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Steam-powered libraries, anyone?
by Philip Minchin on 12/19/11 11:30:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Who else wants to Steam-power their local library?

Libraries around the world have been gamer-friendly for longer than you might think, and are becoming more so all the time. But DRM and licensing issues are getting in the way of them being able to share electronic games (especially PC games, whose DRM is increasingly geared around locking software to users non-transferably).

This is a major loss to the games industry. Libraries have a long history of supporting a more diverse book market – and, in the big picture and the long term, fostering a bigger book market and a more discerning readership as well. (See especially the fourth para of that link. Library users are more likely to buy books as gifts for others, very likely to read widely and think intelligently about books, and quite likely to want to own the books they love – even if they’ve read them. Trust me: I’ve worked in libraries and bookselling, and heavy library users are also often heavy book buyers.) Why wouldn’t we want that for our artform?

Think about it: as a developer, how much more exposure could your game be given to people who might never plonk down the $60 (or considerably more, here in Australia) needed to buy a premium title – or who might be hesitant about buying something other than a AAA title from one of the big names, because they don’t feel knowledgeable enough to experiment? How much more opportunity will there be for word-of-mouth if games are available at the library as well as for sale? How much better will the industry fare – both financially and qualitatively – if libraries are to games what they are to books?

As a lover of games: how awesome would it be if your local public library enabled you to try out that indie game you’ve been curious about? How amazing would it be to run book-club-style games clubs, where games are not only played but discussed intelligently with other game-lovers, with the library easily able to ensure that everyone could access a copy? And how much weaker will any claims that games are not a legitimate and credible artform be if that artform is stocked in libraries?

And finally: how much more opportunity will there be for genuinely creative, intelligent, affecting games to succeed in an environment where community institutions like libraries are fostering discussion and play?

So, assuming I've made the point about how great the idea of lending PC games from libraries is, how realistic is it?

Actually, libraries are increasingly offering their users access to electronic resources along models very similar to Steam. Users download a client from, and create an account on, a third-party service which confers access to an e-book, or e-audio book, or MP3-format music. The subscription for the service is paid by the library.

The models vary hugely. Some mimic hard copy loans, and allow only one user to have a time-limited DRMed copy of a book at a time, with the software client actually deleting the borrowed item when the loan expires. Some more recent music services actually see users getting the content free and clear permanently, but in much more limited quantities compared to what they can “borrow”. Some services offer access to their entire catalogue, others require the library to select and pay for a subset of the service's content. The one thing they all have in common is that they authenticate a user's account on their proprietary service against a library account, and the user is then granted some sort of limited (usually time-limited) access to electronic resources.

So you can see my thinking. Steam can successfully manage multiple users’ access to games across multiple PCs, and can time-limit access to games as well. They already offer a “tournament license” service (multiple licenses for a fixed period) which could easily be expanded to support the games club idea above. About the only required functionality that Steam doesn’t have right now is the ability to match up a user’s Steam account against a library account and give them access to content accordingly – and libraries obviously already have protocols that can do this.

I’ve already floated the idea informally to Leslie Redd, who’s an Education Officer at Valve and is doing some amazing work with games in schools, but I’m now floating it to all of you to gauge how much interest there is. If you were to publish a game, and it were your decision, would you be willing to license it for library use? And under what terms? Please leave a comment below to tell me what you think – and/or, if you prefer, email me at euchronic (that's at I’ll collate everyone’s responses and pass them onto Valve and to relevant library groups.

And, just to be clear – while I think Steam is a natural fit for this idea I am absolutely not ruling out interest from anyone else! So if you're a distributor who's interested, by all means be in touch. (GOG?)

Thanks everyone! And all the best for your holidays!

This piece has been published in tandem with a companion piece aimed at the game development community in the Library Journal gaming blog. (They may not be published at exactly the same time.) Thanks to Liz Danforth for the support!

[Edited for correction: I originally described the Library Journal as a publication of the American Library Association. This is incorrect - I apologise, but hope that two such august institutions will forgive the Antipodean confusion.] 

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Simon Ludgate
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I think the concept of a "public library" is inherently flawed as we move into the digital era. Libraries function by collecting, preserving, and sharing of intellectual materials. However, the sharing of that material is only relevant when limited by physical incarnations, such as the book. Thus the process of book circulation is inherently tied to the physical book itself, more than the intellectual material contained therein.

