IST 511

This week in Meaningful Gamification, we’ve been looking at behaviorism, and the ways in which it influences game design (and hence gamification of all kinds).  Like any good biology major, I came across Skinner’s theories here and there in college; like any good Darwinist, I didn’t retain them in the Permanently Useful room of my memory palace.  As I attended to the class materials, and worked to re-learn these concepts, I became more and more grumpy about them without being able to clearly identify why. Finally, as I watched a contemporaneous video about Skinner’s experiments, one sentence jumped out at me:

“Skinner did this by keeping individual pigeons at about three-quarters of their normal weight, so that the birds were always hungry, and food could be used as an automatic reward.” (0:39)

75 percent of normal weight is not just a way to keep animals peckish: it’s starvation weight.  I won’t link to the medical studies I looked up to verify this, because they’re too depressing, but basically when researchers want to study starvation in pigeons, they aim for 60-80 percent of normal body weight.  In barn owls, it is also 80 percent. And, here’s the statistic I already knew, the one that made me stop and pay full attention to the video in the first place: Standards of care for people with anorexia require hospitalization if someone is at or below 75 percent of body weight.  Risks of non-hospitalization include suicide.

Skinner’s pigeon experiments thus included abuse, cruelty, and desperation as continuous conditions. The pigeons weren’t “blank slates” as they responded to rewards and punishments – they were undergoing continual punishment. The extrapolation of results obtained under such horrifying conditions to human beings suggests that Skinner and his followers shared an incredibly pessimistic view of the human condition.  If Skinnerian analysis applies to human existence (as plenty of human psychologists assert it does), then human existence must be pretty miserable. No wonder reading about behaviorism puts me in a funk.

Fortunately, I managed to cheer myself up. First, I reminded myself of the existentialists, particularly Albert Camus.  Camus’ brilliant essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, argues that life’s tragic absurdity can be overmastered by the power of contemplation, that “[t]he struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”  Even if all our actions are perfectly meaningless, and we have no freedom of action, our will itself remains free. Like Sisyphus, or Molly Bloom, we can say yes to our lives, and in so doing, imagine ourselves happy.  Both the despair of mechanism and its anodynes predate Skinner, and he does nothing to overturn them.

In other words, even if Skinner is right about the implacable details of stimulus and response,


It would be possible to represent any human activity as pure math, to boil everything down to equations at a mechanical, biological, or chemical level.  Nothing would be left out, and someone looking at the event through a mathematical lens could be perfectly satisfied that everything was described as it should be.  That accuracy would do absolutely nothing to take away meaning. Knowing the math behind first love, or great art, or deep loss, would explain these things trivially, and allow reliable predictions about the mathematical characteristics of future occurrences. It might even spark some new insights about them, or the ability to influence their particulars – but it could never tell us what they mean.  Likewise, Skinner’s mechanistic claims imply nothing meaningful about the experience of being alive.

A starving pigeon might transcend its box, and Skinner would never know.


I’ve been more focused on my day job than on my classes this week, mostly because I’ve started training 7 new circulation student workers at once. Since they work 2 hour shifts and I’m at work 8 hours a day, you can imagine how full my days have become… and yet, I still took some time to ponder my classwork, and how it intersects with what I’m doing at my job.

In Meaningful Gamification, we’ve been talking about points, and levels, and what information they convey to game designers about how well player behavior matches the designers’ intention, and to game players about what they are supposed to be doing. By training our students, I mainly intend to teach them what they should be doing on the job, and to learn how well they are adapting to it, so it’s probably quite natural that I see some parallels. I’ve been eyeing my own training methods with an eye to how they are already game-like, and puzzling over whether I would even want to make them more game-like, and if so, how that might work.

Student workers don’t overtly earn points during their training, but they do have a checklist of things we need to cover, and I do point out their progress along this checklist on a regular basis. “Look! 7 out of 10 things on this page complete! Look! We finished this WHOLE PAGE!!”  I suspect their reaction to my enthusiasm about these milestones is similar to my reaction when I score points or level up in a game: that is, some mixture of “Woohoo!” and “Big deal.” Part of me would love to set up an online checklist, with progress bars and milestones and maybe even a quest narrative… and part of me cherishes the informality, personal interaction, and flexibility of throwing in those enthusiastic checkins when I feel we need one, rather than on a pre-set schedule.

