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January 4, 2014 / Charlie McNabb

Incorporating Play Into Instruction

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a staff in-service day at University of Oregon Libraries.  One panel really stood out for me: Library Games, facilitated by Miriam Rigby and Yen Tran.  They discussed how they implemented a game to introduce library resources to incoming freshmen.  Their work is based on a presentation from LOEX 2012 by Katherine O’Clair.  In the interactive session, we formed teams and played the game, and I found it very engaging- both in terms of becoming comfortable with the library, but also for forming a friendly relationship with the librarians.  I’d been thinking and reading about play in instruction for a little while, and this experience really solidified and added to my ideas.

I’ve talked before about how the research process involves feelings of doubt and anxiety.  This is not necessarily a bad thing; discomfort can lead to innovation when someone is pushed to explore and try new things.  However, sometimes anxiety can stymie good research from even starting.  Incoming students, when confronted with college-level library research, have to acclimate to several things at once: the library environment, new types of resources and ways of using them, librarians and other staff, and the rigors of the assignment itself.  What if the introduction to the library was team-oriented and playful, rather than hierarchical and didactic?  I suspect a lot more students would come back to the library and feel more comfortable asking questions and exploring new resources.

Games have great potential for learning.  At their best, games are interactive, immersive, and promote creativity and problem-solving.  Shorter games can leave a player feeling invigorated and longer ones can lead to a flow state much like that from performance or in depth learning.  And both games and learning are dependent upon motivation to work, as John Ferrara explains.  Library orientation and information literacy games can be a powerful strategy for promoting confidence with library resources and easing anxiety during the research process.

I particularly enjoyed the game I participated in because it was team oriented and competitive, fun and slightly silly, and everybody got a small reward at the end (lots of motivation!).  It was designed to get students to explore the physical library and the library website, and it built upon previous experience to grow knowledge and proficiency.  It also introduced the librarians as friendly, competent, and approachable people- much like Constance Mellon’s “warmth seminar” idea.  I could see this and similar games being used to introduce students to all sorts of procedural and conceptual skills.

A recent In the Library with the Lead Pipe post talked about using games in library instruction.  Amy Hofer implemented two citation-focused games in term-long elective courses.  She found that the students did not necessarily experience either assignment as a game, since they were graded.  The competitive aspect led to perhaps more engagement and definitely better grade outcomes, but students still experienced anxiety.  Because the point of gaming is to increase motivation with fun activity, Hofer wondered if games may be a better fit for orientation sessions than graded assignments.

It’s a catch-22, isn’t it?  We want students to experience the library as an environment for learning and exploration; we don’t want them to feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the reference desk.  But connecting play to grades can cause the same level of anxiety, and worse, can make students feel patronized.  Perhaps the solution is to frame research as joyful exploration and discovery, rather than as a means to a narrowly-defined end (a grade, a publication, etc.), as Barbara Fister discussed at the 2012 Pennsylvania Library Association conference (and elsewhere).  I’m excited to continue pondering this idea and hear what strategies others have used to incorporate play into instruction.


Baron, S. (2012, March 22). “Cognitive flow: The psychology of great game design.”

Ferrara, J. (2011, April 7). “The elements of player experience.”

Fister, B. (2012, October). “Playing for keeps: Lifelong learning in the ludic library.” Pennsylvania Library Association College and Research Division annual meeting.

Hofer, A. (2013, December 18). “Giving games the old college try.”

Mellon, C. (1986, March). “Library anxiety: A grounded theory and its development.” College & Research Libraries 47(2), 160-165.


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