This analogy can be carried over to physical media games, such as console games on a disc, but not to digital games. In this case, the limitations to distribution are legal, not physical. Indeed, modern day digital piracy is the fundamental extension of the public library: sharing intellectual materials. In a sense, The Pirate Bay may well be considered a repository for modern creative works, with each seeder giving their support to ensure the preservation of those works.

I'm not sure the heavily limited distribution of games through contrived library-style schemes meant to mimic circulation is helpful or meaningful. Game publishers can already distribute demos, which serve a similar function by giving a potential customer an idea of whether or not they want to purchase the game. Likewise, platforms like Steam can already distribute limited access of games directly to users, such as "free weekends" that are quite common, or perhaps a "3 day loan" of a full game on a try-before-you-buy basis. You don't need a library acting as an intermediary for these sorts of transactions. Their new cupon system could easily implement temporary loans in the form of redeemable cupons too.

Gamers don't really need libraries to act as "game clubs" because there are already game clubs on the internet. Users can discuss games in forums. Reading lists or suggestions can come from any number of online sources, including forum recommendations, review sites or scores, best-of lists on any number of publications (including Gamasutra), or even automated recommendations such as those offered by Steam. And if the only way games will be considered legitimate art forms is if libraries collect and distribute them, I think we need to re-think how we classify what is and isn't art.

Games in libraries may be of short-term benefit to reach people who don't currently play games but go to libraries, but that population demographic must be shrinking rapidly. They may be of use to people without the hardware to play games, simply usurping 'net cafes by offering free computer access instead of paid by the hour, but then who's paying for that? Tax dollars at work? I'm not sure the best way to spend tax money is to support someone playing games for free in a library.

Philip Minchin
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Hi Simon,

I have to disagree on several counts.

First, many libraries don't spend tax dollars, or certainly don't spend mostly tax dollars. It depends where you are in the world.

Second, I never said that libraries were the only way to be considered legitimate art. Please avoid straw-manning! I do consider that at this historical moment, the public library is an institution with considerable cultural clout, and for many people libraries taking something seriously is an endorsement of that thing. That's pretty much an inarguable statement of fact, sorry.

Third, I know about the "free weekends", as is implicit in my mentioning Steam's capability to time-limit access to games. Since it's part of my argument, I don't see how it invalidates my argument.

Fourth, libraries offer access to an in-person, local community - a face-to-face book club is fundamentally different to one run over the net, and so would a games club be.

Fifth, for the reasons above, I disagree about the benefit being short-term only - but even if you're correct, short-term benefit is still benefit.

Sixth, piracy and library lending are radically different. Piracy is a private entity making a copy of a work for personal or commercial gain without compensation to the creator. Library lending is a public institution paying the creator and making a work available to the public - for free or at a nominal charge - in the interests of promoting greater cultural access, a common culture (which binds a society together) and a literate public. I would argue that this includes the need for systems literacy as well as traditional literacy, and games foster both (and numeracy). There is a reason that libraries have exemptions to many copyright provisions in many jurisdictions: they are an overwhelming public good, and benefit both the public at large and creators specifically (as linked in my article). If you can't see the difference, I have to question whether you're genuinely looking at the topic at all! I can assure you that many ardent defenders of copyright can, and are equally ardent defenders of the public library - I suspect they would take exception to your remark.

But thanks for the comment!

Simon Ludgate
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In North America (Canada and the US), public libraries are overwhelmingly supported by tax dollars. For example, the Toronto Public Library, the largest library association in Canada, had a 2010 operating budget of over $183 million, with municipal funding (tax dollars) providing $170 million and federal and provincial funding (tax dollars) $6.7 million more.

I thought perhaps things were different in Australia, where you say you are from, but this does not appear to be the case either. I am less familiar with libraries in Australia, but the State Library of Victoria produces an annual report that reflects a similar source of funding: $38.5 million of the library's $46.8 million 2011 operating budget was from Government Grants (tax dollars).

The annual report from the State Library of South Australia does not provide direct financial details, but does state:

"In 2009-10 the State Library continued to maintain the provision of core services through prudent use of Government funds and other sources of revenue. The State Government provided a recurrent operating grant of $12.8m and a capital grant of $205,000."

