Library gaming programs reflect growing interest in tabletop games

by Amanda Hutchinson

The BorgWarner room in the Tompkins County Public Library is an unassuming space tucked away past the stacks and usually reserved for public meetings. Come Monday at 4, however, it’s home to junk food-fueled board game sessions and wildly silly storytelling.

Game On!, as the program is called, utilizes board games, trading card games, and tabletop role-playing games to give kids of all ages an opportunity to play and socialize after school. It’s part of a larger movement to incorporate tabletop gaming into library programming as an educational resource.

Regina DeMauro, teen librarian at TCPL, said she started the tabletop game club this summer. Each weekly session would attract around 15 kids, and DeMauro continued it into the school year because it drew such a good crowd.

“I like games and gaming, and I used to play Dungeons and Dragons, and I thought that it was a really great way to get kids to do some research on their own, to develop math skills, to develop their own storytelling skills,” DeMauro said. “I think it’s really great for developing empathy, and it helps make people pretty well-rounded but it’s still really fun for them.”

More than 7,400 libraries and 200,000 patrons have participated in the American Library Association’s annual International Games Day in the last six years, and TCPL will be participating in the November 15 event. DeMauro also said the program will take a break over the holidays and reevaluate its meeting time for next year, as it conflicts with game clubs at both Ithaca High School and Boynton Middle School.

At the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, gaming and library technology specialist Brian Mayer has helped create a collection of more than 200 tabletop games over the last seven years. He currently works with librarians and teachers in the 22-district region to use the games in their curriculum. The entire collection connects back to the schools’ programming, including Freedom: The Underground Railroad, which Mayer designed and published in 2012 with Academy Games.

These games aren’t educational games, Mayer said, but rather “real games with educational value,” which comes from the authenticity of the gaming experience and provides what he calls “contact with meaning.” Tabletop gaming also helps students develop fine motor skills as well as apply what they know in the game designing and playing processes, making them valuable resources for a library or school.

This shift in educational interest reflects a greater overall interest in the world of tabletop gaming. Estimates from the BBC suggest more than 20 million people have played Dungeons and Dragons alone since its creation in 1974, and International Tabletop Day, which is held in March, had more than 3,000 registered groups each in 2013 and 2014. The recent increase in attention is due to a mix of influences, including the mainstreaming of geek culture, said Jason Koepp, editor in chief of Tabletop Gaming News.

“Shows like Big Bang Theory, the popularity of big-budget movies based on comic books and 80’s children’s toys, a.k.a. Transformers, events like San Diego ComicCon and Dragon*Con, and ‘geek ambassadors’ like Wil Wheaton have all culminated in making it so being a nerd isn’t a bad thing anymore,” Koepp said. “We aren’t as socially ostracized as we once were.”

The variety of tabletop games for people to choose from has increased dramatically from the handful that were available when Koepp started gaming in the early 1990s, attracting a wider variety of players. Visitors to a “friendly local game store,” such as The Enchanted Badger on Route 13, can find anything from chaotic party games to two-player strategy games, owner Stacia Humby said.

“It’s really interesting to see one person find a game that they think will be interesting, bring it out to a board game night, and then all of a sudden we’re sold out,” she said. “It really is very community-driven.”

Campus game thirsts for brains… and safety

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 by Amanda Hutchinson and Candace King

On a rainy Saturday morning, a collection of students, armed to the teeth with Nerf weaponry, huddles under an overhang, waiting for instructions. A warning from one of their leaders echoes through their minds: “Humans, days like this are an advantage to zombies. Darts don’t fly great in rain. Zombies do.”

Played in over fifty campuses across the country and 10 universities internationally, Humans vs. Zombies is a tag-based, campus game in which humans protect themselves from the tagging zombies with Nerf weaponry and balled-up socks. As the game grows in popularity, in-game safety has become a priority, and players and administrations are working together to prevent issues in the future.

Safety wasn’t a concern until more people got involved and the game became more widespread, said Joe Sklover, who helped create the game at Goucher College in 2005.  He and his friends had to work with the school’s public safety department to discuss acceptable behavior and the new rule set, including notifying the entire campus by email about their game for awareness.

“This is something that every HvZ club deals with,” Sklover said. “When people play the game, they’re playing like real zombies are chasing them and they really do disregard their safety. Our rule changes from year to year have primarily dealt with safety concerns.”

The Ithaca College club hasn’t seen any major injuries in the last three years, but twisted ankles and falls do happen, as well as crossfire. Junior Taylor Rescignano said she has been hit by a stray dart coming out of the fitness center, most likely because she was wearing a headband, which was the “mark of the zombie” for the game. The player apologized, and after she spoke to a friend in the club, zombies were required to wear a headband and armband to distinguish between club members and bystanders.