Another way in which training resembles a game is that we build skills in some activities through a series of increasingly more difficult tasks, similar to a tutorial followed by a set of game levels. Shelving training starts with a dramatic speech about the underlying history behind the library of congress (intro cut scene), followed by some time spent using a simple online shelving game (tutorial), then reorganizing a mixed-up shelving cart (level one), and finally shelving in the actual stacks (level 2). If a student doesn’t ace level 2, they have to keep retrying it with new books until they “beat the game” and their shelving training is complete.  I even provide them with a (literal) walkthrough: we go through the area they were shelving in, looking at the books that were misshelved and talking about strategies for vanquishing similar obstacles next time.  There are also “players” at this stage who identify different goals than the ones I would like them to use (for example, they might shelve for speed instead of accuracy), and (just like any non-sandbox video game) I have to remind them of what they need to do to move on.  After talking in class this week about how many of us have different goals in mind than the ones a game sets up for us, I found myself having more sympathy for these students, and being more explicit with them about how their goals would eventually become part of the “game” as well.

As I checked all those books for shelving accuracy, I found myself wishing we had an augmented reality shelf-reading set-up like the one they’ve built at Miami University.

Not only would that approach make shelf-reading, and shelving training, a lot easier, it also looks ripe for the addition of overlays that would turn both tasks into a game.  Maybe I’m just sleep-deprived after my busy week, but I can imagine all kinds of gamified layers we could add, including point-scoring, leaderboards, and so on…

Despite my enthusiasm, I remain hesitant about what long-term effects outright BLAP gamification of routine tasks could have on the morale of our student workers.  Right now, we have a strong spirit of camaraderie and mutual appreciation in our department.  There’s a balance between having each other’s backs and “live and let live,” and the full-time, experienced staff work hard to instill that culture in our students, and to fight off any tendencies they have to be hard on each other. Maybe it’s because we’ve been studying organizational cultures in my other class this week, but I can easily imagine that turning everything into its point value could destroy our laidback, productive culture, and turn it into a competitive and adversarial one. Even if we set common goals for the group as a whole, they might become rather ruthless in prodding fellow students into contributing their fair share.  (I’ve seen that kind of behavior during charity drives in other workplaces, and it creeps me out even more than straightfoward competition does.)

I suspect that next week’s game elements, badges and achievements, will have similar drawbacks.  I’m looking forward to studying more self-contained game elements, as the course moves forward, and thinking about how we could gamify our students’ jobs in more meaningful ways.

It’s been another promising week in my Meaningful Gamification class, with lots of material to mull over.  As is my usual wont, I’m full of tangential and only slightly related thoughts. Here are three that coalesce around the idea of blurring the lines between games and reality:

Course Schedules: We’ve been getting our course schedule for this class a week or two in advance.  This also means we are getting our assignments a week or two in advance. I think it was three days ago that I first read about the Hazard that is due on Sept. 23rd, and I have almost no idea what the next major assignment will be.  As our professor, Scott Nicholson, says, the future is “shrouded in fog.”  Going into this class, the lack of ability to plan ahead was quite worrisome; somewhere along the way I’ve become the kind of student who starts each semester with a daybook and a pen, filling in deadlines and planning away.  I was afraid that I couldn’t cope with the uncertainty of not even knowing what our assignments will be, let alone when they will be due.  Surprise! I LOVE IT. Not knowing what I have to do next means I don’t have to worry about what to do next, and Scott has been foreshadowing all along, so the assignment we just received clicked into place right away. “Oh, right,” I thought, “of course that’s what happens next.” I’m not sure whether this particular game element was included in the class from expediency (it’s a new class), or purely as a pedagogical decision, but either way, I approve.  We’ll see if I still feel that way next month, when I’m on the road :).

