Specials: I know all the Dewey Decimal Numbers by heart. Video games are 794.8.
Libraries and video games have never managed to hit it off. Several games, including GoldenEye and Halo, have levels called "The Library", but that's really where it ends. People in all corners of the Internet debate about the academic merits of games, but libraries are ignored. Until now. Public libraries all over the country have been adding video games to their collections. Its very possible that a library in your hometown has games on its shelf right now.
When I am not writing about games, I work at one of these libraries. I had floated the idea of adding games to my manager several times last year, but always as a joke. Even though many patrons, children and adults, had requested that we carry video games. Libraries would never carry console games I thought. But in a sense, games are already a recognized part of a good library as most carry CD-ROMs, a few of which might even be games. However, they are the exception, not the rule. Around June of last year, we discontinued our CD-ROM collection. Everything was being locked down with CD Keys and other security measures and it made the borrowing and re-borrowing of materials between patrons impossible. CD Keys would lock up and refuse access to the install process after a piece of software had only circulated several times. Even though we were well within our rights that were spelled out in the License Agreements.
This was my opening. I explained to my manager that video games didn't require CD Keys, and that unless they were scratched beyond repair they would always work. I was also given a break because many public libraries are looking to increase their use by teens. Graphic novels had been added earlier in the year and helped the circulation numbers a little, surely I argued, games could bring in more people. So at the end of the year, I was given the OK to use a little leftover money in the budget to look into video games.
My first job was to decide which system to carry as my manager did not want competing formats to confuse patrons or the staff. The PlayStation 2, having the largest selection of games and the largest install base was a quick choice. While the decision to go with the PS2 format seemed like a no-brainer (and it was), my manager raised some interesting questions. She first asked if the PS2 was in danger of being replaced anytime soon. I explained that the PlayStation 3 isn't due until 2006 at the earliest and that it is assumed it will be backwards compatible with PS2 games.
I hadn't thought of the "expiration date" of my choice. As gamers, when a new system comes out, what do we do? We buy it. Sure we make excuses like "there was a price drop" or "it's backwards compatible" or "new Mario Kart! Sweet!", but we do it because it's our money and we're addicted. We may not be there on launch day, but owning multiple systems in the same generation is no longer unheard of. With public money you have to be slightly more conservative. You also have to be sure there will be a demand for more than a year or two. I mean how many Blockbusters still carry PSone or N64 games? But this time around, industry analysts have said that graphics can't make that exponential jump anymore. PS3 games will not look that much different than PS2 games. There won't be that incentive to upgrade that there was with this generation.
As the only staff member who played video games, I created a "dream list" of about 50 titles comprised of personal favorites, critical favorites, bestsellers and games I really wanted to play but hadn't had the chance to. It was an obvious pipe dream, the budget didn't have the money for 50 titles. Then the qualifiers came in to pare the list down. I was forbidden to purchase any Mature-rated games because the collection was so new. The idea was that the games should be accessible to the largest group of people possible and that meant not ignoring kids, who shouldn't be playing Grand Theft Auto anyway. The second qualifier: no Simpsons games just yet. I don't know why, but that was rule number two. Finally I was told that the order had to go through the library-approved online store, so no trip across the street to EB Games with the corporate credit card and a chance to live out every kid's dream.
With the rules in place, I sat down to make the order list and the librarian's dilemma hit me. Do you buy what the public wants or what you think the public should be playing? Or do you act a little selfishly and fill out your collection with games you really want? I removed several more titles from the dream list and thought I had a good mix of all three. And to further my budget, I tried to stick mostly to Greatest Hits and budget titles to build a large collection quickly. Thirty $20 games is much better than twelve $50 games to your average library patron.
Unfortunately the online site we order from had other plans. Almost my entire list was back ordered. A few were in stock, but most were not. And others were much more expensive than they would be at other retailers. I had to backtrack. I had to go back through previous revisions of the list and try anything to fill the order. By the end of the process I was plugging random titles into the search box to see what, if anything, would be available. Finally, I was finished and my final order looked like this:
ESPN NBA 2K5
ESPN NFL 2K5
ESPN NHL 2K5
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Hot Shots Golf Fore!
