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The Solution to Stagnant Games? Librarians!
by Simon Ludgate on 08/08/12 12:59:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.


I often find myself reading comments here at Gamasutra about how the games industry has become stale, how the big companies just put out clone after clone, how innovation seems to have been sidelined by the focus on safe business ventures, and how an industry that is ostensibly fueled by creativity seems to be less and less creative by the day. To be sure, indies and small studios are striving forth with the ideal of novelty that once gave rise to this incredible industry, but the giants in the playground have stopped playing: they’re sitting around and getting fat and forgetting what fun is all about.

And now that’s starting to go wrong. Sales are down. Customers are increasingly fickle. The future of “the triple-A game” is in peril. Is there any quick fix these giants can adapt to once again become nimble and successful?

I was inspired by the words of a librarian, one who had to tackle the seemingly impossible task of bringing information reform to the medical industry when there was no precedent for the types of services they needed to survive.

“Perhaps this goes without saying but I will say it anyway: this particular alchemy is only possible in an environment where change is welcomed (however difficult it almost always is for everyone involved, even when said change is known to be positive), where creativity is fostered and unconventional solutions are encouraged. You may be surprised by the fact (I know I am, having studied both fine arts and creative writing) that, perhaps by necessity, health professionals and librarians are some of the most creative and unconventional thinkers I have so far encountered, and amazingly willing to take risks.” – Francesca Frati

What struck me about this was the stark contrast drawn with the games industry: whereas hospitals are hardly thought of as places of exuberant creativity, game studios are. Yet when working in video game companies, I’ve experienced a hostile opposition to change, a crushing oppression of creativity, and downright refusals to consider unconventional solutions. I have to wonder if these sentiments are pervasive throughout the industry; if they guide hiring decisions to merely recycle the same employees over and over and over again.

The Gamasutra staff recently debated the controversy over a job ad that included a Metacritic requirement, but I want to take this discussion in a different direction and talk about a requirement that more game companies should include in their job ads:

A Master’s Degree in Library or Information Science (MLIS, MLS, MI, or equivalent) from an ALA-Accredited University.

Yes, you read that right. I’m suggesting that game companies should hire librarians.

What good are librarians in a company that has no books, you might ask? Librarians do more than shuffle books around on shelves. Librarians are Information Professionals. They are experts in organizing, maintaining, and facilitating the use of information repositories. Librarians are the cornerstone of the information management and knowledge management fields of practice, are frequently experts in project management and digital records management, and are often the core of corporate learning centers. Wherever there is information, there should be a librarian.

There can’t be many industries more reliant on information than the games industry. But what do they do with it? Do they know the best way to use it? Do they even know what they know?

Countless times I’ve seen companies throw tools at problems and expect those problems to go away, without hiring an expert to wield that tool properly. I’ve seen companies with four different information management software suites and beleaguered IT techs struggling to interconnect them all. I’ve seen companies with massive content management deployments that hand out Superuser status willy-nilly, only to have nearly every document's permission level set to “public.” I’ve seen companies that try to solve disorganized shared network drives (906 folders? really?) by adding more shared network drives; and then give everyone access to everything because it’s too confusing to handle access privileges.

Librarians are facilitators: they make sure the right information gets to the right person at the right time. They understand the flow of knowledge, the interconnected relationships, the work processes. Librarians may not do the work needed to make a game, but they make it possible for everyone else to do that work.

The lack of librarians in the games industry shows up in my mailbox with startling regularity: right in Game Developer Magazine’s post-mortems, in the “what went wrong” sections. Consider this example from Volume 17 Issue 9, October 2010’s post-mortem of Final Fantasy XIII:

“The biggest problem was that the project became bloated with the increase in staff within each department. And because roles were so specific, the communication flow became faulty and information was not being shared properly. One specific example was that updates or confirmations regarding specs would not get through to every team members, and at times, the staff would continue to create data without knowing the most up-to-date status.”

“Departments that communicated very closely would actively share information, so there were no problems there, but these cases were based strictly on individual communication skills. For example, when we looked collectively at our in-game locations, which are basically what each level of the game could be broken down into, there were instances where what the artist and the game designer had initially agreed upon would somehow shift due to the effects of another section’s progress; and it was apparent that information was not being transferred properly.”

Square-Enix was working on an ambitious project and hiring lots of extra staff; and in the process was running into a lot of problems. But, to think, hiring just one more person – a librarian – would have alleviated their problems tremendously and would have saved them thousands of hours of wasted work due to poor information exchange.