Playing  Games with Texts: In a discussion thread, Scott mentioned that he prefers to approach games from a social sciences rather than a literary perspective, because of how important the players are to the game: that he doesn’t want to study a game like one would study a static text, without including the people playing the game in his lens.  My contrarian brain responded to his entirely valid remark by protesting that reading can be incredibly game-like.  The obvious example is that many mystery novels are also puzzles, with a commitment on the part of the author to give “fair play” clues along the road to the solution, and readers who challenge themselves to beat the fictional detective to the solution.  Well-designed fairplay mysteries are a delayed game between author and reader, satisfying to that reader no matter who wins. Even in less obvious contexts, my general experience of reading often feels gamelike: the author is setting out some rules and some structures for a shared imaginative experience, and my own goals as a reader may or may not align with their apparent intentions for me.  When they line up very closely, I do feel that we’re playing a game together; whereas when I find myself dividing up endless dull pages of assigned reading into chunks of a certain size, and seeing if I can read each chunk faster than the last one, I feel like I’ve put one over on the author (or the assigner), and won the game of “how to make anything fun.”

Alternate Reality Games: Our study material this week emphasized the difference between game-based learning and gamification. Just because you learn something from a game doesn’t mean it’s gamified learning; gamification is strictly a matter of adding game elements to non-game contexts.  I am having a bit of trouble with this distinction, clear-cut as it may seem, because I keep thinking of the edge cases.  For me, the line between playing a game and not playing a game is often blurry in the first place (see my previous two paragraphs).  Also, I can’t stop thinking about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).  Rather than adding game layers to a non-game “real world” context, ARGs pull in non-game “real world” contexts to shape and enrich a game. A circulation student worker of mine designed and ran an ARG once, and he colluded with me to use our reserves section as a clue. To advance in their game, students had to come to the circulation desk, hear our spiel about the reserve rules, and actually check out an item that was on reserve. The overall purpose of the game was purely to entertain, but that particular clue required a real-world action which achieved a real-world objective of mine: familiarizing more students with the reserve check-out process.  Was that game-based learning, gamification of a common library task, or real-world-ification of a game? Does it have to be just one?

I think the game elements in our class, including the slow unveiling/development of our course schedule, are pushing my experience solidly toward what I would expect from an ARG.  Of course, I’m still taking it seriously (dude, no one is more serious than a committed ARGer!), and of course, some part of me is still gunning for an A, and thinking about how to use this learning in work-related contexts … but it still feels more like play than like work.  Where do you draw the line between a gamified classroom and a classroom ARG?  The line I’m seeing is narrow, and it keeps flickering in and out of view.

Hello, gentle and neglected readers! After an incredibly busy winter/spring, and a recuperative summer,  I’m back at school, and taking part in a class that encourages blogging.

I’ve joined more than a dozen other hearty adventurers as participants in Scott Nicholson’s experimental course in Meaningful Gamification. This week, we’ve devoted ourselves to introductions: introducing ourselves (and our personas), studying introductory gamification concepts, considering our introduction to games and our experiences thereafter, and so on.  For me, this class is also a welcome re-introduction to the feeling of being gleefully obsessed with an idea. Our discussions about gaming, and my own thoughts and memories of it, have permeated and stimulated my thoughts all week.  At first, I worried that all-gamification-all-the-time would lead to a quick burnout, and then to apathy.  After a day or two, though, I realized how richly associational the idea of gaming is for me, and how many related avenues of thought I’ll thus be walking in the weeks to come. I’ll share the first four of those byways with y’all tonight; this may become a series as the semester goes on.

Learning: It’s fairly obvious that some parts of the learning process can be turned into games, and that games sometimes lead to accidental learning (we’re already talking about these ideas in our class). This week, I’ve also been thinking about what aspects of learning transcend the gamified scoring system of formal education, and about how much of traditional game-playing actually offers a present-moment, sometimes fleeting reward of “having learned something”. Even the “behind-the-flap” books that little kids like to read follow that pattern, don’t they? And there are few things I find more satisfying in a tabletop game than using my wiles, er, interrogation skills on that recalcitrant NPC until he finally spills a needed location. “Eureka!” is one of the best game feelings I know.