Lord of the Rings: The Third Age
Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal
Sonic Mega Collection Plus
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Battle Nexus
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4
Tony Hawk's Underground 2
WWE Smackdown VS Raw
With the choices available, I think this first batch of games was as good as I could have made it. It even stayed true to my criteria of things the public wanted (WWE Smackdown VS Raw, Spider-Man 2, the Tony Hawk games), things that were critically acclaimed (Katamari Damacy, the ESPN games, Culdcept) and family-friendly titles (Harry Potter, Hot Shots Golf, The Incredibles). I was very pleased that I was able to include Culdcept, one of my all-time favorite games, and Alias and Van Helsing, two games I wanted to play, but hadn't had the chance to yet.
But my list was also missing many of the game's I had originally sought out. I was very disappointed that critical favorites like Burnout 1 and 2, Soul Calibur II, ICO, all of the Nippon Ichi strategy games and Beyond Good and Evil were back ordered. My family-friendly section took a hit as well when I couldn't order any Jak game, Sly Cooper, Gran Turismo 3, any Dragon Ball Z game or Viewtiful Joe. All of the Square RPGs weren't available. No Lord of the Rings games other than The Third Age. And then there was stuff that I wanted to share with other gamers that may not have discovered them yet. Both Maximo games, Mega Man Anniversary Collection, Contra: Shattered Soldier, four of my favorite PS2 titles and all were unavailable.
Beyond the ordering fiasco, other problems arose. When Amplitude arrived, the case was empty. When I went to re-order it, it was (not surprisingly) on back order. It was also taking a long time to add the games to the county database because the processing department downtown was flooded with a backlog of year-end purchases and was still trying to stay on top of the new releases. Add video games to the mix and a new format gets pushed to the back of the line. As of today, only ten titles out of the 23 ordered are available to the public.
Now that "video games" have finally rolled onto library shelves, what do I do next? Things are looking up though. And even though they've been available less than a month, circulations and hold requests for the available games are very good. And actually, the first games were borrowed by a thirty year old man (Tony Hawk's Underground 2)and a forty year old woman (Van Helsing) who informed me they would be playing these games themselves. We have also partnered with one of the big box electronics retailers to choose games that are available in their local stores. This should make the process of adding games to the collection much smoother and more cost effective. But how do I make the collection grow right?
The Director has informed me that all Grand Theft Auto titles are on a permanent blacklist, even when the Mature embargo is lifted. I have also decided that regardless of how good they are, The Suffering and Manhunt will never have a place in the collection. They are just too depraved and violent and anyone that wants either title can easily find them at any of the video game stores surrounding the library. The Guy Game and BMX XXX will also never be added to the collection, but that is more because those games are awful than any of the sexual content. After all, the Kama Sutra is available if someone were to request it.
I'm also mildly worried about parental backlash. It is library policy to allow anyone with a library card access to any item they want to check out. Part of our funding requires that we do not discriminate against anyone for any reason and that includes age. So M-rated games, R-rated movies, Parental Advisory CDs and any graphic, violent depictions in books are fair game for anyone. The legal phrase is that we are not allowed to act "In Loco Parentis", but it doesn't stop the parents from lodging complaints.
As the collection grows I plan to add ICO, Beyond Good and Evil, Prince of Persia, and all of the Nippon Ichi strategy games as they become available. People need to play these gems and I plan to help. I also plan to listen to anyone's purchase suggestions. Serving the public is a library function after all.
With sales of $10 billion in 2004, video games have become the fourth pillar of entertainment next to movies, music and books and public libraries finally recognize that. There is a library in Tonawanda, NY (near Buffalo) that carries a full collection of PS2, PSone, Xbox, GameCube and Game Boy Advance games. That is the goal, and as the merits of video games spread further and further into the population, maybe it'll be a reality.
I hope to see you all at The Mario Brothers Memorial Library someday.