Creating a Welcoming Community through Social Gaming in a Library

By Edward Latham


welcoming-week-guest-blog1Since February, 2016, I have tried an experiment that brings together US-born and immigrant residents of my rural community in Milbridge, in Downeast Maine. As I believe that libraries should be community hubs, I approached my local library to learn about their vision and goals as well as the librarian’s perception of the community’s needs. I learned that the library wanted to increase the community’s use of its physical space and resources, and to have activities that bring together different populations in the community.

I proposed to use social gaming as the activity that would bring new and established community members together and that would promote nonformal learning. Social games require all players to interact, and each player must choose from a number of options in every turn. These options may include picking from several available roles, whether to buy, sell or trade resources, or choosing how aggressively to pursue a goal in the game. The games came from my collection of European-style games and included board games, card games, scale model conflicts with miniatures, simulations, roleplaying, and storytelling games.

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By the third week in February, I sat in the library with my best friend all set up to play some games. We had set up the games Puerto Rico and Pandemic, hoping to gain some interest from library patrons. Many patrons stopped to ask questions, but no one joined in to play even though we had advertised the activities for two weeks before the event. It was disappointing when no one showed up for that first activity meeting, but I knew it might be difficult to “sell” this activity.

In our second week, we got two families. Both had read about the event on the library’s Facebook page. Two mothers each brought a child about the same age. The two families came from different cultural backgrounds: Long-time, local, English-speaking Americans, and Spanish-speaking Mexicans. I was very excited to have someone show up, shared four game options, and together the group picked the one they wanted. I was a little concerned because the choice they made, Puerto Rico, is a complex game. I was pleasantly surprised. The activity was a great hit for all and, to my delight, the two families asked if they could bring others in the following week.

The families did bring in others; after a month we had an established rhythm going. On average we now have 6-10 participants every Saturday from 11am through 5pm. Their ages range from eight to 58 with slightly more females than males. I originally set the times to be 11am to 3pm, but the participants continued to ask for more and more time. The participants currently push for 6+ hours every Saturday, and we have played dozens of different games, including those found in the list at the end of this article.  The Librarian and I emailed a summary of our Community of Social Gaming project efforts to two game manufacturers. As a result, the library has received over $300 in games donated by the manufacturers.

I provide a mix of games that sometimes require competition and sometimes cooperation. In some games, the entire group succeeds or fails based on the choices of each individual. In other games, the group may fail but some individuals may have more personal success. In still other games, success is up for each individual to snatch from the others. This variation from individual focus to collaborative focus has been important in building a community of trust. It is not unusual for newcomers to meekly come in to check things out and for at least two of our regular participants to pull the newbies under their wings to show them what we are doing and how it all works. I have set the stage for mentoring in these sessions, and participants of all ages have now eagerly embraced the mentoring role when needed. It makes me long to see similar experiences offered in formal education environments.

I have observed the following kinds of learning:

Language Learning

Families for whom English is a second or other language have experienced much growth and comfort in terms of being able to more clearly articulate in English their intentions, and with figurative expressions and with understanding and expressing humor. One of our older participants is a mother who had much difficulty expressing herself in English when we started. She always appeared so dour, serious and even a bit detached at times. As I got to know her more each week, it was readily apparent that English was getting in the way of her expressing herself as she might normally do in her other social circles. As she became more comfortable with the game vocabularies, she was able to relax and enjoy the experience much more. Today, it is such a joy to see her laughing, teaching, directing, and coordinating activities with such confidence!

Players have suggested that we might put Spanish names and instructions on all of the library game pieces to better facilitate all members of the community being able to play the games. English speakers will also learn some Spanish!

Strategic Thinking

In our games, all participants are encouraged, and often prompted, to share their thought processes, for example what they perceive as good and bad options. This open discussion makes it easy for everyone to learn from the thought processes of others. It also allows me to see marked differences and changes in individual approaches. A young boy’s comment, “…Well, now I realize that I spent way too much time being aggressive early on and I have little chance of catching up to where everyone else is at in the time we have left…” is representative of the reflection and revision process constantly at work in our games. The complexity of suggested solutions has been increasing in every session as well as individuals’ speed in trying to apply options that were successful in past activities. Participants are constantly applying what they have learned from past successes to current challenges, and adapting from there. This is quite the contrast with the often random “guess and check” that happens when new participants come into the group. Our players quickly learn, however, that success in one game does not always translate to success in other games.

