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Playing loud in quiet spaces

For three ten-week stretches throughout the year, the Bayard Taylor Memorial Library is transformed every Friday night into a social gaming space for local kids that’s free and supervised by community educators. An anti-arcade of sorts: a place that’s lined with small flat screen TVs, a few home consoles, and a table of snacks. None of the Xboxes or PlayStations will eat your quarters, and everyone is welcome to play whether or not they have money in their wallet. And outside of the enthusiastic chatter of the kids and the FIFA 14 sports commentators, it’s not nearly as loud. It’s a library after all.

Beginning last summer, local kids have had the chance to do just that. Each week after the library officially closes, kids from the surrounding population of 6,000 line up outside for what Pennacchia calls, “The coolest concert that no one ever invited me to as a kid.” “When you’re a teenager,” he told me, “you’re kind of just a nuisance to most of society. Nobody wants you in their store. Nobody wants you in their house.” While mall cops break up groups of teens loitering outside of Hot Topic, Bayard Taylor Memorial is inviting them in to eat pizza and play games like FIFA and Injustice instead.

“How do I get these kids to see the library as anything more than an extension of school?”

On January 4th of last winter, Ivy Noelle Weir and Daniel Pennacchia started an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $800 so they could make the videogame club even better. They raised the full amount in less than half that time, reaching just over $2,000 once the funding drive had ended. Subsequently, the club will return in the spring with new games and equipment.

Weir and Pennacchia first met at the Comic Book Shop in Wilmington Delaware. Despite being over fifteen miles away, it was the closest one because Kennett Square doesn’t have one of its own. Conversations that took place there eventually blossomed into what became Bayard Taylor Memorial’s first videogame club. “Creating it was all Dan,” Weir, in charge of Bayard Taylor Memorial’s Young Adult Services department, told me in an email. “He knew the kids, he rounded up the materials.” She was in the middle of planning summer programming for 2014 when she gave him the go ahead to move forward with the club. “I knew it was a great idea because videogames are so accessible, and so the ‘opposite’ of what people expect from a library,” Weird explained.

For Pennacchia, the challenge was, “How do I get these kids to see the library as anything more than an extension of school? How do I convince them, and by association, their parents and others, that the library is more than a place to rent things?” He wanted the club to be more than just a bunch kids with access to a few videogame consoles. As a result, the club is structured so that, “all gaming time is cooperative or competitive.” This way, Pennacchia told me, “it happens with another person who is right there and it is likely someone the kids did not know before coming in.” The idea, obviously, is nothing new. Videogame arcades have been around for decades now. But only recently did people like Pennachia get the idea to put them inside of shared, non-profit spaces like a library.

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Since the 1980s, arcades have been the iconic teen hangout. Too poor to shop and too young to drink, kids could gather and socialize outside of school and away from their parents amid the glow of coin-op machines. But the videogame arcade’s relevance was short-lived. As The Verge reported in 2013, the number of dedicated arcades in the U.S., and the revenue they generated, skyrocketed overnight and declined even faster.

Despite mini-renaissances with Street Fighter II in the mid 1990s and Dance Dance Revolution in the early 2000s, they are all but extinct. Unlike console gaming which eventually rebounded after the 1983 video game crash, arcades never truly did. According to The Verge’s same report, “In 2005, there were about 25 arcades in New York City, down from hundreds just a decade before. By 2011, there were fewer than ten.”

This is the public library recreating itself

The end of arcades and the slow but steady decline of the American mall mean the commercial throughways that had previously acted as refuges for beleaguered adolescents are increasingly few and far between. The business vertical Quartz reported last spring that restaurants have displaced other venues as the primary place for teens to hangout. Now, unless you’re a thirteen-year-old with an insatiable appetite for McNuggets or the cash to watch every summer blockbuster that gets released, there aren’t many places for you to go. Libraries are one of the few public institutions besides schools capable of addressing that.

Bayard Taylor Memorial isn’t alone in this regard. More and more libraries across the country have begun adding videogames to their repertoire, either by lending them out or hosting after-school gaming sessions. Sandy Farmer, manager of Central Youth Services for the Houston Public Library, told NPR a few years ago that games had become “a primary part of our service that we offer.” According to her, it even resulted in a “15- to 20-percent increase in the circulation of books.”


