A locus of participation

If I asked you to create a complete and contained miniature universe built with new rules designed to delight another person… a tiny space where they could engage in wonder and imagination and would ask of them to explore that world and their own agency… and to give them a sense of triumph when that exploring was done, could you do it?

In other words, would you make a game?


Over 12 years ago, I wrote up a short presentation I made at code4lib North, in which I ask the reader, would they write a book?

That post began with this premise:

This hasn’t happened to me recently but it has happened to me: you tell someone that you are a librarian and they respond with “a librarian? It must be fun to read books all day”.

I used to think this response was batty to say the least, but over time I’ve come to realize that these words were not meant to be unkind. It’s just that most people think that the way to understand a library is through the reading of its books.

That’s not the case, of course. So how do librarians understand their collections? Well – and this is going to sound quaint and old-fashioned – but there was a time when you could develop a sense of a library’s collection from working at a reference desk. When I worked at the Metro Toronto Reference Library on the Periodicals floor, I had shifts at the Reference Desk that always had a line-up several deep and never afforded a break between inquiries.

But that time has passed.

So now how will we interact with the library to know it better than anyone else?

As someone who has been immersed into the specialty of law librarianship for less than two years, I have been acutely aware of all the work that goes into the sense-making necessary to understand what a library holds and what possibilities it contains. Just being in a library space is not enough to understand it.

Some people understand their library by doing research through it. In the process of writing, they look up work new to them in the library, to read and to cite and to build on the work of others. Over time, they grow to understand where their local collection fits their needs and where there are gaps that need to be filled by other sources.

Some librarians understand their library through bibliographies. They look at the works that faculty recommend in their syllabi and what they cite in their research papers, and check to see if what works from those lists might be added locally.

Some librarians create dashboards and make data visualizations to express and make clear library collection use and subject coverage. They survey their community regularly to understand where and how they can improve. They tap into social media and overhear.

And some people make playthings like games.

Like a game, the library waits for you to approach and choose how you would like to engage with it. The library exists as a gift from the community that supports it. Like a game, the library is not an object of spectacle but a locus of participation.

Williams, M., (2022) “Play where you are”, The Journal of Play in Adulthood 4(2), 14-31. doi: https://doi.org/10.5920/jpa.1016


The only way to learn is by playing.

The only way to win is by learning.

And the only way to begin is by beginning.



Game design is both profoundly simple and profoundly difficult to do. It is simple in that small children make up games all the time. It is difficult in that it such a challenge to make a brand new game that will invite others to spend time learning and playing it and to let themselves be vulnerable in the experience.

One way of making game-design less daunting, is to begin by making a modification of an existing game. Just like there are well-established house rules for how we play UNO (stacking is allowed), how we play Monopoly ($500 on Free Parking), and Euchre (“Screw the Dealer”), we can create a variation of an existing game to suit how we’d like to play.

Challenging students to make their own games – or to make a modification (‘mod’) of an existing game – can provide an opportunity to teach them to manipulate and transform digital objects into physical objects, which can then be further manipulated to share rich, pedagogical experiences. This tutorial will show how students can create their own paper or digital versions of games using the chronology building mechanic popularized by Frederic Henry’s commercial game, Timeline.

Just as authors or publishers use word processors to create printed books, designers of tabletop games regularly use digital tools to create paper prototypes of their work. This tutorial will introduce you to two of these specialized digital tools: Andrea Nini’s nanDECK and Tabletop Simulator.

As an instructor, you will have the opportunity to direct students’ attention to the different affordances of paper versus digital versions of the same informational object. Given the ability to play the same game around both a physical and a digital tabletop, students can reflect on the ways in which medium affects the experience of game play. With their new-found ability to modify the assets or pieces of familiar games, students will gain the ability to explore what happens when the rules of well-known games are changed.4


During my sabbatical of 2021-2022, I used nanDECK to create a local history game largely using digital imagery provided by my local libraries. Unfortunately, many of these digital images are not in the public domain and so I cannot share my localized Windsor Timeline game with you.

"A set of five upright rectangles, each surrounded by a thick black border and faint dotted lines that extend off the page. These are a series of five cards, each bearing an image and a caption. The first card bears an image of a house with the caption 'Duff Baby house is built.' The second card features an image of a commemorative plaque on a structure of stones and the words 'Treaty 2, or the McKee Purchase, was signed'. The middle card features a portrait of young man wearing a military suit and a cap with a large feather and the caption 'Shawnee chief and warrior Tecumseh is born in present-day Ohio.' The fourth card features a map of a fort and the words 'Settlement of now-Windsor began when the Huron Mission was moved from Bois Blanc to the South Shore.' The last card features an image of figures crossing a river in a canoe and the words 'Detroit is founded by Antoine Cadillac.'"

I but can and have share how you too can make your own personalized Timeline-like game with free software and 12 lines of provided script, in my recently published, “Designing a Deck of Timeline Cards for Tabletops and Tabletop Simulator,” which has just been published in Programming Historian 13 (2024), https://doi.org/10.46430/phen0118:

Designing a Deck of Timeline Cards for Tabletops and Tabletop Simulator
Mita Williams ORCID id icon

This lesson demonstrates how to use nanDECK to design and publish your own deck of printed or digital playing cards, and use them to test a group’s knowledge of historical events through a Timeline-like game mechanic. This lesson will also highlight best practices for handling digitized historical objects.


CC-BY 4.0

Support PH
edited by

    Rolando Rodriguez

reviewed by

    Chris Young
    Adam Porter

published | 2024-03-18
modified | 2024-03-18
difficulty | Low

DOI id icon https://doi.org/10.46430/phen0118

I want to give much thanks for the patient copy-editing and editorial guidance I received from everyone at Programming Historian.


During my sabbatical, I also made another modification of an existing game using nanDECK. For this deck, I used CC-BY images from The Noun Project, to ensure that the game could be readily be made available to others

Screencapture of the itch.io page for Library Metagame, featuring two images: of a deck of cards splayed out and one of the card face, which is library metagame and a stapler
Library Metagame, https://copystar.itch.io/libraryland-metagame

It was my personal goal to bring this game to my favourite library conference. While I was able to present my game virtually, I was unable to physically attend Access 2022 and to play it with others. I can’t tell you how happy I was when I saw that the organizers made game-play possible anyway:

a screencapture of a tweet: the text reads, Playing @copystar's game at lunch with much laughter ensuing! the image is of a person holding a small deck of cards at a conference table with others

I have not found game design as something easy. But I have found that it becomes so much easier when I design a game for someone I love.

image of a green wall with a window and a line of stuffed animals all lining up along a bed frame.

The text reads, You have a very reasonable three year old who will ask you to arrange her stuffies before she will even consider going to bed. It's now her bedtime. First, she needs to say 'goodnight' to each of her friends.

A couple weeks ago, I made this Downpour game for my now-fifteen year old daughter. Despite the game being designed with objects from my daughter and for her, my friend shared the same game with her kiddo because they had also shared the same family ritual of putting your stuffies in the proper order before going to sleep.

Mars After Midnight was also made for someone’s kids. And Wordle is not just a game. Wordle is a love story.

Make games and libraries for those you love.

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