Let's Talk about Collecting Narrative Games in Libraries

Alright! I am ready to share some of the high-level takeaways from the focus group sessions and I welcome further feedback and discussion from the rest of the IntFiction community! Feel free to comment on any or all of the points raised in the summary, and to add any other thoughts or concerns sparked by these points.

As a reminder, the feedback posted to this forum thread is being collected as part of a research study. I am conducting this study as a researcher at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. If you have any questions or concerns, you can contact me via email (ccpost@uncg.edu). All data collected will be de-identified, and all personal names or any other personally identifiable information will be excluded. All de-identified data will be retained indefinitely for future research. Your participation is totally voluntary. Please only post to the forum thread if you are in agreement with this statement.

Below, I’ve included the major questions discussed in the focus group sessions and a summary of the main points that came up across both focus groups for each question.

When we’re talking about a library licensing a game for its collection, what should the library actually be collecting?

• Collecting the final build of the game is sufficient for people just wanting to play the game.
• Though collecting source code and other process materials created by the author could be useful for supporting scholarship of IF via academic libraries. These materials can also be useful learning tools for aspiring IF authors.
• Some participants already release all of their source code and process materials online, and they would be fine with having libraries collect those materials along with their games.
• Additional materials created by fans (walkthroughs, clues, reviews and forum discussions) could also be interesting to collect, though these materials would necessarily fall outside the scope of any licensing agreement between the author and library.

Who should be responsible for managing the collections of games?

• Academic libraries typically manage small digital collections of special materials, but license access to the majority of their digital collections (ebooks, digital video) hosted by third party vendors.
• Some academic libraries at institutions with a stake in video game history may be interested in managing copies of IF works for long-term preservation, but most libraries would be more interested in licensing access to works maintained by a third party.
• Libraries could partner with existing entities like the IF Archive or itch.io, though whether or not third party platforms are profit-driven was a major concern; some creators would not sign on to having their works managed by a for-profit vendor and leverage their creative content for profit.
• In any case, a key concern with any partnership between libraries and third party entities is sustainability. For-profit vendors can change (or cease to exist) depending on economic factors, and non-profit entities can rely heavily on volunteer or otherwise precarious labor.
• Ideally, partnerships with libraries as cultural heritage institutions would be done with an eye toward stability and sustainability. Partnerships between libraries and existing non-profit entities like the IF Archive could be initiated through grant funding that provides a runway for a stable and secure long-term arrangement.

What rights should libraries have for the games that it licenses?

• Some of the activities that libraries are interested in doing for games they collect include making local copies, making games available to both in-person and distance/online library users, putting games on course reserve/e-reserve for use in classes, and temporarily loaning games to other libraries (inter-library loan).
• Participants were mostly fine with these baseline rights, though they would want the extent and conditions for these rights to be transparently articulated in any sort of licensing agreement and have the ability to opt-in to certain activities and opt-out or place restrictions on other activities.
• Participants felt strongly that games in a library collection should be made accessible in-person and to distance/online users, though this involves technical considerations for making games playable in web browsers or making the appropriate software available for the user to play games on their own computer. Something like Club Floyd, where games are played through the IFMUD could be a model for this.
• There was also some concern over inter-library loan as some creators would want to have more control over where and to whom games are made available. Even if games are published for free online, creators may expect that their work remains within a certain community and doesn’t get reposted somewhere else. Libraries should need to enter into a partnership with the third party platform (like IF Archive) to be able to gain access to these games.
• As a point of comparison, participants discussed the terms agreed to for entering games into competitions: some comps require that games are shared or stored in certain places or otherwise require that the author grant certain rights to the comp organizers. Similarly for libraries collecting games, there’s a necessary balance between respecting the rights of the author and affording rights to the community for it uses and preserves the game.

How should libraries describe games in their catalogs?

• Libraries want to include records for games in their catalogs, and this raises the important question of what information is needed to best represent IF, especially to audiences who might not already be familiar with these kinds of games.
• Some adaptation of the metadata included in IFDB records could be a good starting point for this (development system, difficulty/cruelty scale, IF specific genres). However, even among the IF community, there’s not total consensus around describing games in terms of different genres.
• The author should have some input in how the game is represented (e.g. writing a blurb), and professional catalogers should also play a role in description.
• Other aspects of the context of the game would be important to represent, like whether the game was created as part of a jam or featured in a competition.
• It would also be difficult to represent some of the interconnections between games (e.g. games that reference older games or started as spin-offs or parodies of older games).
• Some authors might also be concerned about how works from earlier in their career are represented and made accessible, making clear that a certain game was ‘juvenilia’ and not representative of their later works.
• The type of information that would be useful to support deeper scholarly investigation into IF games would also differ from what a general user looking for games to play for fun would require. More details about the development tools and differences across versions of the game would be required for scholarly research.

Who should be able to access the games in a library collection, and for what purposes? For instance, is it important to impose a restriction that games in the library collection can only be used for educational/research purposes?

• One perspective on this question was that any library user should be able to play the games in a library collection for whatever purpose. The library is providing another access point to games available elsewhere online, serving audiences not familiar with those existing access points.
• Others felt like it might be important to limit the access to classroom use or for educational purposes only, as some authors might be wary of their work being disseminated more broadly beyond the IF community or being used in ways that they aren’t comfortable with.
• Another issue is how to signal when certain games might contain sensitive content or adult themes, as this is not always clear from the outset. This is less of an issue for academic libraries where all library users are adults but could be an issue for public libraries interested in collecting narrative games.

Beyond the baseline of playing the finished version of a game, what other activities should individual library users be able to do with the games in a library’s collection?