 
This is the public library recreating itself. Between BYOB board-game nights and 3D printing demonstrations, Bayard Taylor Memorial is adapting to changes in technology and culture better even than many of its private sector brick and mortar counterparts. RadioShack, once a temple for DIY gadget enthusiasts, is now bankrupt, with stores closing left and right. GameStop, as Time’s Matt Peckman noted last year, continues in “explore-and-expand” mode indefinitely as it grapples with a future in which most videogames are sold online or digitally.

The first time I saw a copy of Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 2 on the multimedia shelf at my hometown library, it was 2005; the anomaly felt violently at odds with the musty smell of paper  and quiet murmur that pervaded the rest of the building. For Weir, the aim is to make the two things synonymous. “We’re trying to defeat this idea that libraries are mean old ladies with cat-eye glasses who are just going to shhhhhh [the kids].”

“they’ll continue to come in because it feels natural and safe, a place that they want to be”

Making the library a more appealing place for young adults requires something of a rebranding. And Weir is part of that in a very literal sense: her pink hair completely clashes with traditional stereotypes. “I’ve had kids come purely because my hair is a weird color,” she told me. But the transition also requires changing the physical space as well. When books at the library stop getting used, they’re taken out of circulation and replaced with others. Recently though, Weir wanted the library to take a different approach that would make it a better space for kids. “Right now we are engaged in remodeling the whole library,” she explained. “Part of that remodel that I fought really hard for was to take out a couple of rows of shelving to create more room just for hangout space for them.”
 
She hopes doing this, along with activities like the videogame club, will help the kids feel like they have ownership over their library space.” That way, Weir explained to me, “As they get older, and transition out of the club, they’ll continue to come in because it feels natural and safe, a place that they want to be.”


 
Pennacchia, who teaches in the area, told me that making the library feel like a safe haven is extremely important. “It’s definitely gotten better in recent years, but Kennett Square has had significant minority gang issues for a while, and drug issues, and that definitely trickles back into the middle school routinely.” He feels that the kids gravitate toward what’s available and that providing them with an alternative can make a big difference in some instances, “It’s like, ok, there’s this, but there’s also what we’re doing, and your parents would love it if you came to what we’re doing instead.”

In the end though, it all comes back to money

The club has led to a small community in an unlikely place, playing Marvel vs. Capcom 3 surrounded by stacks of Penguin Classics and the Encyclopedia Britannica rather than Atari cabinets and pinball machines. The jingle of change machines and flashy lights of an arcade are replaced by chairs, desks, and the 1970s wood paneling in your grandmother’s basement. Instead of sinking $5 in ten minutes into the X-Men arcade game before departing for the day, or getting into a fight with the kid who knocked them off the Street Fighter machine, they cheer on their friends in-between mouthfuls of snacks.
 
When I asked if the competitive nature of the games the club has focused on so far—the summer was exclusively FIFA 14, followed by a weeks-long fighting tournament in the fall—has ever led to problems, Pennacchia said no. “They’ve built that community quickly, they know each other, they know they’re gonna see each other the following week. I think that ends up being this important underlying thing where it’s like, I don’t want to go back to that thing if we’re not square.” Even the trash talk is respectful and in good fun. “They hold each other accountable better than we ever could,” added Weir.

This has led them to embrace the library in other ways, too. “We have seen more than eighty percent of our kids voluntarily open their own library cards, start checking out books and join other programs with social or academic goals,” Pennacchia told me. “They even come in for simple homework help because they know they can come to us for that.” It’s this success that led Weir and him to ask strangers on the Internet for more funding in the first place. And now that they have it, they both feel the pressure to make the upcoming season even better.

In the end though, it all comes back to money. Weir and Pennacchia received a generous amount of support online, from like-minded people who were no doubt thrilled at the idea of kids growing up today having access to a safe, shared, and free space to play meet people, make friends, and play videogames. Without that funding, and without the initial upfront investment by people like Pennacchia, libraries like Bayard Taylor Memorial would never have funding to create these programs on their own. In its own way, the civic appropriation of the arcade, and its egalitarian transforming of it, is part of an increasing backlash against the privatization of public spaces and institutions. With cities and states under constant pressure to privatize parks, schools, and libraries, the idea of a community-based arcade in the basement of one offers more than a little hope.

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Header image via Matt Katzenberger.