A lot of people think that information exchange is a personal problem: if people communicated better, information would be exchanged better. But that simply isn’t the case. For one thing, that leads to information overload: too much communication, too many emails, too many forum posts or comments. No one can digest it all. Thus good information exchange is a more complex science of information collection, information transmission, information filtering, information delivery, and information storage and retrieval.

The key to good information exchange is “store more, find less.” In today’s world of Googling, people are becoming more and more complacent in their information searches: they put in a fairly generic keyword, hit search, glance at the top ten results Google suggests, and be satisfied with one of those as long as it’s kinda close to what you want. But that goes in the opposite direction from a solid library search. A librarian’s goal is to build a sufficiently complete system such that a properly formulated search query returns very few or, ideally, just one result: the thing you’re actually looking for.

Modern document and content management systems used by many companies with Knowledge Management offices (staffed by librarians) allow employees to access corporate knowledge in this manner. After taking the time to set up comprehensive queries relating to the specific information needs of each employee, everyone ends up knowing everything they need to know and nothing else. It saves time and money and enhances productivity; all those jazzy keywords business people love to hear.

So I can’t figure out why I don’t see video game companies looking to hire librarians for Knowledge Management positions. Do they feel like all those information technology people already know how to handle information exchange? Or is it because they think good information exchange would impinge upon their creative and organic way of doing things? This can’t possibly be the reason though, because good information exchange greatly enhances creativity and makes it possible for everyone to make meaningful contributions without overloading designers with overlapping feedback.

Really, if we want to see more creative and innovative games, game companies need to be willing to tap into their entire workforce of creative minds, not just those few with “lead” designations. And that sort of creative collaboration in a massive workforce of hundreds or thousands is simply impossible without a solid information exchange infrastructure operated by – you guessed it – librarians.

So if you’re working for a video game company and you feel the need for better creativity in your workplace, take a moment and pass on this suggestion to your boss: Hire a Librarian!

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Ali Afshari
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Simon, this is an interesting perspective. Hiring someone with the specific role of knowledge manager makes sense when there are already specialists in most departments. Having just finished my Project Management course at school, I'm curious about the difference between a theoretical class setting and the real world: wouldn't the project manager be in charge of making sure information is being properly communicated between all departments? Is it because managing that knowledge will take almost as much time as coordinating all departments to get the game completed on time and within budget?

Simon Ludgate
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Knowledge Management does touch upon Project Management (I also took a PM course as part of my Master's Degree) but it focuses more on the organization's underlying knowledge infrastructure more than one particular project built upon that infrastructure. It's a case for efficiency: if you have a large company with a great many ongoing projects - especially if you employ matrix project management techniques to maximize the effective use of all of your human resources - then communication becomes increasingly complex and beyond the scope of any one management team.

But more importantly, communication is only one means of knowledge exchange, and it isn't a very efficient one. Imagine a society trying to build a complex spacecraft using ONLY spoken instruction: no books, no diagrams, no reference manuals. It would be very difficult and very inefficient and produce a tremendous error rate. Knowledge Management doesn't just make communication more efficient, it helps reduce the need to communicate by centralizing individual personal knowledge into an "organizational knowledge."

Ali Afshari
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Thanks for the clarification, Simon. I can see how this centralized role can be vital in an organization with multiple projects or fewer projects with complex aspects.

Joel Bitar
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I kinda really like this piece, even though my first shitty knee-jerk reaction was something like:

"sorry, you've got no idea about all the horrible things that happens to information as a game is brewing and changing being re-designed to fit whatever parts works, what doesn't, what there's time for and what not etc etc."

But then I realized that of course, I have no idea about how those various skills you're talking about actually works.
Information management and retrieval sounds like one thing to solve, but from my experience the way way harder thing to figure out is how to make sure that information existing mostly in some peoples heads becomes pushed to the necessary other people, without becoming mangled.
If a sharp librarian has the tools needed to help figure this out, then that sounds incredibly useful.

But I think it would need to be someone who's not just there to analyze, set up workflows and routines etc because that's the first thing that starts falling apart when you get stuff like an unexpected game-show demo-build or emergency design-direction-change-crunch thrown into the mix.

So yeah, I could definitely see how an information-specialist-producer kind of person would be very good to have, if that person could somehow be on top of exactly what there is to know, and who ought to know it.