"Total non-government income received was $2.225m."

Could you clarify your stance about libraries not spending mostly tax dollars? From where do you think their funding comes?

Philip Minchin
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You're correct with respect to libraries in Canada, Australia, and I believe the UK. However, many public libraries in the USA (which is larger than all three combined) are funded by private philanthropy and fundraising to a substantial degree. What government funding exists for libraries in the US has been drastically cut since 2008. I'm not an expert, but the assumption that public library = tax dollars doesn't always hold.

But really, this is a side note. I see no more problem with tax money being spent on allowing the public to play games than I do with it being spent on allowing them to read fiction. My point is simply that some e-resources are already available on a model very much like Steam. Why not games, and why not Steam?

Simon Ludgate
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The USA is somewhat unique in that many wealthy philanthropists have contributed huge sums of money to promote the establishment and growth of public libraries. This has meant that many large libraries have been able to maintain large investments and use interest from those investments to defray operating costs (eg: both Boston and New York public libraries list investment revenue as considerable portions of their operating budget).

However, much of those contributions and investments are destined for research libraries rather than circulating libraries. I think the New York Public Library fact sheet for 2011 breaks it down quite effectively:

NYPL's research centers account for government funding (tax dollars) as only one third of their total operating budget ($35 million of $105 million); in stark contrast, the circulating libraries are almost entirely dependent on government support: $123 million of $140 million.

As such, especially in the case of circulating libraries (those which circulate fiction for casual reading and, based on your comment about comparing fiction to games, the target of your proposal), the statement of "public library = tax dollars" certainly does hold.

While this may seem like merely a "side note" to you, the issue of funding is paramount to librarians. As you yourself state, you are not an expert on the topic of libraries, thus it may behoove you to defer to an expert, such as an ALA-certified librarian.

"Why not games? Why not Steam?" You ask? Perhaps you are asking the wrong question. Instead, ask this: "Why libraries?"

Why would Steam want to limit its distribution through Libraries? Why would Steam want to give up control over its distribution and collection of user data by allowing many separate Libraries to manage circulation?

If free circulation does indeed increase sales, then wouldn't Steam want to (A) maximize circulation (and therefore sales) by opening circulation to ALL Steam users, not only those who are also library users, and (B) retain control and data collection in order to maximally convert usage statistics directly into sales?

The only thing Steam could get from cooperating with libraries for the circulation of games is if the libraries agreed to pay Steam a fee for each game circulated. Your argument is that Steam would want to divest control of circulation to libraries because the libraries would pay Steam for the privilege of doing it.

So it turns out that funding is not a "side note" to your argument, but the basic foundation of your proposal.

Philip Minchin
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Simon, I may not be a librarian but I do work in public libraries here in Australia. My comments about the funding of US public libraries come from conversations with many people who actually work in them; they told me they are increasingly having to raise their own funds rather than depending on government sources. And this post was discussed with an ALA-certified librarian - the one who posted its companion piece as a guest post on her official Library Journal blog, Liz Danforth, also a figure of some note in both tabletop and electronic gaming.

If I may say so, you seem not to have understood the basic proposition.

As an ALA-certified librarian, which you imply pretty strongly you are, you should be somewhat familiar with ebook lending models - so think of the Ebsco ebook lending service. The users would install Steam on their PCs just the way they do something like the Ebsco client, and access the games through a Steam account made in their own name. The library would simply authorise them to do so for the agreed loan period, verifying that they are a current subscriber and entitled to access the particular item (based on, for instance, loan limits and age restrictions). The library would pay Steam some sort of license fee - so the circulation would NOT be free, just free to the end user, who would lose access to the game once the loan period was up (unless they buy it or borrow it a second time). Again, this is all following basic ebook lending models, and all of it is in my original post.

And none of it is fundamentally affected by whether the money to do it comes from taxes or private sources. You have yet to explain why this matters. As long as it's paid for, why would Valve or the game developers care? Money is hardly trivial to the business of offering library services, but then I never argued that it was. However, precisely where it comes from is absolutely secondary to the two questions this post asks:

Would game devs like to see libraries making their games available the same way they are starting to do for ebooks?

