Gaming 2.0

Playing games in Houston leads to families learning and having fun together

October 19, 2010


The most exciting things have happened at the Houston Public Library’s Central Library since it reopened in May of 2008 after a two-year renovation: families are playing together and enjoying each other’s company; brothers, sisters, strangers, and friends are playing and learning together. Teen boys who now think the library is the best place to be ride buses an hour and a half each way to visit. Parents say they now believe their teens when they say, “Mom, I’m going to the library today.” And the borrowing of library materials has risen consistently over the last 20 months.

These are just some of the things we have seen happen since we decided to offer video games as a continuous service instead of as isolated programs to our customers. “National Gaming Day @ your library” (November 13) is every day in Houston.

How much do our customers like gaming services at the library? In the past 20 months, we have checked out 22,265 controllers for 12 consoles. (This probably only represents about 80% of the actual usage since families tend to share.) This new service cost—an estimated $22,000 in equipment and games—averages out to $1 per customer. Costs continue to drop and game usage continues to rise. The most expensive item was the installation and wiring of 12 40-inch HD televisions, at $1,100 each. These televisions should last 10 years or longer, with sustained use.

Video games are now a part of the culture and the fabric of our society. We would not think of denying our customers the latest fiction, but regularly deny them storylines that are just as relevant to the daily conversations and lives of library users. While circulating video games for home use would be ideal, our library system does not have the resources to do that on a sustained basis, and circulation does not solve the problem for customers who cannot afford a console in their own homes.

Children and teens without access to video games are missing out on a part of their culture that is and will be relevant to them in the future. While older generations can sing the entire Gilligan’s Island theme song, children today have entire conversations that take place using a cultural frame of reference that comes from video games. Many of our children and teens cannot understand why anyone would just want to watch television when they could participate in and make decisions about the storyline, where to go, and how the action should take place. To today’s children linear storylines are boring and only relevant in school. Providing access to these game/stories became one of the missions of our youth services department. We wanted to be exciting, fun, and relevant to the young customers we see in our library every day.


KIDS, our children’s area, had three spaces that, for several reasons, could not be used for anything that involved large pieces of furniture. We utilized those areas by hanging televisions on the walls and attaching a Nintendo Wii behind each screen. Chairs were added that could be easily moved when necessary. We purchased a large assortment of E and E-10 games (as rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board) that appeal to the 5–12-year-old crowd. The Wii was the perfect console choice for KIDS since it had the most games available with E and E-10 ratings. Each console has four remotes and four nunchuks, and we have added four Wii Motion Plus attachments.

Every item is barcoded and added to the catalog with individual records for each. Games are in our catalog as “Wii games,” not searchable by the public, and we add the title in the call number field. This barcoding allows us to easily check and see what equipment is missing or not checked in at the end of the day. Games and equipment are checked out to the customers as regular circulating items, but for a two-hour check-out time.

We learned after a couple of weeks that children should only check out equipment for themselves or for a sibling with a parent or guardian’s permission. We don’t allow children to check out things for anyone else, to avoid bullying behavior from children without cards. We also don’t allow anyone to pass on or share the equipment. When a child is done playing, he or she must turn in the equipment. This practice is also to avoid possible bullying. Parents may choose to check out gaming items for anyone since they are responsible for what is checked out on their cards. We also require that it be a child playing at all times, since the equipment in KIDS is there for the children and not the parents. They can bring in their own games, as long as they are rated E or E-10, and their own SD card to save a game.

Families have one hour a day to play, since we usually have a waiting list, especially on weekends. We also allow only one game change during that hour, due to staffing limitations. The most popular games include Mario Kart, either Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games title, Mario Party, Wii Sports Resort, Carnival Games, and any Lego title. The boxes are on display and the games are kept in a CD binder at the reference desk. While you would think that the noise would drive you insane, we really don’t notice it much. The sound is usually kept at a reasonable level so that it may be heard by the user but not the rest of the library. When we are busy it would be hard to notice those individual sounds anyway.


TEEN, our area for teens ages 13–18, came equipped with six egg chairs wired for surround sound. We hung six 40-inch televisions from the ceiling so anyone in the egg chairs could see perfectly. We added a Sony PlayStation 3 to each with an HDMI cable and an audio link to the sound chairs. We also had wall space for three more televisions and added Nintendo Wiis to those. We debated the console choices in TEEN but chose the PlayStation 3 and the Wiis since they were the most current consoles. The Xbox was expected to have an update soon and we wanted to have longevity and HD capabilities. We were also unsure how to handle internet connectivity, which was another advantage to the Xbox. TEEN no longer looked like a turn-of-the- century relic and we hoped the additions would attract a new audience to the library.

TEEN has T-rated games and some E- and E-10-rated games. Teens can use an SD card or USB drive to save games, and they can bring games from home, except for games rated M or above.

Success was ours. Over the summer, the library filled with teens eager to play and to have something to read on the bus coming and going. We only allow teens ages 13 to 18 to stay in the room. They have to use their own library card to check out equipment, and they can play as long as no one is waiting. At that point we ask the patron who has been gaming the longest to give up the remote. Everything can be checked out except the Playstation games, and we have four controllers for each console.

What we discovered after a month or two was the formation of a community. A teen who wanted to join in just had to ask the person playing, then come to the desk to check out a controller for that console. Players encourage each other through the most challenging games and play in a good-natured way that encourages others to join in. We have a library full of engaged teen boys and our only real issues have been language and trash from our two vending machines.

Many of our teens ride the bus for at least an hour or more to get to the Central Library and they do it on an almost daily basis. They have learned to cooperate and participate with other teens from all over the city. Race, age, and ability have little to do with whether or not they can join a group playing. They teach each other and learn from each other daily. Some are even improving their musical skills, developing noticably better voices while singing along to The Beatles: Rock Band.

We have a wide assortment of games available with some of the most popular being Super Smash Bros. Brawl, any Naruto title, Uncharted 2, Madden NFL, NBA 2K, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Ghost Recon 2, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, Little Big Planet, and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Gaming is available in TEEN from 2:30 on school days and all day on other days.

Last October we added 25 Nintendo DSi’s to the mix of gaming options in each space along with a wide assortment of games. Each game and handheld DSi is barcoded and can be checked out. The same rules apply for these but we do allow three game changes per checkout. This has been very popular in KIDS and, at least during the school year, marginally popular in TEEN, where they prefer to play together on consoles. Five months after beginning the experiment we have checked out the DSi’s 760 times.

A wide assortment of games, plenty of opportunities to play, and a great staff has created a service that is more successful than anything our youth services department has done. The service is hard work, yet even if we lost staff we would continue to offer it, due to its overwhelming popularity and the results we have had.
Yes, the program costs money, but our costs go down every time someone uses the equipment. When our department books a puppet show we pay $250 for a performance that entertains 100 children at $2.50 per child. The children will watch the puppet show for 45 minutes, laugh and enjoy the show, and then walk out of the room. With open gaming, costs are down to $1 per child, and the end cost lessens with every use. Children learn, make decisions, are engaged, and can have a wonderful interactive experience with family members who are also engaged. The teens play, learn, teach, and form a positive social structure that benefits them outside the library. We are pushing this service out to additional locations as we are able.

Stories come in many forms, including games. It is time to give all our communities access to these stories, and to give the stories the respect they deserve.

SANDY FARMER has been a youth services librarian with the Houston Public Library for 20 years. Her focus is on how technology can enhance services to children and teens.  She can be reached at