The Game of Research: [Board] Gamification of Library Instruction

Nicole Tekulve, Chapel Cowden, Jaime Myers
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Faced with the annual revision of curriculum and activities for first-year Rhetoric and Composition courses, a group of instruction librarians at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) created a versatile board game, based on The Game of Life, to address the pitfalls and rewards of the research process. Librarians quickly learned, however, that creating an engaging, meaningful, and fast-paced game for library instruction is no small feat. Developing The Game of Research was a reminder that, just as librarians encourage students to be adaptive and creative in their research, we must also be adaptive and creative in our curriculum design in order to meet information literacy and course learning objectives. To that end, The Game of Research not only underwent many revisions but it also prompted the creation of a second game, The Research Road, based upon common learning objectives.

Literature Review

Game-based learning in the library instruction classroom is not a new concept. Margino (2011) organized these game-based learning opportunities into three categories; in-person, virtual, and hybrid games. In-person games, such as board games, have long been appealing to library instructors because of their flexibility and adaptability. When creating board games or other in-person library instruction activities, many librarians have relied on the frame game concept to make their games relatable and understandable. Jonassen, Beissner, and Yacco (1993), define a frame game as a “structural learning strategy that requires the learner to determine the relationships among important concepts, principles, and procedures…” (p. 221). Utah Valley State’s Get a Clue, Arizona State’s Information Pursuit, and Georgia State University’s Jeopardy are examples of libraries borrowing the well-known structure of popular board games for use in library specific games (Smith and Baker, 2014; Smale, 2011; Leach and Sugarman, 2005).

Game Design

The UTC Library has, for several years, implemented the principles of gamification into library instruction classes for Rhetoric and Composition I and II (ENGL 1010 and ENGL 1020, respectively). Through a partnership with the English Composition Program, one class period per semester is devoted to information literacy instruction in both ENGL 1010 and ENGL 1020 courses, thus most students receive library instruction twice in their first year. In the past, librarians have used activities such as “The Google Bucket” and “Why all these Articles?” to introduce students to the types of resources available to them through the library and to teach them positive research behaviors.

Building on this foundation, the learning objectives of The Game of Research are that students will be able to describe four steps in the research process (brainstorming a topic, developing keywords, researching, and writing), to identify positive and negative research behaviors, and to reflect on and share the research behaviors that they have found helpful (or not) in the past. Design of The Game of Research began in the summer of 2013 and continued throughout the fall. To accommodate class sizes of up to 25 students, the game needed to be playable in groups of 3-5 students. Initially, librarians had considered creating a Chutes and Ladders style frame game where a negative research behavior would impede progress in the game. Librarians also contemplated a Library Monopoly frame game in which student would collect sources rather than real estate. Both ideas, though fun, were ruled too complex or time-consuming for classroom use. The Game of Life, however, provided a compromise between the need to demonstrate development (of life or the research process) and the necessity of simple, familiar game-play.

The design of the game board harkens back to The Game of Life by using a similar color scheme and fonts. It departs from the original, however, in its lack of complex imagery, favoring instead the clear delineation of the stages of research by using different colored paths and clear labeling (Figure 1). The iconic spin wheel is also missing. Instead players advance by rolling a die, which limits the range of movement to 6 spaces instead of 10. The reduced range of movement is in keeping with the reduced size of the game board in general, which was scaled to allow the board to fit between computer stations in the UTC Library’s computer classroom.


Figure 1: Game of Research board

Initially, game-play involved choosing between multiple paths twice—once at the beginning of the game where players must choose whether to pick a topic from a list or brainstorm a topic themselves, and a second time during the “research” phase where students had the option to choose a path of familiar research techniques learned during library instruction in ENGL 1010 or the unfamiliar path of research techniques learned in ENGL 1020. The first iteration of the game also involved collecting research tokens in addition to the money collected on “pay” spaces as in The Game of Life. During testing among library faculty and staff and in the first few ENGL 1020 classes, it was found that these two aspects of the game were the most confusing and took up the most time. As a compromise, the research tokens were scrapped in favor of a worksheet, which students used to track their progress through the game. The second “choose a path” stage of the game was also simplified to a single path to reduce confusion and speed up game-play.

