievement badge or your points get multiplied for visiting with friends. If you accessed an e-resource or checked out a book from a particular subject area, you could get an achievement specific to that or you would be encouraged to leave a review which would in turn help other users discover that book.
We ended up building the systems to make possible, schedule based, subject based and interaction related achievements.
Engaging with desired user behaviour both passive and active (adding reviews to the collection, human powered suggestion to other users) also accumulate points and eventually lead to achievements, these in turn can be shared or highlighted within Librarygame or on the users most used social channels.
Measuring and nurturing continuous progress
Everyone likes seeing progress. It’s satisyfing to know your actions are taking some effect on nurturing something be it virtual. In Librarygame a player’s contributions over time and their points are tracked and presented to them using two progression indicators. One is a long term progression indicator and is effectively a tree which is nurtured over time with your points and achievements and another is a shorter term progression indicator which marks your library card activity over a certain period. More use of the library and more activity results in a hotter card, over the long university summers we would see a lot of cold cards! (We eventually ditched the latter for Librarygame 3.0 but the tree still remains at the core of the experience)
Due to its close integration with library systems, a lot of the chore-like aspects of a system such as this, such as the process of manually entering details of books checked out -hey Goodreads :’( , or stopping to check-in onto a digital system (such as the experience of using Foursquare) were removed from the equation (not sure this was good as someone could play very passively once they registered), but it was very hard and still remains quite tricky to game the system and there is little or no scope or incentive for patrons saying they’ve done something they haven’t. We built special checks in there for people who were standing at the checkout machine and borrowing and returning books repeatedly for points (it did happen).
What we’re trying to do
In the context of readership development and catalogue enrichment other attempts have been made by several other companies but few have merged those efforts with a game layer that is so deeply embedded and integrated in the actual library systems or indeed with the experience of being inducted into a library service, as is the case for many Freshers each year. We don’t make any claims that we’ve struck onto the most impressive combination of elements either but what we do have is a massive commitment to iteration and refining and remixing some of these ideas into a cohesive experience. We didn’t ever want the Librarygame experience to be something that was tacked on.
So to summarise what we’re trying to do with Librarygame:
- We’re rewarding those who are already using the library with enhanced utility in the form of an accessible, attractive and playful discovery interface laden with user contributed content which grows over time. User contributed content enhances the discovery environment and rewarding existing behaviours engenders recognition and loyalty.
- We’re marketing the library effectively on frequently used social channels, harnessing the power of social proof in shaping and guiding non-user and existing patron behaviour. People effectively gravitate towards activity when they see other people engaging with it, without a meaningful presence on such networks we think it’s a challenge for the library to stay connected and occupy the mindshare of its users.
- We believe we are enhancing the user experience and this is leading to happier more engaged patrons. Although difficult to quantify, In librarygame, patrons derive personal enjoyment from completing challenges related to items and activities within the library and participating in reading conversations, — in many ways even in version 3.0 of Librarygame we’re at the beginning of the journey of redefining and shaping these experiences.
Discovery — enhancing the discovery interface
One of the luxuries of being present in the physical space of libraries is that you can walk in and serendipitously stumble across items you may never have considered checking out at your leisure. It’s a crucial part of the physical library experience and a beautiful experience layer to assist discovery which is sadly lacking in digital interfaces. Historically digital interfaces have a tendency to force users to start their journey with a plain search and limited browsing access to the content of the books themselves.
With a de-emphasis of physical collections in many libraries, especially academic libraries it becomes even more important to signpost significant books and e-resources using alternative means and categorisations, and make recommendations actively, recommendations which seek the user.
The social discovery and recommendations layers by peers can also signpost useful resources and allow great reference points to percolate.
What we’ve learnt
The inception of the product Librarygame in its current iteration Librarygame 3.0 in use by the Open University, owes a good deal to the need for libraries to find new ways to develop relationships with their core audience of readers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in an academic library or a public one, the library has resources which it wants to effectively market to its patrons.
We think there are a number of things to bear in mind about this. We were mostly interested in enhancing the discovery interface and injecting a bit of playfulness and microsocial interaction into otherwise dry solitary experiences. Our goal was to make those interactions more memorable and engaging and we think we’ve in part achieved that but in truth we have a long journey ahead to evaluate and iterate upon our first experiences.
How do you even start to evaluate something new that you’ve worked on and how impartial can you be? How do you get beyond numbers and go for qualitative insights. For the most part we’ve collaborated with our partner institutions to do the first lot of evaluating, it’s their prerogative for the investment they’ve made:
However these are some of our observations so far:
Designing interactions around human curiosity gives the best results
Some of the assumptions based on our expertise and common sense knowledge of designing experiences corroborated our findings from surveys and our own analysis of usage patterns.
- We like attractive interfaces, and ugliness isn’t an excuse just because something has inherent utility.