“I’m not really mad about it, just mostly confused,” Rescignano said. “I think they changed [the rule] because so many people got hit.”

Cornell University created an HvZ club in 2006, but the administration shut it down after two semesters. Ithaca Week received no response from the university after multiple attempts at contact, but Dustin Franco, who started the club again in 2011, said the administration was not in favor of having “toy guns” on campus.

“There were definitely some hesitation from the Cornell administration because they did not want people to be using Nerf guns, so we brought it back with a ‘socks-only’ [game],” Franco said.

Cornell’s HvZ group disintegrated again after Franco graduated in 2013, but he said it was due to a void in leadership rather than an administrative conflict.

In comparison, HvZ has been a success at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where more than 900 players participated in their last round earlier this semester. Club president and RIT senior Katie Tigue said their missions run from 9pm to 11pm from Friday night to Sunday night.

“People running around at 9 o’clock at night with Nerf guns could be a little intimidating. Also, accidents do happen when you’re running around in the dark,” Tigue said. “That could be really stressful.”

Tigue attributes their safety successes to their relationship with the school’s public safety department, including meetings every other day during rounds. She also said the RIT campus is conveniently set up for the game as well: in comparison to Cornell, RIT is surrounded by a forest with no major roads through campus and enough space in the academic area to avoid the dorms altogether.

IC club president and senior Ezra Chamberlain said a lot of safety issues, and ultimately the game’s success, come down to players knowing their own limits as well as those of the game and campus.

“Don’t be stupid,” Chamberlain said. “If you know the rocks are wet, don’t run down the really steep rocks. Know yourself. If you know you have asthma, bring your inhaler with you. It’s totally fine to take yourself out of the game if you have an asthma attack. We rather you recover and play more, than get hurt seriously from something.”

Hard cider makes a comeback: local businesses promote the unique beverage

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by Amanda Hutchinson and Tiffany Ruff

This article is also published on Ithaca Week and The Ithaca Voice.

Ten local producers and fans around the Finger Lakes are joining forces this week to honor local cider at “Cider Week FLX,” reflecting a growing national interest in the beverage.

A colonial staple, once more popular than beer or wine, cider is making a comeback. According to a 2014 study done by Washington State University’s Carol Miles and Virginia Tech’s Greg Peck, cider makers are ramping up production to meet demands.

Over the course of the two-year survey at Chicago’s annual CiderCon, run by the United States Association of Cidermakers, Miles and Peck found all but one cidery were planning on expanding. According to the survey, in 2013 a quarter of the 64 respondents had not yet started cider production. The researchers believe that this percentage represents cider producers that have either just started business or will sometime soon.

Chris Matthewson, a winemaker at Bellwether Hard Cider and Wine Cellars in Trumansburg said that the business has grown the most in the last five years. Cideries in the Finger Lakes often utilize Cornell’s expansive collection of apple varieties. Bellwether produces mainly American heirloom apple cider varieties from upstate New York—from dry Champagne-style ciders to ciders blended with cherry or black currant.

Cider blogger Meredith Collins, who also works for Bellwether, developed an interest in cider production after studying abroad in Norwich, England. When she returned, she realized that there weren’t as many hard cider varieties in the States, but recent expansion prompted her to create “Along Came a Cider,” where she reviews different ciders.

“[Now] we’re getting people who know what cider is,” Collins said. “They come through this front door because they specifically want it.”

Collins noted that the majority of customers first try commercial brands but then move toward local varieties. She said the cider trend is extending to wineries and breweries as well, as wineries can apply their fermentation techniques to fruit, and beer makers are starting to produce more six-pack ciders.

Friday marked the start of “Cider Week FLX” with a tasting and meet-and-greet at Cellar d’Or with Bellwether, Eve’s Cidery in Van Etten, and Redbyrd Orchard Cider in Trumansburg. Mark Grimaldi, who owns the wine and cider shop, said many customers know little about cider. He said that in the past, customers would often confuse hard cider with super-sweet, non-alcoholic apple cider.

Cider makers and distributors agree that public interest in cider is here to stay, especially since it can cater to a variety of dishes and palates.

“I think a lot of millennials have gotten into hard cider—it offers the best benefits of popular drinks like draft beer and wine,” Matthewson said.

Local universities honor centenary of iconic bird extinction

by Amanda Hutchinson and Christian Araos

This article is also published on Ithaca Week.

