@Play: At libraries, fun and games now the lure

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nine-year old Cody Wallace and his seven-year-old brother Justin spent the day at the library last weekend, but for once they weren't working on book reports. They were playing video games.

In a room tucked away in a corner of the building near the children's section of Capitol Hill's Northeast Neighborhood Library, the red-headed duo squared off on an Xbox 360. One boy picked the Baltimore Ravens, the other chose the New England Patriots as they played the latest version of the popular John Madden football game. At the other end of the room, another crowd of older kids gathered around a Nintendo Wii.

Last Saturday marked the American Library Association's second annual National Gaming Day, an event designed to bring new faces into the nation's libraries.

"Video games really attract teenage boys, and that's a demographic that doesn't come to the library as much as we'd like," said the branch's youth librarian, Brandon Digwood, who brought his Nintendo game system from home for the afternoon.

This year, 1,365 library branches in the nation participated in the ALA event, giving students an opportunity to play video games while also, hopefully, encouraging them to check out a few books. The organization said it has heard anecdotally that libraries in Canada and Japan participated as well.

ALA President Camila Alire said last week that it isn't a stretch for a local library to keep a few video games on its shelves. After all, libraries also carry CDs and DVDs. "We've always tried to meet the needs of users as new formats come out," she said.

According to a recent study conducted by a university in Wisconsin, Alire said, video-game fans spend four times as much time reading reviews, blogs and strategy guides as they spend with a game controller in their hands. In other words, if you're going to beat a video game, literacy helps.

National Gaming Day is not limited to video games; the library association also uses board games as a draw. Bethesda-based North Star Games donated 2,000 copies of its Wits & Wagers and Say Anything board games for this year's event.

Last year's event brought in about 14,000 youngsters. More than doubling its turnout this year, the ALA counted about 30,000 participants.

Alire said she thinks the organization will hold the event annually -- but for some libraries in the area, an afternoon of video games is a regular monthly draw.

George Williams, media relations manager for the D.C. Public Library, said that at least five libraries in the system hold video-game events on a regular basis.

The Northeast branch sponsors a video game afternoon on the third Wednesday of every month that brings in a small crowd of regulars. The library owns a PlayStation 2 and stocks a handful of kid-friendly titles, such as Dance Dance Revolution.

The Wallace boys' mom, Karen, said she doesn't find it odd that a library would dabble in video games. "Getting kids into the library is a good thing." Especially for the older kids. After all, she said, "they're in the library and not out doing other stuff."

Of course, embracing new technologies also means taking on the headaches that sometimes come along with them. Saturday's event at Northeast hit a minor hitch as the group gathered around the Wii tried to take on a group parked in a Michigan library for an online match of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, a cartoon-like fighting game featuring popular Nintendo characters. Digwood tapped away on a laptop computer trying to figure out a fix, but he eventually picked up a game controller for a few minutes to play a round.

It turned out to be a quick break, as the young library patrons defeated him with relative ease. "I didn't have a chance," he said with a chuckle.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company