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The New York Public Library Hopes You’ll Make Video Games

If all your software needs is a 1910 photo of Brooklyn then here is some fantastic news.
February 14, 2016, 3:00pm
It was Pac-Man, in the library, with the candlestick. Credit: Mansion Maniac

Mauricio Giraldo, a designer in the New York Public Library Labs, made a video game using some of the library's own collections of public domain materials, and the institution is hoping you'll follow.

In Giraldo's game, Mansion Maniac, you control Pac-Man-esque, pixelated character, guiding through real, early-century floor plans of New York City homes and apartments. As you move from room to room, the game will automatically load and attach more of these authentic, historical layouts to the luxurious world, and when you're done, you can save and print out the floorplan to show all your friends that New York apartments have always been very small.


"It starts a lot of conversations," Giraldo told me over Skype. "The growing of a city or the history of wealth disparity. I showed it to architects and they thought they could use it to show students the importance of adjacency to rooms is in designing a house. I hadn't even thought about it. Each person is looking at it from a different lens. In a way, the projects are very complimentary to each other."

Earlier in the year, NYPL released a massive collection of documents online. Over 180,000 photos, blueprints, books and maps, a sprawling collection of collections in high-resolution and, more importantly, all belonging to the public domain. NYPL has been digitizing since the late 90s, but Kimball said last year they wanted to "really do right by the public domain."

"We also thought 180,000 things to give away is a lot," Shana Kimball, NYPL's manager of public programs, told me over Skype. "How can you make it both intelligible to people and prompt new uses, because that's really the point. Images are the start, but to fully realize our mission as a library we wanted to make these collections fully accessible and encourage their reuse."

Giraldo's Mansion Maniac is just one project created as an illustration for the variety of ways programmers and artists could use NYPL's digital resources.

Fifth Avenue from Start to Finish takes archival photos of Fifth from 1911 and lines them up with vantages from Google Street View. Navigating the Green Book is a wholly other kind of historical contrast. It's based on mid-century writer and postman Victor H. Green's The Negro Motorist Green Book, guide books to other African Americans on travelling Jim Crow America. Navigating is a virtual itinerary based on the only towns, hotels, taverns and gas stations that were safe for people of colour. Kimball said making these games was like "eating our own dog food." If the library making video games seems odd, it's because they'd love to see it as a trend.

I guess we're not stopping in Texas. Credit: Navigating the Green Book

Created in a month with game jam-like restrictions, Giraldo said the limitations were somewhat liberating. He told me knowing you can't create an expansive 3D universe or calling in Patrick Stuart for a voice acting session helps crystalize what it is you're doing. Though if he had one regret, it seemed Giraldo wished he could bust through Mansion Maniac's number of room types, 40, well into the hundreds. "I was, by hand, propping many of those blueprints," said Giraldo, "it could have been much bigger. More complex."

Kimball told me they've been tracking some of the uses the public have found for their assets. They've spotted memes and .gifs. They saw someone in Williamsburg printing the library's photos on skate decks. One user has spent time comparing their documents to counterparts in the Rijksmuseum. Having these materials spread is not only for creative and educational expenses, but as circulation grows so does the odds that people will spot discrepancies between their collections and others around the world, fishing out errors and possibly forgeries.

The NYPL Labs have held multiple hackathons in the past. It's currently accepting applications for a "Remix Residency" to create new programs similar to their in-house creations. Kimball told me that, on top of a traditional game with the public possibly in the cards, that in June they'll be teaming up with popular spoken word series The Moth for a workshop based around oral history. NYPL has a constantly updating GitHub. But those hoping to use hundreds of thousands of photos and documents don't need to wait for a collaboration. The key message is you can do it yourself.

"Digitization we see as a first step," said Kimball, "but what do you see beyond, what comes after that? How do you engage with it? What do they make out if it? We are really known for projects involving crowdsourcing. Those by design have to be inviting and compelling experiences for the public. We've developed a bit of a specialty in the library community about putting our collections online in a compelling, modern way."