Cornell University and SUNY Cortland joined more than 190 institutions around the world in honoring the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Through educational programming and art installations, researchers are aiming to use the extinction as a teaching moment for conservation.

The passenger pigeon was known for its mass migrations and vibrant plumage. It went from having a population of at least two billion, one-fourth the total bird population in North America at the time, in the 1850s to extinct in 1914. Ron Rohrbaugh, assistant director of conservation science at the ornithology lab, said the birds’ demise was due to overexploitation via sport hunting and the restaurant trades.

“The thing that really sticks out in my mind is the rapidity and the scale in which we operated,” Rohrbaugh said. “The lesson in that is we can’t take anything for granted around us. We see abundance in wildlife populations but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.”

Works of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology lab’s artist-in-residence, Todd McGrain, are on display as part of the centenary, including a sculpture at the lab’s entrance. McGrain, currently in Africa, told Audubon Magazine that he is hoping his work as an artist raises awareness about rapid extinctions and the human impact on the environment.

“My hope to contribute to the growing efforts by organizations such as Audubon,” McGrain said. “Naturalists, scientists, ornithologists, environmentalists, teachers, and people in all parts of our society who are attempting to raise awareness about the current loss of species of plants and animals. Our deteriorating environment puts many fragile species under stress.”

In addition to McGrain’s works, the ornithology lab is also hosting “Moving Targets,” a collection of passenger pigeon-inspired pieces. Drawings and paintings depicting the birds’ beauty, magnitude, and demise are on display in the auditorium as well as in other institutions as part of the centenary.

Construction limited SUNY Cortland’s involvement with the centenary, as the museum housing the passenger pigeon exhibit is being renovated. Biology professor Larry Klotz said the university’s four specimens came from a 19th century natural history collection within the city. Once the museum renovations are complete this winter, he wants the passenger pigeons to be on display, even if no other exhibits are up. Jordan Nesbitt, one of Klotz’s students, is working on a program, which will be piloted at Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortland using passenger pigeons as an example for the conservation of other species.

“Our focus on this project is mainly education in schools,” Nesbitt said. “Kids coming out of middle school and high school already have conservation efforts in mind…They have a background in outdoor education and working with that is something that’s important to me because once the kids are aware, they’re going to share that if they find it interesting.”

SUNY Cortland is one of nearly 200 institutions working with Project Passenger Pigeon, an educational program based around the bird and headed by natural history writer Joel Greenberg. He hopes to use Project Passenger Pigeon and the centenary as a way to inspire change.

“We’re hoping that if you think about it, you might ultimately change something and be involved,” Greenberg said.

“Moving Targets” will be on display at the ornithology lab until the end of the year.

Click on the picture for the slideshow.

Click on the picture for the slideshow.

Northeast wins NYSED achievement award

Northeast-front-sign

Teachers and administrators alike at Northeast Elementary pointed to the combination of staff, students, and families as a reason for the school’s continued success.

by Amanda Hutchinson and Angela Mammino

Ithaca City School District’s Northeast Elementary received the New York State Education Department High Performance Reward School designation last month for its academic achievements from 2011 to 2013.

The designation goes to New York schools within the top 20th percentile of academic achievement in the state, as well as to those schools in the top 10th percentile of progress in English language arts (ELA) and math. In addition to requiring high academic achievement, it also requires that students at these schools are making faster academic progress than the state average. Northeast is the second ICSD school in three years to receive the designation.

This year, 354 schools out of more than 4600 throughout the state received the designation. Northeast principal Jeff Tomasik said the school’s success comes largely from the cooperation between students, staff, and families, and he was glad that there is now recognition for that.

“We have an awesome staff, great families, great kids that all work really well together,” Tomasik said. “Our teachers are really talented and committed to success of all kids, the parents and families as a whole are very supportive of the school, and the students are very curious, very hard working. We all work really hard to make it a fun place but also a place for kids to achieve at a really high level.”

Melissa Tesoriero, who recently won an award from the Ithaca City School District for her 25 years of service teaching at Northeast, said the staff and faculty are very dedicated to getting students on the same page academically. It is not uncommon to see teachers staying late after school, and Tomasik is very supportive of the teachers’ plans.

“There’s a lot of pressure on teachers right now with Common Core and the New York State standards, and Jeff works with us and trusts us enough to let us keep moving forward,” Tesoriero said. “There are three [third grade] teachers and we meet every day and talk so that every child that’s in third grade really is receiving the same instruction along the same page.”

