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At an Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) board meeting, I stood up in front of the trustees and community members to make a public comment.

“The AADL Summer Game has encouraged me to explore Ann Arbor more than a whole school year did.”

The action allowed me to express my appreciation, though it also granted me a code that could be redeemed for points. Okay, I admit, I made a public comment mostly for the points. Nonetheless, the event and its highlights — codes, the library, thank-yous —was the culmination of a summer characterized by scavenger hunts, points and prizes. This might not make a ton of sense — let me backtrack a bit.

Before my freshman year ended, I knew I wanted to stay in Ann Arbor for the summer. Despite taking classes and working, I found myself having more free time than I did during the school year. I hung out with friends and frequented the peony gardens in the Arb, but I still searched for something to occupy my time in Ann Arbor that I couldn’t do at home.

A trip to the downtown AADL branch changed everything. I went down to the library to participate in an event held during Japan Week, a week of activities done in partnership with the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies. As I gathered my materials for my moss tray landscape, I heard the announcer talk about a Summer Game code, which ended up being the first of many I would record and enter in an online AADL account as part of the annual Summer Game.

The Summer Game is divided into three parts: the summer reading game, the explorer series, and the online codes. First off, the summer reading game rewards children who read ten books with Summer Game points and a free book. Adults and teenagers can participate too, with ten entries of having read, watched or listened to content resulting in Summer Game points (teens can earn a book too). 

The explorer series is a scavenger hunt of sorts. Exploring the AADL branches, Ann Arbor parks, and other sites across the city gives players the opportunity to find codes that can be redeemed for points and badges. AADL events, too, both online and in-person, offer opportunities to find Summer Game codes.

Finally, there are online codes. The AADL online catalog is chock-full with hundreds of them — riddles, puns and puzzles lead players from item to item in the catalog, collecting badges for each collection of codes they find. Badges are dropped every Friday, giving players new sets of themed puzzles to do each week. While there are plenty of points to hunt for in the explorer series, online codes give players the opportunity to earn thousands of points at the click of a mouse. Codes can be redeemed for points, and points can be redeemed for prizes. A leaderboard showcases the players with the most points for the day, week and for all-time. For players, the Summer Game is a fun way to earn prizes; for the library, it’s a great way to encourage the community to engage with library resources.

To learn more about the Summer Game, I connected with Rich Retyi, the library’s communications and marketing manager. Retyi’s role is to promote what the library has to offer. In regard to the Summer Game, Retyi helps promote it to the public; his team arranges the bus ads, banners and more.

Advertisements for the Summer Game can be found outside the AADL libraries and on the side of some TheRide buses in Ann Arbor. During non-pandemic times, it was advertised all across town, with codes that could be redeemed for points found in local businesses.

According to its website, the Ann Arbor public library has had an annual summer reading program for children since the 1940s. Then, in 2011, the Summer Game was created. Participant Sandy Dunavan has been playing the Summer Game since its first summer, and there are many reasons she keeps coming back.

“I love the witty writing from the people that write the badge questions,” Dunavan wrote over email. “It has been that way since the beginning, and it’s honestly part of what brings me back every year.”

The clues and codes bleed into each other, each badge leading a player on a new themed quest with hints and brain teasers intertwined. What people often don’t think about, however, is the process behind creating such codes and badges. “I don’t want to make it sound super difficult, but it’s hard, like, really hard,” Retyi said. “We have some really, really talented Summer Game folks here who put all that together.”

One of my majors is creative writing & literature, but I’m not sure I could do what the AADL staff members do in terms of writing the countless puns and riddles hidden among the online puzzles. 

“I do love solving some of the harder riddles,” Dunavan wrote. “But seeing different parts of the city, especially the parks, has been the most rewarding. I’m also partial to some of the prizes.”

Like Dunavan, I am also partial to the prizes. S.G. Giraffepants and S.G. Llamapants, small plushies of animals true to their names, currently sit on my bookshelf. Two Summer Game shirts hang in my closet, and I’m hoping for a third this year. 

Coming up with prizes is one area that Retyi’s department is involved in. The process starts many months before the summer when staff members not only figure out what kind of prizes they will offer in the Summer Game shop, but what designs they will have. The library works with a local company, Underground Printing. “I love working with the graphic designers here,” Retyi said. “That’s a lot of fun for me to work with them and work with the rest of the Summer Game prize team to figure out what we’re going to offer the shop.”

LSA sophomore Jasmine Xu no longer plays the Summer Game, but she has fond memories of it. When she was in seventh grade, she and a group of friends played for several hours every day to maintain their spots as the top five in the leaderboard. “We would set up meetings every day, and we had like a bunch of Google docs,” she said over Zoom. “They did badge drops every Friday, and we would assign each person to a different set of badges so we could find the codes as fast as possible.”

To be at the top of the leaderboard is no easy feat. To put it into perspective, there were 6,645 players as of July 23, according to a report in the July 26 AADL board meeting. Last year, there were 5,430 players as of July 23, and in 2019, the summer before COVID-19, there were 7,969 players.

“We had had, year after year … a record number of players signing up and playing,” Retyi said. “And then, the summer before the pandemic, we had the most players that we had ever had playing. We had so many cool badges and everything else.”

