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Play at Work
Portfolio / Penguin, 2013
The thing I find most compelling about Adam Penenberg’s Play at Work are the times when the anecdotes and analysis open up to me the ways electronic media and social networks have so fundamentally changed our society. There have always been social networks and there have been numerous advances in communication that altered the social fabric. What strikes me at several points in Penenberg’s book is the degree to which the confluence of these things (social networks and electronic media) have created institutions that are indistinct from virtual (or simulated) institutions.
Take Chapter Six where Penenberg explores the search for special proteins that could be used to fight HIV. The problem that scientists face (and I am grossly oversimplifying here) is that finding the “right protein” involves finding the right shape of protein. Proteins are very long molecules that derive their useful (or harmful) properties from the way they twist and turn and fold. Figuring out the component parts of the protein is not the difficult part. Figuring out how to combine those parts so the protein folds in just the right way is difficult. So difficult in fact that many problems have been impossible to crack even with some of the most advanced super-computers.
Enter Foldit, a puzzle game that encourages users to form social networks while they play with protein molecules. The game taps into our all too human desires to solve problems, compete, and share. It also provides incredibly difficult puzzles that correspond to protein conundrums in real life. Players learn the basics of folding proteins by playing low level puzzles. As they get better, the puzzles get harder but they start to learn techniques from other players. They form teams. They earn experience and rewards in the form of badges, points, and other forms of recognition. And in 2011, a team of Foldit players cracked a protein that was needed to attack an AIDS related virus in Rhesus monkeys.
Thousands of people playing with simulated proteins in an electronic social network, contributed to a massive breakthrough in bio-chemistry. The virtual realm in which we can play, in which we can drop in and out of our own volition, created the information we needed to change our world. The ability of people to voluntarily play with an idea, to compete against others for only the sense of accomplishment (no monetary gain), and the ability for these people to collaborate (usually via electronic means) were the keys to success.
As Penenberg demonstrates with most of his chapters, these three components are what are key to creating a playful, game-inspired environment. This approach to problem solving, education, and growth is not a panacea, but rather another way of looking at how our hierarchical, standardized institutions might be able to tackle problems that have appeared intractable.
Penenberg is an enthusiastic and engaging writer. The chapters are loosely grouped around considerations of game design, the serious side of play, and how game design has influenced the corporate world, but there is a lot of overlap. The chapters are also episodic so you can pick up and leave the book at intervals or skip around without losing any sense of his central themes.
For those of us who already believe that playfulness and good game design have something profound to offer society (beyond “mere” entertainment) then Penenberg is preaching to the choir. But there are so many fascinating stories that the book is hard to put down. A great read into the complexities and mechanics of play and games.