Video-Game Rooms Become the Newest Library Space Invaders

Fabrizio Costantini for The Chronicle

John Wu, a student at the U. of Michigan, takes advantage of the Art, Architecture and Engineering Library's gaming facility. As the study of video games becomes accepted in academe, libraries have built collections and gaming labs.
April 24, 2011

With wood paneling and furniture that looks like it came from late 1970s basements, the retro gaming space at the University of Calgary's new Taylor Family Digital Library doesn't look like a modern information facility. That's deliberate. The area, slated to open this summer as part of a new, $175-million building, aims to give students an idea of both how—and where—early video-game systems such as the Atari 2600 and Nintendo were first used.

Video games are moving out of the dorm and into the library. The University of Michigan's Computer & Video Game Archive, which opened in 2008 in the basement of the Art, Architecture and Engineering Library, is filled with multiple gaming stations. The University of Wisconsin at Whitewater added games to its collection in 2010, and the State University of New York at Stony Brook will open a new gaming lab in the library this fall, along with a collection of older equipment to be housed in the library's special collections.

The facilities are following scholar­ship. Games are now used in English classes studying interactive narratives, media-studies classes looking at the cultural impact of violent games, as well as courses in game design offered at about 300 colleges. "The argument is really pretty simple," says David S. Carter, an engineering librarian at Michigan. "We have faculty who are doing stuff involved in video games, so the library needs to be doing something to support that teaching and that research."

Ian Bogost, an associate professor in Georgia Tech's School of Literature, Communication and Culture who studies video games, puts it simply: "If you want to study things, you have to have them."

Still, critics question whether penny-pinched libraries should be spending thousands of dollars on video games instead of traditional scholarly material, and point to gaming facilities as the latest example of colleges pandering to students.

Mr. Carter met little resistance to his proposal for a gaming collection at Michigan, but that doesn't mean the process always goes smoothly.

At Miami University, in Ohio, the school's gaming facility got bad press when it opened, mostly due to bad timing, says Lisa E. Santucci, the college's assistant dean for instruction and emerging technologies.

In 2008, students, faculty, and staff had approved using $3,000 from student technology fees to purchase equipment for the facility, which is tied to the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies.

But the money came in 2009, and the campus was hit hard by budget cuts that year, Ms. Santucci says. The library alone lost 15 positions.

"We're rolling out 42-inch plasma screens and Xboxes," she says.

While the initial controversy has died down, Ms. Santucci says she still makes sure not to bring in new equipment too soon after announced cuts.

Start-up costs at Miami Univer­sity were relatively modest compared with many other programs. The Calgary collection and facility will cost more than $50,000; the Michigan archive cost roughly $20,000.

The costs come down mostly to what pieces of equipment—and how many—a library chooses to acquire. At $4,000 to $5,000 each, high-end gaming PC's are typically the most expensive.

Older games and consoles are cheaper because they're often available used and frequently come through donations.

Even newer games, at $50 to $60 each, are frequently one-third the price of new textbooks.

At institutions without library support, professors say they assemble small gaming collections for students within their programs but don't necessarily have the time or skills to manage them effectively.

The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, an early game-design program, regularly receives donated games from companies, says Peter E. Raad, its executive director. But he wonders how good a job he does as a steward of those donations. "Five years from now, will I even know where they are?"

Still, as libraries deal with rising journal costs and tighter budg­ets, buying games means not buying something else, says Scott Nichol­son, an associate professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.

For this reason, he says it's essential that libraries make sure gaming collections support an over­all mission.

"They shouldn't just build that collection because it's hip," he says.

Finding space and determining cataloging conventions are two of the challenges facing libraries when they start collections, but the question of mission speaks to the biggest challenges: staffing and curation.

Finding knowledgeable staff can be a challenge and, even then, most librarians only devote part of their time to video-game work.

Zach Vowell, the digital archivist at the University of Texas at Austin who oversees the UT Videogame Archive, says he can only devote one quarter of his time to the collection, which limits his ability to solicit more donations and connect with other parts of campus.

And building a collection requires some understanding of what titles need to be obtained.

Michael Mateas, an associate professor at the University of Santa Cruz and the director of its Center for Games and Playable Media, says there are "historical touchstones" that all gaming-design students should play.

Syllabi for courses at Santa Cruz include a "playlist," with a selection of games students are required to play, and he and other professors regularly work with the library to determine what titles it should obtain.

But academics and archivists are of mixed opinion on whether there is, or should be, a "gaming canon."

Henry E. Lowood, curator for the history of science and technology and film and media collections at Stanford University, was part of a panel at the 2007 Game Developers Conference that created a 10-title digital-game canon, which included Spacewar!, Tetris, Super Mario Brothers 3, and Doom. He says the project aimed to do for games what the American Film Institute has done for film, with the institute selecting titles for the Library of Congress. The games were added to the collections at Stanford and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Mr. Raad says it's just as important that collections include games that aren't considered classics. At the Guildhall, he says, they "deconstruct" games and compare popular games with less successful titles released at the same time to see why one worked and the other didn't.

For Mr. Lowood, his participation in the panel was part of his effort to draw attention to the role he says universities should play in preserving games and other digital media.

He and others see the gaming industry as largely indifferent to its history, and fear that not focusing on these issues now could lead to the loss of important cultural artifacts.

"If academic institutions don't do it, probably no one will," he says.