Tag Archives: library futures

Games, Gaming, and Gamification – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about Games, Gamification, and Libraries.

There’s a certain stubborn snobbery that associates gaming with children, which therefore assumes that adults who engage in meaningful play-based activities must be in some way juvenile too. It’s a huge generalisation, but there’s a pervasive unpleasantness demonstrated by a certain, narrow-minded breed of professionals that ‘objectively’ rules out games and gamification in a completely arbitrary way that doesn’t need to be explained, defended, or evaluated.

And that’s hugely frustrating!

To derail from the broader discussion for a moment, I’d just like to contextualise my soap boxing a little. I’m pretty savvy when it comes to games and gaming—in fact, if Gladwell’s litmus test of ’10 000 hours of an activity make you an expert’ then I’ve certainly covered the requirements a few times over.  Just this past week I participated in the Indie Speed Run 48 hour game jam—an excellent idea in the middle of a solid block of university assessment. This game jam tasked my team and me with the complete design and development of a game in just 48 hours with a random set of elements to include and adhere to.


Immersing myself in a rapid-fire development environment for a whole weekend left me asking some of the high-level, design questions that are fundamental to all sorts of manifestations of ‘games’.

These core principals of play design—whether they in a 2D side-scroller or a library catalogue—ask the same sorts of questions about attention, motivation, and engagement. In taking on the mantle of a game designer I had to ask myself these questions in order to find meaningful verbs to describe play-based activities beyond the mundane tasks being performed.

Take Trove’s text correction initiative for example. Here we have a dull set of actions such as laborious information parsing and data entry. But, it’s packaged in such a way that we see it as exploration, discovery, and competition. Checking and correcting OCR’d articles becomes a quixotic race-to-the-top of who can demonstrate the highest level of commitment. Sure, it’s a highly insular community. But, within the space provided by Trove an entire currency of reputation has grown up around the dubious honour of correcting the most articles.

This isn’t profoundly high-level game design; but it works. The layers of progression and incentives give a positive feedback loop that rewards commitment and engagement. But, bootstrapping game systems onto existing mechanics is always going to be inherently flawed.

This is no ‘ground-up’ design. It’s simply re-contextualising something that already works and trying to make it fun and engaging. It’s really just expressing an existing system through new mechanics.

Play shouldn’t feel like work, and there is a wealth of work that needs to be contributed to libraries. Social data that enriches a catalogue such as tagging, reviewing, recommending, relating, and classifying records enriches a library in an amazing way. Slapping the veneer of a game onto the catalogue to ‘trick’ people into doing this work feels disingenuous, and smacks of exploitation.

Really, it’s a fundamental question of putting content into a game, rather than bootstrapping a game onto content.

Serious games have an element of mastery: your engagement and fun come from a progressive, skill-based unlocking of content. Gamification without meaningful mechanics might as well be a workplace KPI that just tracks your threshold for filling arbitrary quotas to achieve recognition.


You Probably Would Download a Car

The issues of copyright and ownership of media is one of the most widely disseminated issues on the Internet. A proliferation of free and pilfered material on the Internet has opened to floodgates to an epidemic where digital is synonymous with free and theft is no longer perceived as a crime. The entrenched indifference of today’s youth to copyright has created a grim situation for content creators and distributors alike.

Clearly, consumers love free. Personal preferences fades away at zero-cost. The psychology of free makes perfect sense because of the certainty that free affords There is no risk to free. But, if the collective trend of opinions dictates that digital goods are too cheap to matter, then no cost equates to no value; and no one can be expected to do quality work if it is simply going to be devalued, stolen, remixed, and re-purposed by others.

However, it’s not all so bleak! Grassroots movements like the Creative Commons License are affording producers of content some measure of control over the proliferation of the worthwhile work that they are doing.

Equitable access to media has never been more prolific, and libraries are able to assess and include vast amounts of new media every day under the umbrella of their collections thanks to the robust flexibility of CC. But, there’s a ticking time-bomb lurking beneath this unchecked exuberance.

3D printing and open-source fabrication–sometimes referred to as ‘making’ or ‘maker’ pursuits–are  already paving the way to profoundly transformative uses for technology. Thinigverse is a hub for capturing the raw creations of users from around the globe, and feeding the blueprints back into a community of amateur and professional printers, tinkers, and makers. Content is posted, traded, and printed under a shared understanding of the terms of use that allow users to distribute their work under Creative Commons licensing.

This could have an amazing effect on libraries and other information-repositories that choose to build the necessary infrastructure for physically realising the potential of making. Artwork could be download and fabricated at the press of a button. Replacement or custom parts for repairing devices would become universally accessible. Physical trinkets, ephemera, and minatures could become as commonly shared and distributed online as songs, stories, and paintings.

And then somebody has to go and ruin it for everyone by uploading the blueprints for copyrighted materials such as Disney action figures or Matchbox cars.

