A gaming center and so much more
Every day by 3 pm, all the computers at my branch of the Chicago Public Library are in use by students. They log on to play RuneScape, visit gaming Web sites such as cartoonnetwork.com and gamingaddict.net, watch YouTube videos, or check their Tagged or MySpace accounts. This is a familiar sight in libraries across the country.
Recently, there has been an explosion of journal articles and programming information regarding young people and gaming. But what kind of programming should we be offering them? Is simply giving them access to a computer with an Internet connection enough, or are we missing out on a great opportunity?
Warren Buckleitner, publisher of Children’s Technology Review, has some answers to these questions. For the past five years, he has been the executive director of Mediatech, a technology center at the Flemington Free Public Library in New Jersey. Recently, I talked to him about his experiences in creating Mediatech.
What is Mediatech?
Mediatech is a technology center within the Flemington Free Public Library that was started in 2003. The center circulates video games rated E (everyone) and T (teen), has most of the major video game platforms (Wii, Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation, and PlayStation 2), and has 12 computers with high-speed Internet connections.
But I want to emphasize that Mediatech is more than a gaming center; it is also a high-tech classroom that benefits the entire community. For example, we have a group called the Hunterdon Hispanics that uses the center for computer training. While the adults are learning how to use spreadsheets or create a Word document, their children are using the gaming consoles in the center and socializing with other kids. So the center goes beyond being just a gaming space—it’s become a real community gathering place. If you would like to take a quick tour of the center, there is a video posted on YouTube, “A Day at Mediatech.” The link is youtube.com/watch?v=VTR_Uk26tiM.
What inspired you to create Mediatech?
About five years ago, I decided to become a technology missionary. Flemington is a very socioeconomically diverse community. I believe everyone should have equal and free access to information and technology, and that includes games. Let’s face it, games are expensive. A new first-run version of a game costs at least $50. Then, in order to play that game, you need the correct gaming hardware, which costs $250 and up when purchased new. Besides the economic barrier gaming presents, I also realized a lot of children who are fortunate enough to have their own gaming systems at home are becoming more and more isolated. I thought that if we brought this technology to the library setting, we could create a social environment that would foster creativity, learning, and socialization.
Once you had the idea for this center, how did you make it a reality?
Mediatech had a real grassroots beginning. Initially we started with about $14,000 donated by local businesses, the Rotary Club, and the Lions Club. The library used funds from a trust to refurbish the space. Most of our equipment was donated and, in the early days, we even garbage-picked old televisions and used them as computer monitors. All of the networking was done by students and Embarq donated the Internet access. The center has a big advantage because I am a reviewer for Children’s Software Review and can donate hundreds of games.
How can libraries without a hefty budget for gaming systems and software start a circulating collection?
Put a notice in the local newspaper and let people know that the library is accepting donations of video games and hardware. Be sure to design a sticker that can adhere to the contributed item so the person who gifted it can be credited: “This game was donated by…” Since purchasing games can be a real budget drain, this is a great way to build a collection. Any donations that we couldn’t use were recycled or given to families in the community.
When building a gaming collection, you need to be aware of game ratings. At Mediatech, we use the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating system. Games rated R, like Halo, are not included in our collection. As I stated earlier, we only offer games rated E and T. So you want to have a written policy concerning acquisitions. For more information about the ESRB rating system, visit esrb.com.
What kind of programming takes place at Mediatech?
One of our gaming programs is the weekly meeting of the Serious Game Testers Club. This club is the equivalent of a book club, but instead of books, kids test and critique games. These games don’t necessarily have to be recently released, they can be older titles. Sometimes we’ll play the game on four different platforms so we can discuss the differences. Besides critiquing the game play, the youngsters also talk about the art and craft that goes into creating the game. Mainly we try just to have fun. We’re trying to expand the kids’ knowledge of all the different systems so they become video game literate. Here is a link to a video of one of our kids critiquing the game Burnout Paradise: youtube.com/watch?v=vCD3FMPSJf0.
We also offer gaming tournaments featuring Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution. One thing fairly unique to Mediatech is that we loan our gaming systems to schools and other libraries so they can host their own competitions. For example, we’ve loaned Rock Band, along with a video projector and the console, to the local middle school for a dance. This is good public relations for Mediatech and reinforces our commitment to the community.
What’s your most popular attraction at Mediatech?
It varies. Things get hot for a few weeks and then cool off. Right now, everyone wants to play Rock Band. We have a drum set, projector, and sound system. Since Mediatech is in an isolated part of the building, we can get really loud. Rock Band is a great game that promotes socialization at the library. Kids will go up to other kids they don’t know and invite them to join their band so they can get a game going. Other games that have been really popular with the elementary crowd include: Boogie, Brain Age 2, Carnival Games, Disney Princess: Endless Journey, PaRappa the Rappa, Master of Illusion, Jam Sessions, and LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga.
Where do you see Mediatech in the future?
Mediatech-2.0 will include improved hardware and more video editing equipment. I want kids to be able to explore their creative side. I’d like to see classes on video game creation where the youngsters can use Alice or Scratch. We recently acquired three camcorders, so having a movie contest would be another possibility.
Any final words?
Mediatech has been a catalyst for our community and I really think every city should have one. It’s become a sort of village square, where conversations are being started between people who might never have met outside of the library. More and more people are using our services in ways we never imagined. For example, we have families coming in to use our webcams and a Skype account to communicate with loved one overseas. The possibilities are endless. The beauty of this whole thing is that it’s happening in an old brick building in the center of town called the library.
If you are attending the American Library Association Annual Conference in Anaheim, please join us on Sunday, June 29 from 1:30 to 3:30 pm where our discussion will continue in a program titled “Hey! I Want to Do That, Too!” Besides providing further details about the Mediatech center, Buckleitner will discuss how children at different developmental levels use technology and present a brief slide show of recommended Web sites, games, and interactive media. Also, check out the “Showcase of Success” (immediately before and following the program), which will share successful gaming and technology programs for children at libraries and media centers across the country.
If you can’t make it to Anaheim, visit the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) ChildTech Wiki at wikis.ala.org/alsc/index.php/ALSC_ChildTech_Wiki.
Amber Creger is a children’s librarian at Chicago (IL) Public Library.