Ritual: Rhythm, and predictability, and ceremony, are deeply meaningful play components for me. I’ve been pondering the ways in which my personal gaming rituals resemble the other rituals I participate in (private, religious, musical, social), and how they differ. I’ve also been musing about the ways in which many games themselves depend on ritualized activity. Poker, in particular, comes to mind in this context; every action has to take place in a certain sequence, and every word or movement has a special significance, whether it be a fundamental part of the game, or an unwelcome tell.  Not every game is a ritual, not every ritual is a game – but often the difference seems to lie in how the participants perceive what they are doing, rather than in the sorts of things that they do.

Performance: For Scott’s class, we’ve developed characters that he can use to pseudonymously post our progress, without crossing any FERPA boundaries we don’t want crossed. He had us introduce those characters in an anonymous forum this week, and most of us eagerly seized on his suggestion that we could tell our characters’ stories, even though we had no obligation to do so. Inhabiting a role in this way is delightful, but performing with other people, particularly when we don’t even know who is who, is somehow even better.  In the other class I’m taking, Management for Information Professionals, our textbooks and readings have been using “performance” in the casual and narrow way that business jargon tends to use it: how well are employees or groups measuring up to preset standards and goals. It’s wonderful to be sharing a very different context for the word with my classmates here, thinking about what makes a character compelling, what aspects of story different individuals most want to convey, and so forth. It enriches my experience of that other class, too, to stop every so often and reinvest the word with all of its meanings.

Belief: Consciously suspending disbelief is a necessary part of many of my favorite games. I’ve often experienced a cross-over where the suspension stops being conciously chosen, where I just believe in the unfolding game narrative, for the hour or two that I am thinking about it.  Even once I stop playing, with my feet firmly on the ground, it’s a fuzzy line.  Obviously, those are just characters; obviously, there’s no such place; obviously, none of that could ever really happen.  Yet some of the characters I’ve played, or interacted with, are as clearly and richly depicted in my mind as any real-life acquaintance.  I don’t believe in them, but my imagination is quite convinced! Thinking about games always makes me think about how blurry reality can be, especially in an online class where we interact with each other’s online presence.

I could go on and on about any of these topics, but I think I’ll draw to a close for now.  Before I go, I want to give a shout out to my very dear friend Megan Macdonald, who recently graduated from a doctoral program, after many years of hard work and smart thinking. She studies the connections between belief and performance and ritual, most of the time; I’m sure that the scholarship she’s shared with me over the years has something to do with how I’ve talked about these concepts tonight.  How do you cite a lifelong friendship, and deep mutual understanding? If APA had a stylesheet for that, this post would have a “References” section.

When I started to read the Administration section in the Librarians thread of R. David Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, I was prepared to respond with enthusiasm. I’d just finished reading my friend Laura’s blog post about activism as management metaphor, and I was hoping to find a similar blend of optimism and practicality in Lankes’ text. “Librarians working together, be it in formal or informal organization boundaries, are not some organizational chart but a participatory network… we must turn our facilitation skills loose on the profession” (Lankes, 2011, p. 160). Yes! Indeed!  Eagerly, I read on.

But then I arrived at these lines:

Before, if a librarian wanted to start a blog and you said no, you had to manage the librarian’s disappointment.  Now? Librarians go and set up a free Blogger account and away they go.  Now you have to manage their rebellion and potential impacts on the institution… The same awesome freedom that makes librarians invaluable makes them hard to say no to.  This is power discussed throughout the Atlas, but for management it is a challenge. (Lankes, 2011, p. 161)

and I felt some librarian disappointment of my own.  “Manage their rebellion?” That was the most vital conversation we could have about the specifics of manager-employee relationships, the one concrete example we were going to discuss? Lankes affirmed that the librarian’s charge to “facilitate our members and lead our communities (to improve)” applied within the working-at-the-library circle of the community as strongly as it did anywhere else. However, he claimed that we must simply learn from the best management concepts outside librarianship, without “seek[ing] to advance this knowledge per se” (Lankes, 2011, p. 161). Not advance this knowledge? Why not?!?!