- We like discovering what others are doing, curiosity drives our exploration. We find that people look at other profiles a lot and eventually end up borrowing things that they’ve seen other people borrow.
- We like recommending things, if we like something we like to tell others we like it. But not as much as you think in an academic library setting. We thought this was surprising. Same goes for rating resources.
- We like being rewarded for good behaviour. People cite playing for points and gaining a status as being a very large motivator for use. This actually surprised us.
- We like playful interactions over non playful ones. The more colourful, cheeky and less boring the interactions the more likely they will ellicit responses.
- We like visualising our personal behaviour and showing possible connections between our behaviour and our performance.
The evolution of an ideal system incorporating such factors takes time and isn’t just about engineering and designing software, it’s also about carefully crafting and curating content to fit around the experiences too. People aren’t machines and don’t behave predictably either, unintended usages of the systems you develop are inevitable and you have to be open to them.
Sometimes designing every element of a new system bearing in mind all your assumptions about how you think something should work is the worst way to go about things and you have to be flexible to iterate new versions quickly and respond to feedback appropriately.
So far though most of our assumptions have held up and are in line with what Librarygame users have been asking for and respond favourably to right down to the tone of copy.
Gamification has to be meaningful
Gamification definitely has its fair share of detractors. Some argue that poor gamification systems can affect a reader’s intrinsic motivation and decry that once you remove the extrinsic rewards (badges, points and prizes) then levels of intrinsic motivation are also affected. It hard to substantiate these claims, especially in new contexts, there may well be very substantiated truths there, but we’ve certainly not treated them as threats. There are four simple counter arguments I used whenever someone brings this up.
- On the one hand this argument totally assumes a lack of sophistication on the part of the player, in our experience if you have poor gamification in place in any system it will go by totally ignored and therefore the library experience is unaffected.
- Librarygame is partly geared towards users of low intrinsic motivation to begin with, so to be able to nudge them into action, even by a little bit is paramount and to be able to provide an element of utility in the form of a discovery layer is what users will find useful and worth coming back to, regardless of the gamification component.
- A blended approach to meaningful gamification takes time and there is simply no way of effectively knowing what works and what doesn’t unless you try it out and evaluate the results. Without trying something out it’s impossible to say if it would work or not and being afraid of change doesn’t pave the way for any kind of iterative innovation. Any resistance to gamification due to some perceived detriment means you’re unwilling to try new things and this is at odds with the spirit of improvement and progress.
- To us, meaningful gamification, is certainly not just tacked on game mechanics, it’s not some slapdash assemblage either, it’s not just reliant on the language of badges, points leaderboards etc. but physical presence, harnessing the power of reciprocity and social proof. It’s about nudging users to contribute and meaningfully explore their relationship with the library with a purpose, by enriching it with their own contributions, setting personal challenges and using the interface and human powered recommendations to start their exploration of the collection. This blended approach we think is one way of nurturing intrinsic motivation levels over time and sustaining interest too.
Which is why feedback from academic staff and the players themselves as well as librarians who talk to the players has been the most insightful indicator of where we should focus our gameplay improvements and enhancements on and something we’ve paid very close attention to from the start. Talking to other partners has also given us a roadmap of where the system design should be to cater for their needs and it’s given us a very good idea of where it could be in the future.
Adoption and uptake
Early on we decided that we would cater for Academic and Public Libraries very differently, and tailor interfaces, interactions and even visuals which were more in line with user expectations. Orangetree for Public Libraries and Lemontree for Academic Libraries were born.
Looking back, you could say this was a mistake of epic proportions because we simply didn’t realise the immense effort required to sell and excite public libraries into making a decision, we should instead have focussed on just catering for one sector that we were far more familiar with, Universities.
- Initially we ran a pilot of Librarygame in one academic library with the University of Huddersfield (Lemontree) this got a lot of interesting responses for us and we’re eternally grateful for the staff at the University of Huddersfield, Dave Pattern, Andrew Walsh and everyone else who championed this project so kindly.
- Then with two Russell Group Universities
The University of Glasgow (Librarytree) and The University of Manchester. (BookedIn)
- and finally The Open University (OpenTree) which made our platform soar in terms of its capability and ambition.
The measure of any project like this is how successful it has been in its capacity to change experiences for the better. All evaluations we’ve had up to now have been laden with positive feedback which is resoundingly aligned not only with our design goals and that of our clients but with user satisfaction. We have nurtured somewhere in the region of 10,000 active users across 4 Universities and although that may not seem like much it represents a good percentage of each install bases’ total potential users.
Even if a fraction of those users go onto utilising the Library resource more effectively, we have made a dent in the challenges that were presented to us.
I’ll end this article with some images of different bits from the Librarygame family album. I’ll update this article in the future to focus on our evaluation efforts and share more interesting some numbers, but look forward to reading your comments and questions.