Amid temperatures expected to top 110 degrees, the American Library Association Annual Conference officially kicked off on Friday evening in Las Vegas with a keynote from author and game designer Jane McGonigal, and an opening reception on the exhibit floor. In all, more than 20,000 librarians, authors, publishers and vendors from 765 exhibitors are expected to attend the conference over the next four days, and at first glance, the show looks like it will be a strong one. The opening session was packed, and the registration lines were long.

In her opening introduction, outgoing ALA president Barbara Stripling spoke of the hundreds of talks, author appearances, presentations and professional sessions that represent “the best new ideas” for a library profession experiencing rapid, often technology-fueled change. “I know you are all familiar with the phrase ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,’” Stripling told attendees. “But I hope when you return home you’ll want to share with your friends and colleagues all the wonderful, inspirational things you learned during this conference.”

That tech-fueled change was on full display in a fascinating opening keynote from McGonigal, who told attendees she felt like she was paying a “Karmic debt” with her talk: the first computer game she ever played was in a library in Morristown, New Jersey.

A designer of alternate reality games, McGonigal touched on themes from her bestselling (and PW star reviewed) 2011 book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. While the reputation of gamers is that they are brain-dead zombies, in fact the opposite is true (and she showed off some brain scans to prove it). Gamers in fact, are “super-empowered hopeful individuals” she noted. Games bring joy to people, increase confidence, and resilience. And games engage people, particularly important, she noted, as some 81% of respondents to a Gallup survey reported they were not engaged by their jobs.

And, there are a lot of gamers. McGonigal said there are now more than one billion gamers worldwide, who together represent major brain power. She gave a few examples of how gamers have harnessed that collective power and helped solve scientific problems through games like Foldit, a scientific “protein folding” game, earning gamers an author credit in the journal Nature.

But her most compelling example came in 2011, when she worked with the New York Public Library on a game that brought together 500 individuals who used a game McGonigal developed to write a book together overnight, using 100 historical treasures in the NYPL’s collections. The idea came after NYPL approached McGonigal about creating a game that might engage people to use the physical library. The final result, 100 Ways to Make History, was so compelling, that when NYPL officials saw the final result, they pledged to “defend the book for as long as New York City is standing,” and they put the book in the rare books collection, with the Declaration of Independence, and the Gutenberg Bible.

“Can you help scientists solve problems, can you help your community redesign public spaces, can you write a book in one night? All of these epic goals are more possible,” McGonigal concluded, “because of gaming.”

For ALA 2014, transformation is a key theme, with numerous panels on everything from e-books, to makerspaces, and other innovative new directions for libraries. In her opening talk, McGonigal certainly set the tone.