Taken one step further, there a printable models for complex machines available online including fully-functional automobiles and guns. This isn’t a pipe dream either. A cursory trip to Google will pull up more stories than I’d care to link here about open source firearms, 3D-printed cars, and the unfortunate precedents they’ve set.

And there’s the rub: the robust flexibility of Creative Commons to encapsulate all sorts of content means it has to include those that can be weaponised. What library is going to risk allowing a minor access to amazing technology that can be used to print a firearm?

And so the powerful tool that is CC–when applied to physical fabrication–has been placed in the firing line. Government intervention and regulation of content is anathema to what CC represents, but it’s the only solution currently on the table for stemming the tide of objectionable objects. Regulating CC would impose rigidity on a fundamentally fluid system, and erode the pillars on which the Internet’s maturing approach to copyright has been built.

But what other choice is there?

Skype and beyond the infinite

Fooled around with Skype for a class activity on the weekend. Ben Harkin and I had a good run at discussing an upcoming assignment, and I took the opportunity to try and break Skype by simultaneously running the conversation on as many platforms as possible. It is a remarkably resilient application, try as I might I couldn’t get it to de-sync or really face any problems at all.

As far as IM platforms go, Skype is certainly the most prolific. The fact that it can pull in chat streams from other services (ie. Facebook chat) is situationally useful too. As with so many online services, their value increases exponentially based on the use-scenarios you can find for it in your day-to-day life. The ubiquity of Skype–the fact that it is so prolific–makes it the most powerful and useful chat service going.

What good is a messaging service if there’s no one to message?

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Shouting into the void

Instant messaging, ‘chat with a librarian’, and VoIP reference services all suggest a great paradigm shift in information services. Reaching out and engaging with clients through modern communication tools and directly answering queries sounds fantastic. What’s not to love?

My own support experiences (on the receiving end of queries) have shown me that communicating through these channels can be a boon to improving customer experiences, provide timely and accurate resolutions, and facilitate a culture of complacency, belligerence, apathy, and exploitation among lazy and petulant users.

That went off the rails quickly.

Don’t get me wrong, I undeniably see the benefit of these services. But the ubiquitous availability of helpdesks, instant chat services, and support lines has only fed a growing sense of entitlement that is pervasive in today’s information seeking behaviours. Clients, customers, or library patrons expect to get exactly what they want with minimal effort expended. A certain subset of these users will simply expect that any complicated work is done for them—and often become belligerent when they aren’t catered to immediately.

This isn’t exactly a new problem. Unruly clients and surly customers have always had problems with customer service structures. Users with a certain pre-disposition are always going to cause issues. But, the anonymity afford by IM chat services gives a layer of abstraction that suddenly ‘permits’ abandoning social norms, and it quickly becomes acceptable to act like a petulant child or a raving lunatic.

I realise I’m being hyperbolic here, but technology is not a universal panacea. Creating a chat or IM service to support users will certainly allow new avenues of support. But, time-and-time-again I encounter people who have no sense of online etiquette or decorum. People who treat anything that happens online as a free-for-all where they are entitled to act however they please, and exploit and take advantage of anyone willing to put up with it.

Chat and IM services are great for the consciences user; they often provide that magical experience of meeting and exceeding your expectations. For the lazy, angry, or mindlessly indulgent user they’re nothing more than another service that implicitly owes them something or can be exploited.

And for the diligent operator? These foul exploiters do nothing more than ruin it for everyone else.

A Delicious Mess

Following on from my soap-boxing about the state of content curation online, I’ve setup a Delicious feed available here and embedded in this blog under my ‘What’s Interesting?’ tab at the top.

I’ll be collating and curating interesting articles about disruptive innovation, information futures, and just plain good writing in this feed, so stay tuned for more of that!

Can you Digg it?

Curation, Aggregation, and Web 2.0

Tools for curating, sorting, and managing web content usually take the form of social aggregators such as Digg or Reddit. The act of curating is not one of careful selection by a trained expert, but rather the weighted consensus of the masses promoting or up-voting content they find notable.

Web 2.0—nay, the entire information profession—has a problem; the barriers to information creation and storage have fallen in recent years. This has resulted in the amount of information on the Web proliferating beyond all expectations. Finding the right information among the endless supply of trivial and irrelevant data has become almost impossible. The rational response would be to trust our curation to trained professionals, able to disseminate and sort through this wealth of information and categorise it based on merits of accuracy and quality.

Instead, popular aggregators and the wisdom of crowds have emerged as the determining values of qualitative merit on the Web.

There is a very real risk that the Web—the most powerful source of knowledge available—is mislabelling, misrepresenting, and misplacing important data, and being unable to distinguish it from the unfiltered noise of the masses. We have trusted the most important resource in human history to the collective rule of enthusiastic amateurs.

This pollution of data poses a threat of eroding and fragmenting any real information stored on the Web. Users have come to rely on the anonymous and amorphous ‘rest of the Web’ as their authoritative filter. Content aggregators remix information drawn from multiple sources and republish them free of context or editorial control. These aggregated opinions of the masses are vulnerable to misinformation as users have too much control and too little accountability. The risk of aggregating information is the risk of privileging the inaccurate, banal, and trivial over the truth.