COVID-19 changed a lot of things, including the AADL Summer Game. “The pandemic kind of threw a bit of a wrench into how the Summer Game had been going,” Retyi said. At times during 2020, AADL locations were physically closed for browsing. This challenged staff members to devise new ways they could offer activities and events.

On March 13, the library closed all locations. The next day, according to Retyi, they launched AADL.TV, an altered online version of the events that the library had been building. Not long after, staff contemplated what they could do to encourage people to still engage with the library, and the Bummer Game came about. The Bummer Game gave people opportunities to participate in the badges and online puzzle part of the Summer Game, where they could earn points to spend on prizes when the Summer Game shop opened in July.

The ingenuity didn’t stop there; this past year, the AADL hosted its first-ever Winter Game. The Winter Game had never been done before, though Retyi noted that many people had asked for it. “That does not guarantee we’ll ever do the summer game or the winter game again,” he said. “But those were just different ways that we helped engage (the community), because we’ve got thousands of people who sign up every year for the Summer Game and really love it … it was nice for us to be able to offer that.”

Some of the aspects of the Summer Game I enjoyed my freshmen year, like in-person library events and codes in businesses like RoosRoast and Zingerman’s, weren’t feasible during the pandemic. The switch to more remote and digital content, along with new means for players to participate in the Explorer series, continued to expand what the Summer Game could be.

“That’s where we came up with different ways to explore parks and spaces without having to send a lot of people to the same place at the same time,” Retiyi explained. “It was where the idea of home codes sort of came out.”

Anyone can sign up and create their own home code, which can be found and entered by other players for points. Last summer, the first summer of home codes, there were 259 total home codes. Home codes are popping up everywhere this year, with 517 home codes created as of July 26, just halfway through this year’s Summer Game.

“It’s a really cool thing that we’ve seen people sort of organizing their own little scavenger hunts to go get a bunch of home codes,” Retiyi said. “So, yeah, I think things continue to kind of get bigger, more interesting, more creative, as things have evolved.”

Along with home codes, codes visible from outside the AADL buildings still exist, offering players ways to continue with explorer activities while remaining outside and socially distanced.

“It makes a good excuse to get out of the house, even during quarantine,” Dunavan wrote. “A couple nights ago my husband and I were downtown strolling around after dinner and I dragged him around the downtown AADL to get the building codes.”

While I didn’t drag my friends around Kerrytown in pursuit of codes as I did two years ago, I’ve still enjoyed participating in the Summer Game this year. The reading game has been a fun way to log the books I’ve read this summer, while home codes appease the itch for a scavenger hunt. 

Of course, the Summer Game couldn’t be possible without the AADL and its incredible staff. Growing up in a small town, I didn’t have a library with such extensive collections and resources like the AADL. I started playing the Summer Game before I registered for a library card (psst, you don’t need an Ann Arbor District Library card to play the Summer Game), but I’m so glad I have one now. Much of the time I add a random book to my “to-read” list, I search online and discover that the AADL has it. It’s been great to have that as a resource, and other AADL players agree.

“They have virtually every book I’m interested in — and my interests are pretty wide-ranging,” Dunavan wrote. “I’m also impressed by all the cool stuff you can check out —though the waiting list for an electric guitar is sadly far too long. Some millionaire should donate more of them to AADL.”

Xu agreed that aside from the expansive collection of books, the library has a unique array of materials and tools available to check out.

“I borrowed a drawing tablet from them before, and I’ve also borrowed a microphone once, so they just have so many tools that you can borrow,” she said. “I think it’s really cool because I used to do art, and we didn’t have the money to buy an actual drawing tablet, so I could try one out and see if I liked it.”

The library has something for everyone: board games, puzzles and more. Now that it’s back open, it’s worth exploring what it has.

In 2019, when a librarian noticed me peeking through the kids section in search of codes, she pointed me in the right direction. No one ever seemed to judge me and my friends as we searched through the bookshelves for Summer Game codes, nor did they turn us away when we wanted a place to study. Compared to the U-M library system, there are people of all ages at the AADL library. While I associate Hatcher and Shapiro with late-night study sessions, I associate the AADL with the Ann Arbor community. For students, it can feel far away, especially the locations besides downtown. But a library — specifically the AADL — is a place you can count on.

After speaking with Retyi, it seems like the staff agree. 

“Never have I worked around so many incredibly talented, creative, kind, thoughtful people who really just want to give something to the community,” he said. “A lot of times in marketing, I’m trying to make people money … here, I’m trying to come up with ways to get people to use this resource.” 

With how expansive the AADL is in the first place, it’s no wonder it can create something like the Summer Game. The staff work hard to get hundreds of people to utilize library resources, and it shows. During the Summer Game, a lot of people use the catalog for badges and codes, but it also leads to new discoveries of texts or content that might be of interest to players. The Summer Game also encourages website use for people to log their daily reading, listening and watching, thus helping increase website traffic. Overall, it’s free and a win-win for everyone involved.

I never expected a library to play a big role in my summer activities, but I’ve enjoyed getting to know the AADL the past three years. As far as the Summer Game, it’s wonderful to participate in something that so many people in Ann Arbor love and look forward to. I’m not sure how long I will stay in Ann Arbor following graduation, but I look forward to more years participating in it.

The Summer Game runs from June 11 through August 29. Check out the AADL website to get started.

Statement Correspondent Elizabeth Schriner can be reached at eschrine@umich.edu.