And if so, does Steam seem like a natural fit to others, the way it does to me?

EDIT shortly after posting:

I didn't answer your rephrased question. Why libraries? Because they are incredibly influential in the culture; because they are proven to foster intelligent lifelong engagement with culture; because they are a meeting place for people interested in culture within a local community; because they have money to be spent on helping people access culture and game devs deserve a slice of that. (All of which I believe I've already covered.) So, again: if libraries can offer all that to books, why not to games, and why not through Steam?

Philip Minchin
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Oh, also, just to be clear: I'm talking about people using Steam on their personal computers, with time-limited use authorised from the library. Steam on library computers would be awesome too but has been discussed elsewhere and is not an especially new idea - whereas this is as far as I know.

Jamie Mann
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Hmm. Not sure I really see the point of this - what you're essentially talking about is a rental model where the end-customer isn't footing the bill. Arguably, that's what libraries are doing now, but they're doing it for physical media (books, DVDs, CDs - and console games, at least in the UK) where there are problems with physical scarcity and cost of storage.

Practically by definition, internet-based services such as OnLive and Steam have already obviated the problems with scarcity and storage (for those with an internet connection, at least). So all the library will be doing is subsidising the cost of access.

Now, you can argue that this is justified - and personally, I think it is. But I don't think it's that likely to happen; there's simply too much variation in the way libraries work across the world and as you touched on, there's likely to be some resistance from people who don't think access to games should be subsidised.

Instead, what's more likely is that one or more game services will offer an "all-you-can-eat" subscription bundle - OnLive is especially well placed to accomplish this...

Philip Minchin
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It's *exactly* what libraries are doing now - and with electronic resources such as ebooks and e-audio books, not just physical resources. The library where I work makes both free e-books (from Gutenberg) and commercial e-books/e-audiobooks available through its catalogue. In the case of commercial e-books, the access is time-limited, and dependent on the use of a dedicated client. Not Steam, but it could be.

So, again - if it can be done for electronic books, why not electronic games? Game developers deserve the same access to distribution and funds (and a passionately engaged audience of critics and aficionados and promoters) as book authors.

Thanks for the comment!

Jamie Mann
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@Philip: I know it's what some libraries are doing now, but as far as I'm aware, this is being done by individual institutes, rather than being done on a national/global basis.

There are some other problems with games - unlike books, there isn't a standard royalty scheme (in the UK, libraries pay £0.065 per loan; I seem to recall that Catherine Cookson (25 million loans between 1996-2006) agreed to waive her fee at one point, as it was seriously hammering the national library budget); I suspect it'd be incredibly hard to get a royalty scheme agreed that libraries could afford.

Also, it's worth noting that (at least in the UK), while books are lent free of charge, libraries charge a fee for films and music - I suspect that this is due to the fact that films and music only started to appear in libraries in the last two decades and hence the commercial agreements with the publishers are more commercially orientated, unlike the far older and more "educationally" orientated agreements which govern book lending.

Then too, the fact that the games will be made available via Steam causes it's own issues; not only does it potentially remove the need to physically visit the library, but it also gives people easy access to a far wider range of titles than would be available in a physical library. Which is great for the consumer, but bad for the institute as it means they'll need to pay out more royalty fees, which may be an order of magnitude (or more) higher than the equivalent cost of lending out a physical book.

Past there, as noted above, I'm not really sure I see what the library's role is, other than to subsidise the cost of access: since the media (games in this case) is available online, there's no issues with physical scarcity or storage. There are arguments to be made about helping to increase library usage and making them more relevant (and games could act as a profit center for libraries, too), but (at least in the UK) with library budgets being so hammered and so many libraries closing, I think the benefits of game lending would be handily outweighed by the cost!

(again: arguably, countries should be ploughing money into education and access to media, to help lay the foundations for economic growth. But it's a tough thing to sell...)

Philip Minchin
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Thanks Jamie, good questions.

The royalties thing varies from country to country. (So do the fees; here in Oz, movies and CDs are often fee-free.) Some places have explicit library-lending exemptions to copyright law. But even there, what's law and what libraries choose to do to respect the interests of creators may be two different things. And in any case, I'm not advocating for a wholesale change to law or library funding, but for precisely this sort of locally-managed relationship.