Administrative librarians can and must seek to advance knowledge about managing humans. If our foundational skill as librarians is meant to be facilitating conversations, shouldn’t we have a lot to contribute in broader conversations about management? Even those few librarians who never manage other people will be almost certainly be managed by someone; don’t they need to develop a professionally-grounded understanding of how management should work? Shouldn’t we try, in our LIS educations, our professional scholarship, and our reflective practice, to figure out what being a managing librarian should mean, going beyond a straightforward adoption of practices and insights from other professions?

My own experiences as an employee and a manager, and my understanding of librarianship, convince me that the most important thing a manager can do is to recognize (and support) the moral agency of her fellow employees. Later in the Librarians thread, Lankes advocated that LIS students should be taught “[h]ow to plot and scheme, cajole and convince. How to map power and gain power to put beyond a vison” (Lankes, 2011, p. 18o). He further insisted that mentorship should be recognized as a universal professional obligation, under which “the entire profession sees itself as part of the education of new librarians” (Lankes, 2011, p. 185). To teach each other what we most need to learn about power, we must not manage rebellion, but manage for it. We must encourage everyone we manage to “challenge legacy processes. all of them. often.” (Buckland, 2011). We must encourage them to resist our authority for change when they think we’ve lost our way, and our authority for stability when they believe in a needed change. We must work harder at fostering revolutions than we do at starting or containing them.  How else can librarianship grow?


Buckland, Amy.  (2011, June 26).  The talk I meant to give [Blog post].  Retrieved from

Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; if I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them. 

In the “Improve Society” thread of The Atlas of New Librarianship (2011), R. David Lankes described the shared values of librarianship as “a dedication to learning, a commitment to openness, a provision of intellectual freedom and safety, and a dedication to intellectual honesty ” (p. 120) and referred to librarians’ commitment to these values as a “pressure for improvement” that acts to amplify or, more rarely, oppose the other “pressure[s] for participation” in their communities (p. 119). So far, so good, right? But I had a lot of trouble with this thread. Not because I don’t believe in trying to change the world, but because every time I saw the phrase “improve society” (and, as you might imagine, he used it often), suddenly the textbook in front of me would turn into a red flag, and, bull-like, I would widen my nostrils, stamp my feet, and start muttering things like “Mao was a librarian, too,” under my breath. That response is, of course, a cheap shot. There have been lots of famous librarians, and many of them did improve society in useful ways.  I have no problem admitting that I want to follow my conscience even if it puts me outside community norms, so why did I have such trouble with those two simple words?

The best way to explain it is by considering the ideas of personal experience and bias that Lankes touches on elsewhere in the thread. When I read “improve society,” my mind immediately reaches back to the uses of those words I’ve most often heard before. My personal experiences include a background in evolutionary biology and a lifelong interest in world history, so for me that phrase conjures up a murky blend of social Darwinism, eugenics, colonial powers, and the Hundred Flowers Campaign – not exactly the right combination for feeling optimistic about doing good. Rather than giving up on the conversation entirely, I started casting around for a different phrase, one that could help me stay open to the thread as a whole. Soon enough, I remembered The Foundation to Decrease Worldsuck.

“Decreasing worldsuck” might sound a little silly, but for me it’s downright liberating. As an idea, it grew from the minds of a large number of warmhearted human beings who aren’t afraid to look foolish in the service of their ideals, anchored by my favorite YA writer and his brother. I also like the term because its coiners explicitly acknowledge that you only know it when you see it; everybody’s idea about it is a little bit different, and yet most of us can agree that hurricanes involve a lot of worldsuck, whereas a charitable microlender has no worldsuck at all. The effort to decrease worldsuck focuses on small, incremental change: what can I do today to make things a little bit better for someone else (or even myself) than they were the day before? Maybe it’s helping a library member find a book to read to their kid, or maybe it’s rewriting policy to strengthen services for the library’s most vulnerable members; either way, there’s a little bit less trouble, and a little bit more happiness, in the world than there was before.

