On Saturday, public libraries across America celebrate video games. Highlighted by a nationwide competition of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, National Gaming Day features opportunities to play video games and a few traditional board games. More than 1,800 U.S. libraries, and a handful beyond America’s borders, will take part in the festivities.
“In the 21st century, libraries are about much more than books!” the American Library Association boasts in conjunction with its event, “the largest, simultaneous national video game tournament ever held!” In the midst of branch closings and budget cuts, public libraries have acquired a new product for loan: video games. Unlike so much of their collection, the games don’t rest long enough on shelves to collect dust. In addition to lending games, libraries now feature on-site consoles, so patrons can play right on the spot.
The new addition has proved popular. “If people think of the library as a quiet place that houses books and nothing else, this is a dated view that does not reflect the modern image of a public library today,” says Ryan Donovan, senior librarian at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan branch and point man for its National Gaming Day events. “A library is no longer just a place for books but a dynamic institution that offers a multitude of services and a variety of programs to our patrons.” He hopes that National Gaming Day will attract “a new audience to NYPL.” The thinking is that, once drawn inside by the games, young people may find other aspects of the library to their liking. And if they don’t, librarians argue that video games, like books, are inherently valuable as educational tools. Donovan contends that “a high degree of literacy and problem solving skills are developed during game play for both children and adults alike, which makes library gaming programs worth doing.”
Allen Kesinger, organizer of Newport Beach Public Library’s National Gaming Day, concedes that video games are entertainment but defends their intellectual merit. “Video games have evolved and instead of being endurance tests designed to eat up quarters, they have become a medium to deliver sophisticated, emotionally charged stories. BioShock is the story of an underwater city torn apart by civil war. Heavy Rain is an intense character drama surrounding a father’s loss of his child. Silent Hill 2 is a deep, psychological thriller about a man searching for his deceased wife. Because of this strong focus on narrative, we can use video games . . . [to] attract hesitant readers.” His library’s “celebration of video games” will host a birthday party for the iconic Mario (of Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. fame); feature a rotation of games, including Katamari Damacy and Lego Star Wars; and participate in the nationwide Super Smash Bros. tournament.
Only those who haven’t checked out a book in the new millennium would be surprised that the public library is now making video games available. The image of the urban public library as a citadel of culture and quietude shielding patrons from the noisy, dumbed-down, digital world outside has taken a hit in recent years. Anyone who has logged significant time at the library has noticed an environment at odds with what Andrew Carnegie had in mind when he bankrolled the construction of 2,811 libraries—roughly 1,000 more institutions than will be participating in National Gaming Day on Saturday. It’s not uncommon to see Internet porn on library computer consoles, and for those not satiated by simply looking, library bathrooms have become popular rendezvous points. Most conspicuously, the library has been transformed into an unofficial homeless shelter during those daytime hours when the official homeless shelter shuts its doors. Libraries have become comfortable hosting many activities unrelated to the life of the mind.
Indeed, libraries have been lending popular music and movies for decades. And one can hardly blame libraries for exhibiting the problems of the society that surrounds them. But there is a difference between tolerating vice and indulging it. Transforming the adolescent area into a makeshift video arcade makes one wonder how long until we see text-messaging races in the stacks or Dog the Bounty Hunter marathons in the main reading room. Eat as many chocolate éclairs as you wish, but don’t start calling them health food. Why all the party-line rationalizations rechristening pleasurable time-wasters as high-church, cerebral leisure? There is something redundant about Guitar Hero at the public library—like CSI airing on public television or Katy Perry on public radio.
Many people clearly find video games loads of fun. Curmudgeons may object to their existence, but one needn’t wear a monocle to see a white flag raised when institutions ostensibly devoted to preserving literary culture promote the pastime most associated with mental atrophy. Librarians beg to differ. “Interested in BioShock?” asks Newport Beach Public Library’s Kesinger. “Read Atlas Shrugged and see how close the in-game characters mirror those in the book. Did you like the God of War series? Check out our books on Greek mythology.” Or not.
Whether video games serve as a gateway to books is an open question. Settled is their role in further inching libraries from centers of enlightenment to places of amusement, from vehicles of underclass uplift to yet another institution that condescends to the public, from quiet sanctuaries in a noisy world to extensions of the high-decibel environment in which “shh” is the only verboten sound.