The role of libraries in such an arrangement is twofold. First, in a limited-circulation, per-title model (where libraries purchase a title and lend it serially like with physical books - see my response to Chris below), libraries would perform their traditional role of selection and recommendation. Since libraries would be paying on a per-title basis, they probably wouldn't be able to afford the whole Steam catalogue, so they would have to choose a subset to make available. This allows libraries to budget and pay for fixed amounts of usage.

But even in a pay-per-loan model (which can still be pre-budgeted), where libraries subsidise the patron's own selection in part or in whole, libraries still have a place as a venue (physical and virtual) for informed recommendations, and for meeting local people with similar interests to discuss culture.

(Speaking of the library as a virtual venue, libraries don't insist on physical attendance these days - even though their role essentially depends on having a particular community to serve, usually defined by geography, they are doing a lot of work on doing this in ways that enable them to serve their local community online as well as in person.)

The fees thing is manageable by the simple expedient of limiting the number of "loans" per person at a time. Again, this is something libraries already do with ebooks, and of course physical items. To expand on my reply to Chris below, only one person can have the ebook copy of A Wizard of Earthsea active at a time, AND that person might only be able to borrow one or two other ebooks before they have to deactivate (or "return") something they already have. So you wouldn't be able to download the entire works of Ursula Le Guin all at once - you'd have to finish one and deactivate it before you could get more.

All of this is stuff that has e-book and e-audiobook precedents - I'm not just dreaming up a random hypothetical wouldn't-it-be-cool, I'm extrapolating a very short distance from two things that are already happening. From a logistical and financial point of view there is no difference between an electronic book and an electronic game (though as artforms they're hugely divergent). Both are easily copiable, and therefore heavily pirated, content that has creators to be paid, and audiences to be reached. Libraries have already developed a number of solutions to those problems for e-books, and I think those solutions would work for e-games - and what's more we already have software in the gaming world that does pretty much everything we need.

The only reason not to do it is a fear that it will cost game creators sales... and given the success of free-to-play models and free trials for making money off games, and the benefits libraries offer to book culture, it seems implausible that we can't make *something* work - especially when DRM considerations are actually making it impractical to lend PC games, and thereby inadvertently bolstering console games which have no such problems.

Thanks for the follow-up, anyway. If there's more questions arising from anything, please post them!

Chris Proctor
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It seems like a no-brainer for publishers, Valve and OnLive to get on board and allow unlimited access to games on library computers/OnLive client hardware.

I'm not sure that a digital lending model would get as much support, since the former (in-library gaming) is restricted by number of PCs etc, so might act more as a demo service.

In any case, it's great to see libraries and the games industry starting to talk about this sort of thing, very pioneering!

Philip Minchin
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How copy-limitation works depends on the model. Some ebook lending services allow only one copy of a book to be active at a time - so the library user logs into their account, borrows (e.g.) A Wizard of Earthsea, and nobody else from that library service can access the title until the loan period is up, at which point the client automatically deactivates access to the book until it's reborrowed or bought by the individual. The library service can of course buy multiple copies of a single title, so you might have two people reading a title at once.

Others simply allow the content to be downloaded without DRM or client requirements, but have a strict quota per user - Sony's Freegal music service does this. The more music you allow your borrowers to have, the more you pay.

The issues with access via library PCs are three:

Competition for time - most services limit use to something like an hour a day;

Speed - libraries' shared networks running multiple PCs (and often wifi as well) is not conducive to the kinds of speed you'd need for cloud-based gaming. Combined with the above, you might be lucky to finish downloading a medium-sized indie game in your hour!

So I'm very definitely talking about library-authorised, time-limited access on home PCs - and I do think it can work. But thanks for the comment - and the compliment!

Lorraine Johnston
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Philip - thanks for starting this discussion. As a librarian in NZ I think this might well be a goer. Many of our patrons are already "subverting" library infostations for gaming - although our current guidelines say they can't - so I think there could well be market there. If these people are using library computers anyway why not provide the service?

pikiora wylie
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If only we could get the stats from all the people playing farmville etc.. in the library

I am fairly confident you would find we already have a captive audience of 1000s and steam would be a natural progression once they tire of planting crops :P

A fantastic idea! Absolutely love it.