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.”

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