In Kortrijk you can, anyway, until the end of this month. It’s all part of a new initiative by the West Flanders Information Network for Public Libraries (Winob) called Start to Game, and it involves a peripatetic games module, which will circulate around the province over the next two years.
After Kortrijk, the Start to Game module takes in Oostkamp, Koksijde, Moorslede, Ypres and Zonnebeke. After that, it moves on to another six public libraries, which have still to be decided.
The module consists of a four-sided station with, on each side, a different games console: Xbox 360, Wii, PC and Playstation 3. They’re each equipped with the requisite controllers (and headphones to keep the noise down). On one side, there are two gaming chairs for playing a Grand Prix type game, with all the buttons and whatnot built into the steering wheels.
Library patrons (in theory anyone with a library pass or an electronic ID, but in practice boys under the age of 14) can sign in at the downstairs desk in return for a controller and play for a half-hour block during certain time periods. All gaming is free.
Flanders Today took along our resident games expert, 11-year-old Oscar, who tried out three of the consoles (not the PC, because you can just do that at home). His verdict: the idea is good, but the choice of games could be better.
The module takes up surprisingly little space – five metres in diameter, including seating, and 2.5 metres high. It’s also less noisy than you’d expect. In any event, Kortrijk is a huge library, with sound and vision media on a separate underground floor, where readers and book-browsers are unlikely to be disturbed. But space might not be available on such a scale elsewhere.
But isn’t this all getting a bit too far away from what a library is supposed to be about? I asked Jurgen Van Lerberghe, who is coordinating the Start to Game action. Not, he replies, if you consider computer games to be, like books and DVDs, just another “cultural product” – a phrase that will have traditionalists reaching for their revolvers.
“The core business of libraries is under pressure anyway, without blaming computer games,” he explains. “Libraries have expanded into providing music and images, computer access, classes and workshops. But the thinking behind it has always been to bring people into contact with books.”
He notes that only kids without consoles at home are coming in to game. “These are the have-nots we’re dealing with here,” he says. “We expected that to be the result, but not on the scale we’ve seen.” And young people over the age of 14 don’t come in for gaming, either. “The gamers are overwhelmingly foreigners and mostly boys.”
Studies in the US have shown, he says, that introducing young people to libraries via other media has a positive effect on the take-up of books on offer. “So that’s something to hope for,” Van Lerberghe says.
It’s because the cost is so prohibitive – the whole Start to Game programme has cost €25,000 so far, including research and development – that it needs to be shared among the 12 participating libraries. But in the future, it could become a more permanent feature – in Kortrijk at least.
The city is building a new central library on the Conservatoriumplein opposite the station, due to open in 2014. The hope is that the new building will include something similar to Start to Game, on a smaller scale perhaps, but fully integrated into its surroundings.