Tesoriero also noted the need to adapt to teaching models that better serve students’ needs. While she knows what she wants her students to get out of each lesson, she also recognizes that guiding rather than lecturing and small group works allows them to learn from each other as well as from her, and she can also learn from them.

“Direct instruction, where the teacher is standing in front of the classroom, is kind of a thing of the past,” she said. “We have to realize that different kids learn in so many different ways, and we have to try and come up with as many of those ways as we can so that all kids are successful.”

The Reward School designation came just three years after Northeast was named a Blue Ribbon School by the United States Department of Education, recognizing the school’s high levels of achievement on the national level. Tomasik was invited to a conference in Washington, DC to network with other Blue Ribbon School administrators and learn about their programming.

Northeast shares the designation of Reward School with fellow ICSD school Belle Sherman Elementary, which received it in 2012. Belle Sherman principal Dan Breiman also emphasized the balance of achievement and enjoyment that were recognized by this award.

“Our students have demonstrated what it means to not only excel in the classroom but to have fun while doing so,” Breiman said.

Part of the Reward Schools’ responsibility is to reduce the achievement gap between students of different “accountability measures” such as income level. Belle Sherman Parent Teacher Association treasurer and parent Leia Raphaelidis said the administration at Belle Sherman continues to work to narrow these gaps, not only in terms of testing but also with technology and book access and academic assistance as a whole.

“Whether a student’s parents are both PhDs at Cornell or newly arrived refugees with limited English, there is universal commitment to help each kid succeed,” she said.

Neither designation came with a budgetary incentive, but Tomasik said it is incentive to continue their “standard of excellence” through their current programming as well as good recognition for the school’s work .

“It’s nice to start the year with positive momentum and positive energy,” he said.

Revival

Don’t worry, I made it back from Argentina ok. I just didn’t have much time to post because I was working most of the week and a half I was home, and then as soon as I got back to good old Ithaca, I was working all day here too. As it is, I started this post on I think Wednesday and haven’t gotten around to finishing it til now.

Never fear, though, because I have another class that requires WordPress posting! I’m still a little nervous about multimedia because it’s a full fledged newsroom course on top of the 14 other credits I’m taking (not to mention work), but it’ll be good practice for the real world when I’ll probably have to take on two jobs to make ends meet, and it looks like there’s minimal video editing. Those stories will be under the newly created “Digital Newsroom” category and tab so they have their own special place separate from other shenanigans that may be posted here, and they’ll be out either every week or every other week, depending on the assignment.

I’m also hoping to be better about posting my external articles on here. They always go into my Portfolio tab, but I’m not deluding myself into thinking people actually look there, so a quick post to say “Hey, I wrote this” should help with traffic. The informational meeting for Buzzsaw is Wednesday, so the first article for that will probably be out around the end of the month, and if I do end up writing my obligatory article for The Ithacan, I’ll post that too. I was supposed to have one this week about the history of craft beer in Ithaca based on an exhibit at Cornell, but the exhibit said nothing about Ithaca and the oldest brewery here is 15 years old, plus my editors didn’t like my idea to expand it to the history of craft beer in upstate NY, which is much more involved.

EDIT: It turns out there’s an advantage of being friends with the editor-in-chief. I explained the situation with my beer article, and he said that he can override the section editor and let me expand it to the region so they actually get an article.

Finally, the class may require some reworking of the site, so keep an eye out for that.

Stay tuned for another story-filled semester!

Heading out

My stuff is (mostly) packed, I’ve bought (almost) all the snacks I want to bring back, and I did early check-in, so really at this point it’s just waiting for a last-minute shower, dinner, and then the taxi to take me to the airport where I get to begin my super awesome 24-hour traveling adventure of planes, trains, and automobiles. (seriously, though, I have an hour ride to the airport, a 7 hour flight to Panama City, a 4 hour layover there, a 5 hour flight to Newark, a 2.5 hour layover there, a 3.5 hour train ride back to CT, and then a short car ride home.)

Long trip home aside, here are some highlights from my trip:

  • working with the lovely folks of La Poderosa Media Project to learn about the anthropology of food and how important it is to a community
  • not getting sunburnt until my last day in Ecuador…
  • being able to see some neat shows with Mente Argentina
  • getting to the point where I was comfortable walking around Buenos Aires on my own (during the day…)
  • writing for The Bubble and getting my first professional journalistic hate mail because even though I’m still annoyed with the inability of some people to understand how science and science journalism work, it was a good article and I’m proud of it.
  • and getting to try all the food, whether it be a 3-hour manabita classic, a Pick Up the Fork “restaurant for cheap bastards,” or milanesas and ice cream with my host family.

It’s been fun, guys.