While testing The Game of Research during the fall and during part of the implementation in the spring semester, the game was played using a simple print-out of the game board, and the game pieces were improvised from toy pieces bought at a dollar store. The librarians designing the game were awarded a ThinkAchieve grant from the university and was designated as a project that enhances critical thinking on campus. The grant allowed the game board to be printed, laminated, and mounted to hard foam backing. It also allowed the librarians to reimburse the media center for designing and printing 3D custom game pieces.

Testing and Reception

Testing is an essential component to the game design process. During the summer of 2013, librarians tested the Game of Research in two phases. The initial phase included testing the game internally between librarians and staff at the UTC Library. The designers played the game first to assess the elements of the game including pacing and the position of key elements such as bonus spaces. Then testing moved on to the entire Reference and Instruction (R&I) team. Librarians from the team were invited to play the game and provide the first real feedback in the process. From the R&I feedback, designers were able to identify areas of concern in the game including the length of game play and confusion on the role of the Research tokens. The final internal testing occurred when librarians and staff across library departments were invited to play the game and give formal feedback. At this feedback session, attendees played the game without any instructions from the designers. They were instructed to rely on the written directions for information on how to set up the game board and play. The designers consciously stayed behind-the-scenes and did not answer any questions throughout the process and acted purely as observers. At the end of the session, the designers asked the attendees to provide their feedback informally, through a post-game conversation, and formally, through an assessment form. The library-wide feedback indicated that the players needed the rules explained to them and that the length of the game play was longer than expected (25-30 minutes).

Designers recognized the need to move the testing of the Game of Research beyond library faculty and staff. Testing within the classroom would be necessary to gauge the students’ interest and success in playing the game. UTC traditionally offers only a handful of English 1020 sessions during the fall semester with the bulk of the students taking the course in the spring. Due to the small amount of classes (only 3), designers decided to test the game in the English 1020 classes for the fall. Each class played with a print-out version to ensure that could be continually updates based on feedback.

Testing in the actual library classroom confirmed existing problems as well and illuminated hidden issues. During game play, instructors observed students playing the game and noted any persistent problems. Students echoed library faculty and staff with their confusion on the rules of the game and how to earn or use the Research tokens. At the end of the game, librarians asked students to respond to a minute-paper prompt, “How does the Game of Research change your thoughts on the research process?” Through these responses, designers found that the students unexpectedly focused on the negative behaviors within the game. For example, in response to the prompt, many students commented that they learned not to waste time on Facebook or Twitter (each being spaces where students lost money in the game). They were not identifying with the main learning objectives of the game. In addition, while each of the three classes was a longer, 75 min session, students took a similar amount of time to play the game, which in turn caused the remainder of the class to be rushed. Professors commented that they thought the game took too long and distracted from the core elements of library instruction.
In response to the feedback from the two-step testing process, designers set out to make changes to the Game of Research for the spring semester. These changes enforced the learning objectives while making the game run smoother and faster. The most crucial issue to address was strengthening the tie to the learning objectives. Students missed the formalized steps in the research process as well as the positive behaviors within the game. The designers, along with the other members of the Reference and Instruction team, brainstormed ways to highlight these components of the game. The easiest change to make was taking several of the negative behaviors out of the game and adding more memorable positive behaviors. For example, if students landed on the “Ask a Librarian” space they would earn $300, the highest amount in the game.

Over time a worksheet (Figure 2) was developed that acted as a way for students to document their path in the research process. The worksheet was color-coded to enforce the different steps in the research process that were found on the game board (brainstorming, keywording, searching for sources, and writing). Students would check the boxes for the spaces they landed on and tally their scores. At the end of the game students were asked to direct their attention to 3 questions on a PowerPoint presentation. The questions prompted students to reflect on their path during the game and their experiences with research in general.


Figure 2 Game of Research worksheet front and back

Spawning of the Research Road

During the early implementation phase—where the Game of Research was used in the classroom—it was discovered that the game was too long for a typical 50-minute class period. The Reference and Instruction team decided that a new bare-bones game should be created that covered the same objectives, utilized as much of the existing content of the original game as possible, and fit nicely into a 50-minute instruction session while leaving plenty of time for searching and discussion. A sub-committee of two (with consultation from a third) within the Reference and Instruction team was formed in order to define objectives and assume the work for all aspects of creation of the new game.

Since the intent of the new game was to serve as a substitute for the Game of Research in 50-minute classes, it seemed appropriate to retain the same basic objectives, concepts, and as much of the language as possible. Before any of these specifics were identified, however, the two librarians creating the game lit upon an overall structure complete with design concepts. The new game would be called “The Research Road” and would draw visual theming from a multi-lane highway. Once this overall theme was approved, detailed planning commenced quickly.