“The mission of librarians is to decrease worldsuck through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”? That’s a mission I can make my own.


Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Note: I am writing a series of six posts about the six threads of The Atlas of New Librarianship as I read through them sequentially, pausing after each one. Thus, my opinions of the work itself are only informed by however many threads I’ve read so far; if I say “what about THIS, though?” in my writing, it is entirely possible that a trenchant answer to my question lies in the pages I’ve yet to read. Nobody can contain the whole of a work in each piece of the work, and I usually prefer to discuss books after I’ve read them all the way through… but for the purposes of this assignment, it’s important to record my reflections as I experience them. 

It was my first day working at the library, and I was as nervous as a cat at a dog park. I’d spent the week before in an overheated warehouse, moving boxes of books for my old boss. Now I stood around in air-conditioned comfort, watching my colleagues play Guitar Hero and argue about Facebook, and I worried. What would my new job be like? What were my new coworkers like? For the last eight years, I’d worked with no more than a half-dozen other employees at a time. How was I going to fit in among all these new people? How would I build the relationships I would need to do my job? As I hovered on the edge of the group, one of the librarians touched my arm. “You like to read,” she said. “You should join our book club.”

I blinked. “What sort of books do you read?” I asked.

“Oh, all kinds. And it’s not just library people, either. We have other friends who come too.” I smiled, and asked for details, and talked myself into going to just one meeting. I didn’t think I liked book clubs, but I liked this librarian. And it was much easier to say, “I love to talk about books,” than it would’ve been to say, “I need to make new friends.”

Four years later, the librarian in question has been living in far-away Chicago for almost four years, but I love the book club she introduced me to so much that I go to every meeting. Even the one we had last week, when I should’ve been reading my textbook instead. If I had been reading my textbook, I might’ve seen the Jessamyn West quote that opens the Community thread, “One of the things I learned in library school is that when people have an information need, they’ll always ask people they know before they ask a librarian. The trick is making sure that librarians are some of the people they know” (West, quoted in Lankes, 2011, p. 83), and wondered why I hadn’t gone. Since I did go, though, what I want to talk about now is what a book club does for its participants (really, of course, what they do for each other).

In my case, my fellow book club members were my first and best mentors in learning about the local context of the wider college community. They provided the safe environment and extended network that I needed to make sense of things. When the college went through a financial crisis along with the rest of the country in 2008, their long memories and sharp wits shaped my understanding of what my colleagues outside the library were going through. When I decided to return to school, they cheered me on. They’ve shared their adventures and losses, their concerns and enthusiasm, without stinting, and I’ve been inspired to do the same. We consider each others’ lives, not just our opinions of the books we read. Even when we discuss books, the context of our group friendship enriches our conversation.

I know first-hand that it’s not just me (not just us) who benefits from book club. Last year, I had the privilege of attending a meeting of the Dayton’s Bluff Book Club in St. Paul, MN, a neighborhood project facilitated by librarians from Metro State University Library and the Dayton’s Bluff branch of the St. Paul Public Library. Members of this book club represented a true cross-section of the neighborhood demographic, including students, blue-collar workers, and retirees who’d lived in Dayton’s Bluff their whole lives. They talked about the book, yes. But more than that, they talked about their experiences in the neighborhood, their connections to the past, and their hopes for the future. They were acting together to turn the “arbitrary and historic conglomerations” (Lankes, 2011, p.85) of shared residence in Dayton’s Bluff into something richer and more meaningful.

When I thought I didn’t like book clubs, I believed that they weren’t about the books, but they ought to be. Once I fell in love with my own book club, I decided that they weren’t about the books, but they didn’t need to be. In St. Paul, I realized that the real glory of book clubs is that they aren’t about the books, but they can pretend to be. By inhabiting a space between the impersonal and the intimate, book clubs encourage a deepening of trust.


Lankes, R. D. (2011).  The Atlas of New Librarianship.  Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License

Next Page »