• Library users should be able to study the game, doing things like quoting and excerpting from games for critical and scholarly analysis (this falls under fair use).
• Participants discussed more transformative uses like remixing and modding games along with other possible examples of transformative use that libraries might support like translating games to other languages.
• Adapting different configurations of creative commons licenses could cover this spectrum of activities: being able to freely play the game but not remix or adapt it all; being able to remix and adapt the content of the game but under certain conditions (like not releasing a commercial product based on the remixed content); using the content of the game for any purpose without restrictions.
• It would be important to tailor licenses so that authors could determine what levels of transformative use can or should be permitted.

How many different users should be able to simultaneously access a game licensed for a library collection?

• Especially for games that are already freely available online, as many people that want to play the game can do so simultaneously. The library is another access point for games that are already available online.
• This becomes a different consideration for commercial IF games. For older commercial games that are no longer actively making money for the developer, creators might be more willing to allow unlimited access, but newer commercial games might need to be limited to a certain number of seats.
• Digital rights management mechanisms for restricting simultaneous access could be technically complicated and potentially transform the game.

What should be the duration of the license?

• From the perspective of libraries, perpetual/ongoing access licenses are vastly preferred because this gives stability to the collection and eliminates the toilsome process of monitoring and renewing limited-term licenses.
• If libraries are partnering with an institution like the IF Archive, agreeing to have a game collected by libraries and distributed more broadly should definitely be an opt-in process where the creator needs to be fully aware of this process and knows up front the terms/duration of the license and where the game will be distributed. The process for collecting games in libraries should be something that the creator knowingly engages in distinct from other processes like entering competitions or adding things to the IF archive.
• There should be some sort of mechanism for terminating the license or opting out – this needs to be carefully constructed because libraries will be wary of collecting titles that can be unexpectedly removed from the collection. In the case of a revocable or malleable license, the library and library users would need to have certain protections for content they have already downloaded and used. For instance, a malleable license could change how the library provides access to a game moving forward but would not affect people who have accessed the game prior to the change in the license.
• To accommodate this situation, licenses could automatically renew every 5 or 10 years, unless the creator went through a formal process of requesting to change or terminate the license.
• Participants shared experiences of other creators wanting to remove works from the IF Archive, for example, that they no longer wanted online, or other cases where the creator wanted to remove their name from a game because they no longer stood by that work.
• Participants also suggested that games could be protected by an embargo period – for instance, a creator could have a set period of time (1-2 years) before a game was added to a library’s collection or could have some period of time after the game was initially released to change their mind over the terms and conditions of their license.

How much should it cost for libraries to collect digital narrative games? How might this change depending on levels and types of access afforded to library users?

• For many IF games that are already made available for free, broader access and long-term preservation are the central concerns for collecting these titles in libraries, and creators are not concerned with being financially compensated for having their games collected in libraries.
• For older commercial IF games that are no longer actively making a profit, licensing fees may likewise be a minimal concern with broader access and long-term preservation also more pressing issues for creators.
• There is a question about how creators of new commercial IF games might feel about licensing fees but this perspective was not represented by the participants in the focus groups.

What ongoing obligations should the game creator have to the library?

• Creators could be encouraged to provide the library with updates and patches to the game over time (and this is something that libraries are interested in having), but this shouldn’t be a strict requirement of the license as that might deter some creators from licensing games to libraries.
• Participants noted that some creators would really want to have this control over what version of a game is collected by the library (e.g. replacing a polished version of the game if the library has the original comp-version of a game).
• Making sure that updated versions of games are available to the library is another facet that would be more easily managed at scale (e.g. by a third party platform) than on a case-by-case basis with individual creators.

What ongoing obligations should the library have for the games in its collection?

• Libraries should be clear and transparent with creators about the terms of the license, and also supply library users with those terms (though libraries are more limited in their ability to make sure individual users fully follow the terms of use).
• Game creators would appreciate having use statistics (similar to itch.io creator page) to see how often games are being played and where they’re being accessed from.
• Beyond baseline use statistics, additional analytics like tracking progress in the game could be of interest.
• Some library catalogs integrate social interactions with titles and user-generated content (likes, reviews, recommendations); this could also be an added value that might motivate creators to license their games to a library collection, though this introduces the need for content moderation, which libraries are not always willing to take on.
• Libraries also have a stake in protecting the privacy of their patrons, so any use data would need to be carefully managed and anonymized.

What steps should libraries take for the long-term preservation of games?

• Some libraries will not be able to take on preservation responsibilities as they lack the staff, resources, and infrastructure, though some libraries will likely see game preservation as part of their remit.
• Ensuring that IF interpreters are maintained and made accessible along with the games is critical for both immediate and long-term access.
• Some libraries are able to maintain legacy hardware to continue to provide access to obsolete software.
• Emulation of older operating systems is another approach, though this raises other complications like negotiating copyright restrictions for operating system software.
• Older games can also be recreated for current systems, though this is akin to translation/re-creation and raises many creative questions that ideally involve the author’s direct input.
• If libraries are partnering with the IF Archive, some of this work could be done collaboratively (e.g. professional catalogers could work to enhance the metadata and organization of resources stored in the IF Archive).

What are some ways to facilitate connections between the IF community and libraries to encourage this collecting?

• Within the IF community, there could be more discussions about the importance of long-term preservation and archiving of games.
• One of the potential benefits of collecting narrative games in libraries would be to put these works in the broader context of literature, so encouraging librarians to see IF in this way could foster interest in collecting these games.
• A pilot study with a smaller subset of game creators and libraries testing out how to collect digital games could provide a foundation for larger scale buy-in from both library and game communities.
• Game creators that have some affiliation with academic institutions could leverage those connections to facilitate the collection of their games into those libraries. This could help libraries to develop a model that they then apply to collecting digital games more broadly.