Let’s Play Online

Creating connection through virtual gaming

January 25, 2021

Jeff Pinsker, Erica Ruscio, and Rebecca Strang

Seeing families huddled around the camera playing together is one of the highlights of leading gaming programs for Rebecca Strang, children’s librarian at Naperville (Ill.) Public Library. She’s been leading gaming groups online since the pandemic began. “It’s getting that social connection,” she says.

Strang was joined by Erica Ruscio, young adult librarian at Ventress Memorial Library in Marshfield, Massachusetts; Dan Major, adult services library at Orion Township (Mich.) Public Library (OTPL); and Jeff Pinsker, CEO of Amigo Games, for “Virtual Gaming Programs: Resources for Fighting Social Isolation with Gaming,” a session sponsored by the Games and Gaming Round Table (GameRT) on Monday, January 25 at 2021 ALA Midwinter Virtual Meeting & Exhibits.

Major, Ruscio, and Strang, who are members of the GameRT board of directors, shared resources, ideas, and lessons from their own experiences leading gaming programs virtually, while Pinsker shared industry trends and recommendations.

“It doesn’t take a huge game collection to run a gaming program,” Strang says. You can create your own games, like scavenger hunts and category games, or modify existing ones to be played remotely by creating a PDF of the rules sheet.

“Part of our service policy is to remove barriers to access, so we don’t want to use games that are pay-to-play,” adds Major. Having a device “is enough of a barrier” when it comes to online programs, he said. OTPL uses platforms like Steam and Battle.net to make free-to-play games available on library computers. But since, as Major notes, downloading and installing games on these platforms at home may be an extra barrier for some, he recommends them mainly for teen and adult programs.

Battle.net in particular hosts games such as Overwatch and Hearthstone, which are very popular with teens and have strong e-sports connections as well. “’Gamer’ games are becoming mainstream,” Pinsker notes. “Don’t be afraid to introduce games that are a little more complex to your audience.”

Another option for free-to-play games: Dungeons & Dragons, the ever-popular roleplaying game. Ruscio shared resources for online play, including D&D Beyond, which hosts online character sheets and makes some of the more technical aspects of the game more intuitive for players and dungeon masters (DMs); and Schmeppy, a web-based battle map that helps players and DMs keep track of in-game encounters.

For library workers just getting started with a D&D program, she recommends online resources such as podcasts and Facebook communities. “If you have eager teens who can volunteer or who you can pay to help you develop the adventure or DM, even better,” she adds. “If you’re new to D&D and just overwhelmed with it all, start small.”

Most successful virtual gaming programs have some best practices in common:

  • Schedule games for times when people are available. You might have to work some Friday nights, Major notes.
  • Keep meeting logistics consistent, and remain available if the group moves to another platform to play.
  • Know your platform as well as each game’s rules. “One of the hardest things about learning a new game is learning new rules,” Major says. “If people can turn to the library staff to streamline that process, everyone’s going to enjoy it a lot more.”
  • Stay current, and take note of trends. When Animal Crossing was very popular in early 2020, many libraries did programming around it; now, Among Us is far more popular, Major points out.
  • Read reviews and choose games that fit well with your library and community needs.
  • Take advantage of publisher resources where you can. Many offer how-to-play videos and training, Pinsker says.
  • Invest in a good microphone and headset.

Building community around your online gaming programs can take work. The panelists suggest partnering with local toy and game stores for support. Streaming how-to-play programs on platforms like Facebook, Youtube, or Twitch, where the library already has followers, are also a good way to reach people. “Maybe they just have the library’s Facebook and just drop in,” Major notes.

The text, audio, and video chat platform Discord is also an option for some. Discord works best “if you want an ongoing, living community to interact with your game club,” according to Strang, who adds that libraries should keep in mind the needs of the community when selecting a platform, in terms of both cost and accessibility.

Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, families are turning to games in even greater numbers. “Libraries can play a huge role in that,” Pinsker says. “This is an opportunity for you to expand your patrons’ horizons.”


Illustration: Screenshot of gamers in costume playing Dungeons and Dragons (Illustration: Katie Wheeler)

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