On Thursday afternoons, in the heart of the Beacon Hill Library in Seattle, you might find an animated group of youth on laptops designing parkour courses, rendering torch lit dungeons or co-constructing capture the flag arenas—all in Minecraft, the popular world-building game. To some, this scene might seem somewhat out of place in a library: Aren’t video games and lively teen banter fundamentally at odds with an institution whose core identity markers are books and silence? Not according to Juan Rubio, the Digital Media and Learning Program Manager for the Seattle Public Library (SPL).
“This is how they begin to build a bond and affiliation with the library,” explains Rubio. “I want to create learning opportunities while keeping the environment fun and playful—and Minecraft is a good transition in that direction.” Creating teen-friendly zones and activities is part of a widespread movement by libraries to become dynamic hubs that engage the community in a broad range of services and events.
Rubio spearheaded the partnership between SPL and Connected Camps to deliver a free after school Minecraft program for 10 – 13 year-olds. He’d run successful Minecraft clubs in his previous incarnation with the Brooklyn Public Library and decided to build on the experience in Seattle. Following the successful pilot at Beacon Hill, Rubio aims to roll the program out to more of SPL’s 27 branches.
“We wanted to target middle school youth, and to add another layer—not just Minecraft for Minecraft’s sake. My outcomes are around design and computational thinking, so Connected Camps was a good fit for us,“ said Rubio. In terms of practical implementation, the library offers breakaway rooms, wired laptops, and on-site supervision, while Connected Camps provides a structured Minecraft program and the support of an in-game mentor.
Libraries for All
Innovative, community-oriented initiatives like Beacon Hill’s Minecraft program are a hallmark of the Seattle Public Library, widely considered to be the gold standard of US libraries. Many of its branches are architectural gems, and SPL was home to famed librarian Nancy Pearl, whose international celebrity even spawned an action figure. In 1998, the city of Seattle raised an unprecedented $190 million for its “Libraries for All” initiative, a 10 year program that overhauled the entire system with an emphasis on accessibility and equity. These are also the core principles that underpin Rubio’s work implementing system-wide digital projects.
“I’m interested in providing underrepresented communities with opportunities they don’t have access to,” said Rubio. “Not only around technology, but also in skill building. So if we provide these kinds of programs for the community, and we target communities that lack access to these types of experience, not only do they align with the library initiative to having programs that are linked to equity, but also with the city of Seattle’s social justice initiatives.” One reason Rubio was drawn to Connected Camps’ was their shared commitment to equity, access, and community-building.
Libraries play a crucial role to help bridge the digital divide. According to a recent report, more than half of young adults and seniors who live in poverty accessed the Internet using public libraries. About half of 14 – 18 year-old US teens have used a library computer in the last year, most citing homework as the main reason. For their part, Seattle Public Library provides over 1,300 Internet-ready computers, ten of which were used to deliver the free Minecraft pilot to a group of enthusiastic kids from diverse backgrounds.
Partnering Mentors and Library Staff
Buy-in from library staff is fundamental to the success of the program. They are the frontline of community outreach, as well as being the onsite supervisors when the programs are in session. Some library staff are understandably uneasy when they first venture into the unfamiliar world of Minecraft, but apprehensions tend to disappear once they meet the in-game mentor.
“The Connected Camps mentor is key to the interactions that they have, because he guides the experience throughout,” said Rubio. “They trust him very much because of his level of expertise. He’s someone they can relate to and look up to because he’s so good at Minecraft. The mentor frees the librarians to focus on the group’s social and emotional dynamics.” Rubio encourages the librarians not to think of their role as technical, but to focus on building relationships with the kids.
Nickolas Landry was the Connected Camp mentor for the Beacon Hill group, and he also believes in the importance of fostering relationships. “Both the mentor and the students will need to understand a few things about the game—things that their parents, teachers and even classmates won’t know or understand unless they play the game as well, ” said Landry. “This shared common interest in Minecraft allows me to connect with campers in a pretty unique way. I think they see me more as a friend and equal rather than just another authority figure. This allows us to talk openly about pretty much anything, and I can teach the campers positive mindsets in a way that doesn’t feel like another lecture.”
Landry also values how the library staff supported the kids while they played, highlighting how library staff and mentors can be mutually supportive in service of the kids. “The in-room librarians definitely made this transition significantly easier by asking the students questions about their creations and inspirations, and by giving them opportunities to share their knowledge and ‘show off’ how good they are at Minecraft. The conversations between the librarians and the students allowed me to better understand the kids’ level of expertise, and how to adapt the curriculum in a way that will be challenging and accessible to everyone in the group,” said Landry.
While he watched the session, Rubio was impressed by the relationship between the young Minecrafters and their mentor, causing him to reflect on the transformative influence of a positive role model. “I would love for these kids to see themselves as the future facilitator, so they see a trajectory where they can aspire to take Nick’s place. This program can provide them with ideas for pathways in their growth. It would be really great if they could see themselves, right? I could be that person!”
Paul Darvasi is an educator, game designer, speaker, and writer whose work looks at the intersection of games, culture and learning. He teach high school English and media studies teacher in Toronto, Canada and a doctoral candidate at York University. His research explores how commercial video games can be used as texts for critical analysis by adolescents. He has designed pervasive games that include The Ward Game, based on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Blind Protocol, a cyber warfare simulation that instructs on online security, privacy and surveillance. Paul has worked with the US Department of Education, UNESCO, foundry10, Consumers International, iThrive and Connected Camps and has participated in several international research projects. He recently wrote a working paper for UNESCO on how commercial video games can be used for peace education and conflict resolution. Paul’s work has been featured on PBS, NPR, CBC, the Huffington Post, Polygon, Endgadget, Edutopia and MindShift.