Simon Ludgate
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I appreciate your knee-jerk reaction; it's a major part of what I'm trying to overcome with this post. There is, without a doubt, a big gulf between what traditional librarians know and what skills are needed for improving game companies. That gulf can only be crossed when a librarian is immersed in the environment and given the opportunity to develop solutions.

I think the first step was for someone working in the industry to realize the need for knowledge management in game development and go train as a professional librarian. I've taken that step, but the second step is considerably harder: going back and convincing those companies to hire a librarian.

Roger Tober
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I can't picture those little old ladies putting away books everyday in the game industry, and if they were, it's even harder to believe they would somehow improve AAA games. Mostly, games suffer from unoriginal concepts. We need to let go of the weapons for a while and explore other avenues of interaction, but then all the 13 year olds will get mad so nothing changes.

Bret Dunham
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There are many librarians that are younger than the developers that make the games you play. And many of them play video games too.

Carl Chavez
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I don't know how it is in other parts of North America or Europe, but in WA, OR, HI, NY, and BC, I've noticed many libraries hosting weekly video game nights and managing sizable collections of video game libraries that are available for check-out. At least in those locales, it would be wrong to assume that librarians have no gaming knowledge.

Also, I know at least two librarians with gaming skills. :-)

Jared Cowing
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As a librarian who is also an avid gamer (and 25... and not even a lady) I feel the need to put a hole in your stereotype, although I can't blame you for thinking it's all little old ladies shelving books since that's a pretty widespread assumption. Librarians cover a really wide range of specializations and experience- some really are old ladies shelving books, others are tech wizards who manage the database/web technologies that power the library's catalog and other tools, and others are experts in information distribution and project management. To be fair, many librarians would not be a good fit for the roles Simon is describing, while others might fit like a glove. And project management/information distribution expertise aren't concepts that only librarians are familiar with, but it's a good piece of the puzzle to look for when hiring someone for a role like we're discussing here. I can't agree more that bad communication leads to stagnant and unoriginal products- partly because of damaged morale, and also because people just start wasting time working against each other or duplicating efforts. So long as the communication is to enable everyone to contribute and feel heard rather than facilitate a more strict "top-down" structure, I can see how it could really help spur more creativity. This was an interesting read!

Ryan Sittler
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I love this article. Could be because I'm both a game designer and an academic librarian. I'm also a 33 year old male - demographically speaking, the number of "little old ladies" in our profession is smaller than one might think.

Anyway, I agree with the points made in this article. But I'd take it a step further, too. Librarians are in a profession that evolves at the speed that information and communications technologies change. That is to say: very quickly. We constantly reinvent what we do, how we do it, and how we evaluate it. We also, in most cases, have to teach others how to understand it. You think it's hard teaching someone how to play Rock Band or Modern Warfare? Try teaching them how to not only identify needed information, locate it, and evaluate it... but then also how to properly interpret it. It is quite a challenge.

In short, I think Mr. Ludgate has made excellent points here. But there is definitely room for expansion. Thanks for getting this conversation started!

Simon Ludgate
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Thanks Ryan. You're absolutely right: I'm just starting to scrape at the tip of the iceberg here. Hopefully with the contributions of others, such as yourself, we can get the ship sailing towards information professionals being given the opportunity to provide their invaluable services to game development studios and, as a result, better games for all!

Megan Hicks
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This article and the comments are a blast to read! I am a 31 year old with a MLIS and have been playing a rather wide variety of video games since the NES came out however long ago. I am currently working on a Health Information Management degree, but I would have absolutely been thrilled with an opportunity to work with a game company and would have taken additional courses for working with game or software developmers. I agree with Ryan - after going to several conventions from various library organizations, you really get a good idea of how many different types of people work in the library field.

I helped my library department put on a video game program at the library I worked at once, and brought in my game systems for the kids to play. It was a success and some of the kids became more frequent patrons as well! The staff that worked on the program was very enthusiastic. I could certainly see a lot of librarians being excited about doing this! A librarian with some BA and project management skills seems like they would really be an interesting mix for a developer.

William Volk
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I can back up the premise. From 1994 to 1999 I worked at Lightspan, initially managing development, Q&A and production management. And yes, we hired a information specialist to run the asset management. Someone who had done it in the film industry. We ended up producing about 100 PS1 and Windows CD's of educational games. Couldn't have happened without that.