Digg.com, founded in 2004, was the first notable aggregator of Web 2.0 content. Voting content up or down is the core of the site: respectively ‘digging’ and ‘burying’ material based on contributors input. This supposedly democratic system allows content of merit to be promoted and displayed. But, this assumes that all opinions and user-generated regulations are equally valuable and relevant in determining merit.

The collective judgements of a group—the clichéd ‘wisdom of the crowds’—can be an effective measure of certain types of quantitative data. Called upon to guess at the number of jellybeans in a jar, the aggregated guesses of a thousand contributors would provide a relatively accurate figure. However, if that same group was called upon to disseminate the value of a news story their opinions would not represent a collective truth about the value or merits of the piece. The voting process of Digg or Reddit is transparent and instant, and causes contributors to cluster around popular opinions—promoting sensationalism and misinformation. Content that grabs the attention of users will quickly be promoted and rise to be seen by more users, regardless of its accuracy.

The momentum of a popular story is exponential: the more users see something, the more popular it becomes—exposing it to even more users. The infinite shelf-space and shelf-life of the Web means that once a piece of information has seen any exposure it almost impossible to control. Instantly a lie can spread across the Web by the zeal of its promoters, and be cross-referenced by a dozen news aggregators. Lies become widespread and pollute enough aggregation sites that they become the valid—supposedly authoritative—result of any Google search on the topic. The wisdom of the crowds is fickle and closer to a mob mentality; it is impossible to aggregate their wisdom without aggregating their madness as well. After all, there is a fine line between the wisdom of crowds and the ignorance of mobs

However, non-trivial and important content is still being created, promoted, and viewed on the Web; aggregated information services do capture these notable pieces of data in their trawling. In practice an old problem remains: time and effort must be manually expended to sort out the real information from the useless noise. Exactly the sort of time and effort that professional curators, librarians, and information professionals were traditionally employed to expend.

Digital media theorist Andrew Keen, in his book The Cult of the Amateur (2007) likens the community of Web 2.0 to evolutionary biologist T.H Huxley’s humorous theory that infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters would eventually create a masterpiece such as Shakespeare. Keen sees this infinite community of empowered amateurs as undermining expertise and destroying content control on the Web. He argues that their questionable knowledge, credentials, biases, and agendas means they are incapable of guiding the public discourse of the Web with any authority at all.

Another perspective on this comes from the 1986 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, wherein television commentator Neil Postman theorised about the erosion of the public discourse by the onslaught of the media. He frames the media in terms of the dystopian scenarios offered by Huxley’s grandson—science fiction author Aldous Huxley—in the novel Brave New World, and compares them to the similar dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984:


‘There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shrivelled. In the first—the Orwellian—culture becomes a prison. In the second—the Huxleyan—culture becomes a burlesque’ (Postman, 1986, p.155).


In one dystopia, Orwell feared those who would deliberately deprive us of information; in another, Huxley feared those who would give us so much information that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

And, the culture of Web 2.0 is essentially realising Huxley’s dystopia. It is cannibalising the content it was designed to promote, and making expert opinions indistinguishable from that of amateurs.

User-generated content is creating an endless digital wasteland of mediocrity: uninformed political commentary; trivial home videos; indistinguishable amateur music; and unreadable poems, essays, and novels. This unchecked explosion of poor content is devaluing the work of librarians, knowledge managers, professional editors and content gatekeepers. As Keen suggests ‘What is free is actually costing us a fortune. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music, and news-gathering industries that created the original content these Websites ‘aggregate’ (Keen, 2007, p.32).

In a world with fewer and fewer professional editors or curators, knowing what and whom to believe is impossible. Because much of the user-generated content of the Web is posted anonymously—or under pseudonyms—nobody knows who the real author of much of this self-generated content is.

No one is being paid to check their credentials or evaluate their material on Wiki’s, aggregators, and collaboratively edited websites. The equal voice afforded to amateurs and experts alike has devalued the role of experts in controlling the quality and merit of information. So long as information is aggregated and recompiled anonymously then everyone is afforded an equal voice. As Keen dramatically states, ‘the words of wise men count for no more than the mutterings of a fool (2007, p.36)’.

We need professional curation of the internet now more than ever. We need libraries and information organisations to embrace the idea of developing collections that include carefully evaluated and selected web resources that have been subject to rigorous investigation. Once upon a time we relied on publishers, booksellers, and news editors to do the sorting for us. Now, we leave it to anonymous users who could be a marketing agency hired to plant corporate promotions; it could be an intellectual kleptomaniac, copy-pasting other’s work together and claiming it as their own; or it could be, as Keen fears, a monkey.

Without professional intervention, the future is a digital library where all the great works of human history sit side-by-side with the trivial and banal under a single, aggregated category labelled ‘things’. And we would have no-one to blame but ourselves.