Mathematics

In addition to strategic thinking, our games force individuals to process many variables at a time and to project the results of a choice made two, three, or more steps ahead. The discussion centers around many dependent variables and how slight variations in each variable contributes to the success or failure of the option being presented. Although participants are not formally processing the algorithmic procedures involved in multi-variable equations, participants are constantly working at the conceptual level with complex and interdependent systems.

Language Arts

Communicating the rationale for an option presented creates strong “compare and contrast” skills in verbal interactions. Other participants often assist individuals with perspectives that increase an individual’s rationale. In our activities, it is important for participants to communicate clearly when they have finished experimenting, and when others are able to jump in. The stories and reflections shared at the end of every session create many narratives that are shared with participants every week. Whenever a new participant comes in, the narratives fly wildly, as veterans of our sessions share stories to inspire and encourage new people joining our fun. The participants are developing much better questioning skills that efficiently describe the situation and lead to successful resolution quickly.

Social Skills

With such a range of cultural, language, and age diversity in our groups, participants are always working to keep exchanges polite and positive. In one case, we had a very immature and self-centered youth join in an activity. The other members in the activity immediately engaged in positive demonstrations of what the group expects for behavior. The youth quickly learned that with collaborative behaviors comes much more inclusion and success in any of our activities.

Our regular players are starting to market our Saturday sessions in the community. Members of the group are collaborating on the creation and purchase of group tee shirts that advertise and entice others to join our Community of Gaming. Members are also coordinating on bringing snacks. We are also contemplating taking our game sessions on the road to another library twenty minutes away to introduce social gaming in that area. Our librarian has been sharing with another librarian what we are doing, and much excitement has been generated in the other community. Some group members wish to mentor others in how to set things up, how to run activities in a positive and engaging way, how to drum up local interest, and how to best communicate weekly with all potential participants. We currently are using a digital tool called Remind to share updates, news, postings, and suggestions with all the families involved. Those that don’t have digital devices have automatically been taken under the wing of other families that do in order to create a sort of phone tree..

As an educator, I am encouraged by all the positive evidence I see weekly from these nonformal learning experiences. Formal education and adult education in particular, should feel as positive as our group feels. While I have offered options, guidance, and resources to get everyone started, it is the collaborative framework the group established early on that has helped to grow our experiences from no-show events to events that now require two or three large tables and facilitate 18 or more people at times and may well expand to libraries in other local communities.

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List of games played in order of approximate frequency that the game has been played

  • Puerto Rico
  • Extinction
  • Pandemic
  • Marvel Legendary
  • Dominion
  • Bohnanza
  • Mancala
  • Pinata
  • Compounded
  • Carcassone
  • Ticket to Ride
  • Dice Masters
  • Magic the Gathering
  • Sentinels of the Multiverse
  • Eldritch Horror

Edward Latham is an adult educator in Maine who has also provided professional development to other educators for more than ten years. He specializes in mathematics, computer science, and technology integration in his work with learners and teachers. He is a partner of World Education’s Ed Tech Center. He is also part of the Maine College and Career Readiness Standards team at the state level and has been an educational consultant to many agencies. His email address is ohgeer@gmail.com

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4 thoughts on “Creating a Welcoming Community through Social Gaming in a Library”

  1. Fabulous! I love how this project brings people together to engage in something fun and interesting, and how, with skilled facilitation, language learning, critical thinking, and social interaction increase. I am particularly intrigued with the success of the “think aloud protocol” where participants articulate their strategies. I appreciated the clear writing in this piece.

    1. The group continues to grow in ways that fascinate me. This last weekend, the “think aloud protocol” morphed in an amazing way. One player was sharing her thinking aloud and stopped midway to ask for the for assistance with pronunciation of an English word. She was struggling to get a “t” sound in the middle of a word and players immediately supported her efforts to improve the pronunciation. Later, in the game, I asked about a Spanish word’s pronunciation and received support from the players. Some players started practicing words under their breath when it was not their turn and would often try the pronunciation again during lulls in the game conversations. The language exchange is going both ways in our group and as the trust continues to grow, the innovative ways the players are supporting each other in learning is impressive!

  2. This is a great example of how public libraries and other community venues: other local government agencies such as recreation and community centers; granges; religious organizations; and other places where people can comfortably gather, can foster community inclusion, English language learning, strategic thinking, biliteracy, and community building. It is brilliant that the Milbridge Maine Public Library leaders immediately saw the potential value of this kind of activity for its library and for the community.

  3. What a great idea. I love the way you’ve created a space for communities to come together. One of our local Portland communities did something similar with a writing group that brought both long-term English-speaking locals and the refugee community living there. When the class was complete both groups spoke of how wonderful it was to have been able to share with each other in this setting.

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