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Gamifying library orientation at the University of California, San Diego

Marlo Young, UC San Diego | Aug 15, 2013

What do you get when you cross an undergraduate student population, an innovative academic library, and a mobile gaming app? A digital library orientation for the 21st century.

The UC San Diego Library applied SCVNGR, a mobile app that uses geolocation technology, to deliver interactive gamified content to orient undergraduate students to the library and its core services.

Why gamify library orientation?

According to Marc Prensky in “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” today’s average college student has spent fewer than 5,000 hours reading, yet more than 10,000 hours playing video games.1 The influence of information and communication technologies in students’ blended virtual and physical everyday realities has a significant impact on the way students learn and the expectations they have of meaningful interactions.

Additionally, the New Media Consortium’s (NMC) Horizon Report identifies game-based learning as having significant impact and potential within higher education. It notes that the most recent National Education Technology Plan identifies gaming as “an ideal method of assessing student knowledge comprehension” as games provide immediate performance feedback to the players. The NMC report goes on to state that “students are engaged because they are motivated to do better, get to the next level, and succeed.”2

Gamification enabled us to scale library orientation across UCSD’s six undergraduate colleges and more than 5,000 incoming students. We increased the level of active learning and student engagement with our orientation content, while significantly reducing the time required to deliver orientation compared with our traditional in-person format.

Piloting the gaming event

To get started, we established a small project team consisting of three librarians to build gaming “challenges” and reformat our orientation content. We decided to pilot the gaming event during Welcome Week when UC San Diego hosts a wide assortment of social events and activities designed to help acclimate students and orient them to campus services. We established a small budget of $600 to purchase iPod Shuffles as prizes, driving competition and interest. Our budget also allowed us to print marketing materials.

During Phase 1 of our pilot in 2011, we transitioned our orientation format from face to face to a blended format. We obtained student and librarian input on the content of our game and learned a lot about how best to utilize SCVNGR to achieve our goals, which were to:

  • Introduce students to core library services and research assistance
  • Familiarize students with two library locations, their physical footprints, and key features and collections
  • Establish interactive, social learning experiences with the library physically and virtually

Students, or players, had to conduct specific “challenges” at various locations throughout our main Geisel Library and our Biomedical Library. The challenges required them to interact with library staff, library spaces, technology, and our social media, as well as the collections and our online research tools. We used the app’s scoreboard and ranking feature to enable students to monitor their progress and the competition.

Based on Phase 1, we decided to pilot Phase 2 during the same period in 2012 to refine our gaming event and increase participation.


Some might consider Phase 1 participation discouraging: 42 individual players who completed 139 activity challenges and 91 social activities within the library. Though we did not reach even one percent of new students entering UC San Diego, we did experience firsthand the tremendous potential that the technology has in supporting online learning. Phase 1 taught us, more than anything, how to improve, and how important the design element is when bringing educational content into a gaming framework.

In 2012, participation increased significantly with 63 teams (with up to 4 players per team) completing 861 activity challenges and 370 social activities. Reach and usage of the library’s Facebook page increased 100 percent. Phase 2 taught us how to design meaningful learning content within this mobile app platform, and ultimately, how to scale this gaming orientation across campus: by having our undergraduate colleges integrate SCVNGR into their orientation and educational programs (rather than as a free-standing, optional gaming event).

Tips for using technology for gamification

  • Determine what you would like to achieve before deciding the right app or platform for your library.
  • Be flexible when working with technology: experiment, learn as you go, and assess.
  • Learn from others who have implemented the technology.
  • Align your efforts with campus initiatives and priorities, as well as with information literacy standards and goals.
  • Create a feedback loop by assessing performance after each session, including student input, and sharing outcomes with colleagues from within and outside of the library.
  • Don’t go it alone; inform your organization and colleagues to gain interest, support and participation.


1     Prensky, Mark (2001). “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the Horizon, MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5.

2     Johnson, L., Adams, S., and Cummins, M. (2012). The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.