While the Game of Research focused upon several different key components of the research process, The Research Road needed to pare down the elements addressed in order to save time as well as provide for economy of space. “Brainstorming and Topic Selection”, “Research”, and “Writing” emerged as the overarching categories for The Research Road. In order to keep with the spirit of the original game (and save valuable staff time), many of the research behaviors (spaces) from the Game of Research were reused for The Research Road. Each of these behaviors would fit in one of 4 columns or “lanes”: the preceding categories mentioned, or an area aptly titled “The Ditch”—home to undesirable research behaviors.

After the basic concepts were formulated, a mock-up of the game board was created. However, many restrictions for the physical rendering of the game existed—both initially and as the creation process progressed. The turnaround time for all work on the game needed to be in the vicinity of 2-3 weeks. It was not possible, nor feasible, for another 2 complete sets of an actual board game to be printed. Therefore, simplicity of design, cost, and availability of materials became the primary drivers for this phase. After a few slightly varying prototypes, a final design emerged that adhered to all of the restrictions. The game “board” would be slightly bigger than poster board size and could be hung from the wall or played while sitting on the floor. There would be 3 “lanes” on the main poster board where behaviors, printed on separate, laminated cards could be placed along 3 separate strips of Velcro. An additional lane (The Ditch) would be created in a different color of poster board and attached to the primary board.

The most time-consuming portion of the process was the creation of the boards (10 in all). Materials required were poster board (in a variety of colors), laminating sheets, card stock, and lots of Velcro. One of the librarians involved in the project completed all of the graphic design work over the course of a couple of days. Student workers assisted in laminating all materials, but one of the librarians on the project was tasked with putting all 10 boards together. In addition, a set of instructions and suggestions for play were created and stored with the boards. Though all of this represented a daunting task, all deadlines were met and the game was ready in time for classes.

In practice, the game could be played in less than 10 minutes and appeared to be enjoyed by the students. Students were placed into groups of about 4 and asked to place all behavior cards in one of the columns on the board. After gameplay, students were asked to take a moment to look at their neighboring group’s game board and note any differences. The ensuing wrap-up conversation centered primarily upon those behaviors that were placed in “The Ditch” (Figure 3). Many of the behaviors represented common misconceptions such as: “To state your position strongly, do not include articles that disagree with your topic” or “Try to find the article that perfectly states your position on a topic.” Students participated in a discussion of why certain behaviors belonged there or why others did not. They were also asked the question “It looks like everyone has a different journey [way to get from here to there]. What might that mean?” In general, we were looking for the understanding that research is a process and might take different forms for different searchers. Overall, the game appeared to satisfy the class objectives and functioned well as a substitute for the Game of Research.


Figure 3: The Ditch & accompanying behaviors


The lengthy process of game creation is extremely challenging but ultimately rewarding. The Game of Research and the Research Road are not currently being used in the UTC Library’s instruction curriculum. Curriculum for freshman composition classes is redesigned each year based on instructor feedback and the evolving needs of the program. The games are now part of a repertoire of instruction activities that can be taught depending on a class’s needs. The Game of Research is part of the library’s online teaching materials collection and can be downloaded and adapted to fit the needs of other library instruction programs. Several university and high school libraries have reported that they have used the game with great success.


Jonassen, D. H., Beissner, K., & Yacci, M. (1993). Structural knowledge: Techniques for representing, conveying, and acquiring structural knowledge. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Leach, G., & Sugarman, T. (2005). Play to win! Using games in library instruction to enhance student learning. Research Strategies, 20(3), 191-203.

Margino, M. (2013). Revitalizing traditional information literacy instruction: Exploring games in academic libraries. Public Services Quarterly, 9(4), 333-341.

Smale, M. (2011). Learning through quests and contests: Games in Information Literacy Instruction. Journal of Library Innovation, 2(2), 36-55.

Smith, A.-L., & Baker, L. (2011). Getting a clue: creating student detectives and dragon slayers in your library. Reference Services Review, 39(4), 628-642.

3 thoughts on “The Game of Research: [Board] Gamification of Library Instruction

  1. Two people reviewed and accepted this article with recommendations for minor revisions. They were Jessica Long and Jennifer Hicks, both of Miami University Middletown.

Comments are closed.