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Teen Summer Challenge: Gamification

Pierce County Library System, WA
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Innovation Summary

Through the introduction of gamification to Pierce County Library System’s (PCLS) Teen Summer Reading Program, the Library was able to increase participation in the reading and learning program beyond the less than 1% previously participating in the Library’s formal program, and also engage teens in their communities.

Problem Statement

Pierce County has approximately 40,000 teen throughout the region. The Library has offered traditional options for teens during summer reading such as reading logs, online registration and recording of reading activities. Each year time and money is invested in developing and executing this program. Materials created and printed, school visits scheduled and executed, and incentives purchased and offered, to engage teen readers. Despite these good intentions the program reached and engaged few. Less than 1% of teens in the Library’s service area participated. Teens, notoriously hard to engage, and among the most diverse, ever-changing demographic so incredibly difficult to meet with a one-size-fits-all program, required a new approach and PCLS needed a way to leverage its limited staff and budget.


In 2012 PCLS built game mechanics into the Teen Summer Reading Program and provided the program completely online. Through a partnership between Youth Services and the Virtual Services departments, PCLS developed an online game to engage teen readers. Using Buddypress plug in for Word Press, PCLS developed a website that guided customers through several challenges in eight topic areas. The platform allowed interaction between players through posts. The team focused on creating challenges in the following areas: Animals Histories & Mysteries Music & Dance Plants & Gardening Reading Science & Technology Sports & Games Visual Arts Within each category teenagers selected challenges that engaged them with the library and their community. When a player completed a task they posted their results and the online system awarded them points that were listed on the online leader board where scores could be compared among players. Each category also included three levels of mastery: apprentice, journeyman, and master. Each task within a subject became progressively harder leading customers to different levels of mastery. When participants completed three tasks in a particular subject the online system were awarded them either a virtual or real badge, which they could pick up at their library (e.g. “Fuzzy Friend” badge in the Animals’ category). Additionally, a social component allowed players to communicate about how they were progressing toward the next badge. Customers talked about everything from sports teams to science homework and self-monitored themselves to assure compliance with the rules. Staff acted as webmasters, beta testers, and rule monitors. PCLS entered the top performers from the leader board in a drawing for an iPad and gift cards, provided by PC Library Foundation.


This project exceeded PCLS’s expectations. Overall costs for the teen summer reading component were dramatically reduced. For 2012, PCLS created and distributed bookmarks in the libraries, included information on its website, and conducted mass and social media. No deliberate school visits were scheduled to advertise the program. Staff wanted to determine whether this program was successful, sustainable, and whether teens would share knowledge of it through their social networking. PCLS noted four outcomes including an unexpected one: 1. The game worked and was successful. 2. Staff’s capacity to manage the website workload was within target of designated staff hours. 3. Teens shared this program among themselves. Interest was high and several teens completed every task and badge and contacted staff for more activities. The category with the highest points recorded was reading. Parents told PCLS that their teens became actively engaged in their community through history, art, and volunteering, all components of the game. 4. The unexpected outcome was the result of using staff to beta test the project for one month. Gift cards for high scorers were provided by the PCL Foundation. This proved so successful that the Staff Experience Department is exploring gamification strategies for future staff learning. 4/1/12 – Beta Test with Staff – Very positive feedback 6/15/12 – Rollout to Customers (Pilot Year) – Very Positive Feedback 9/1/13 – Increased participation by 300% Paul Allen Foundation recently awarded PCLS a $150,000 grant to further develop this tool for more learning and engagement opportunities.