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DePaul’s library levels up on video game collection, but not just for fun

by Andy Matarrese
April 27, 2011

Is there a video game canon?

Academics have clashed over what constitues the most important works in thier fields for years, and the same is true with the study of video games. A panel of of industry veterans took a shot at compiling a list of the 10 most important video games in gaming history at the 2007 Game Developers Conference.

  • "Spacewar!" (1962)
  • "Warcraft (series)" (first released in 1994)
  • "Zork" (1980)
  • "Civilization I" (1991)
  • "Super Mario Bros. 3" (1988)
  • "DOOM" (1993)
  • "SimCity" (1989)
  • "Sensible World of Soccer" (1994)
  • "Star Raiders" (1979)
  • "Tetris" (1984)

Student A’s reading list has Shakespeare, Milton and Dante, so he goes to the library. Student B’s list has Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Mario, so he goes to …

The library?

As more university libraries add video game collections to their shelves and more schools offer courses related to video games, more students are doing precisely that.

DePaul University in Chicago is joining in on the trend – along with schools such as the University of Michigan, University of Illinois at Urbana and Stanford University – and expects to have its collection available to students within a month.

These games aren’t just for students looking for a diversion; they are part of some students’ coursework.

“I’ve actually done research on students who are learning game design and about games,” said Jose Zagal, a game development professor at DePaul. “And it is quite often the case that they’ll have a very narrow view of games.”

Jim Galbraith, associate director of collections at DePaul’s library, hopes the collection will draw the wider student body while supplementing what’s taught in game design and computer science classes.

“All the paperwork’s done,” he said. “We just have to get them up on the shelf.” The library intends on holding a game night in the fall to publicize the new collection to incoming students.

Zagal, who helped assemble the list of titles for the library, said students’ preferences for games or consoles might limit their overall knowledge of games. By bringing actual gameplay into his curriculum, he said, he can expose students to concepts they might not otherwise see, helping their learning.

“In the same way you might have an assigned reading for class, here’s an assigned ‘play,’” he said, explaining that actual time with a game can go much further than screenshots or a video.

DePaul’s trial collection of 30 titles will start with mostly newer games for current game systems.

The library has no plans to stock game systems or vintage games at the moment, said Ryan Hess, who coordinates web services at the library. The game development department, he said, has a lab at which students can use older systems and games.

Galbraith said, “I think of the number of controllers I went through for my own system and maintaining that for older systems would be difficult.”

Creating a good video game collection, another college librarian said, comes with some special challenges, and those multiply when it comes to bringing in older equipment.

“Unless you’re putting together some kind of archive, or what is now a rare book or manuscript type library, having an NES cartridge seems kind of silly,” said Barry Bailey, who works with digital collections at Johnson County Community College’s library in Kansas.

Since new video game consoles come out every several years, he said, finding space and creating systems to support older games and consoles is more than what some libraries can handle, cost- and space-wise.

The most similar and recent analogy he offered was the Blu-Ray versus HD DVD battle. People bought HD DVD players and movies only to see them fall out of favor. Similarly for HD DVDs, there isn’t a consumer or technical infrastructure out there anymore for some games and systems.

“The idea of compatibility and longevity on the shelf,” he said, pausing, “it’s just really hard to think about.”

Other librarians agree.

“All of these collections will differ depending on the institution,” said Raiford Guins, a digital cultural studies professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and curator of the video games collection there.

Guins offers classes studying video games, and has students use old Atari and Nintendo systems for their study.

“I feel it’s important that students actually experience the hardware and software,” he said, “I want them to get their hands dirty with the history.”

Stony Brook, whose library’s video game collection will open in the fall. Stony Brook, Stanford and the University of Illinois are all trying to archive old video games.

Stony Brook’s collection will include more than 3,000 video game artifacts, from old cartridges to game manuals to consoles.

One would expect a library to stock Austen or Melville, but what should a good video game collection have?

“That’s a good question,” DePaul’s Hess said, adding that he could see some games standing out for design or sound.

Guins said his library tried to find a hierarchy to organize what they wanted.

“We do try to establish a particular canon,” Guins said. “We want to look at certain key titles.”

And what of those who might question the value of having video games in a library?

“My generic answer is the reason I don’t kick people off Facebook,” Bailey, from Johnson County, said. “I can’t place the value on one person’s information consumption over another’s, and it’s the same way with media.”

“Whatever information they’re getting is hopefully valuable to them in some way,” he said.

Guins said he believed the resistance that comes with bringing video games into libraries comes from a vocal minority.

“It’s just upsetting,” he said. “Video games are our cultural heritage.”

By his reckoning, the prime medium by which people interact with technology, beyond social media, is games.

“These are the things that are being studied and taken very seriously today,” he said.

Bailey, returning to the specific, said his school offers programs in game design, so the material is relevant to what’s taught at the school. Bailey added, however, there are some less explicit advantages to having some games available for checkout.

“It’s not a bad thing to have fun at the library,” he said.