Book Review: Play at Work

PlayAtWorkI’m starting to review books and other materials for the site. No awards just yet, but consider reviews on this site to be positive recommendations. If you would like me to consider something, send me an email or comment. If you are a publisher, send me a review copy 🙂

Play at Work
Adam Penenberg
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.

FolditEnter 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.

Will Bain
Major Fun

The Awesome Power of a Fully Inflated Earth Ball

Yesterday was Field Day for my daughter’s school. Grades K through 8 converged on a local park and rotated through a series of field games. Each team was made up of about 12 to 15 students from all the grades. They had team names and colors and many of them came in coordinated costumes.

The day was beautiful: blue skies, light breeze, and a broad expanse of grass and clover that was tall enough to cushion a fall but not so tall as to get everybody worried about ticks and chiggers and poison ivy. The kids were in high spirits. The teachers and parent volunteers were relaxed (well, as relaxed as can be expected with 200 or more kids in a field full of games).

With 15 minutes to go before the buses arrived, I was trying to work out in my head the rules for a game that would utilize two giant “Earth” balls AND would not result in debilitating injury.

Earth BallFor those who don’t know, an “Earth” ball is just a giant, inflatable ball (also called a cage ball). I grew up calling them Earth balls because they are huge (anywhere from 48 to 72 inches tall) and because the ones I played with as a youngster were scale replicas of good ol’ planet Earth. I spent many years as a camp counselor and many more working for camps and adventure programs. I’ve led countless field games that use giant cage balls of every color and yet I always call them “Earth” balls.

This is the second year I have volunteered at Field Day. Last year, I noticed that they had a giant pink “Earth” ball for a game called Sumo Wrestler. I immediately volunteered to be the adult supervisor. In part I volunteered for this activity because “earth” balls invite all kinds of fun, physical play: jumping, hitting, pushing, kicking, etc… But the bigger reason I volunteered was because all of those activities inevitably result in injuries—injuries that always take us adults by surprise.

It was my hope to fend off at least a few of the worst ones, because nothing ruins a field day more than a dislocated shoulder or a case of whiplash.

The game of Sumo Wrestler is one of those games that are instantly attractive to kids and most adults. The idea is that the giant ball is in the center of a circle that is split in half. Two contestants start on opposite sides of the ball and try to push it past the opposite side of the circle. Kids get really excited about challenging their friends. Even kids who don’t usually go in for physical conflict will line up to take a turn in the ring. I attribute this to the fact that they focus on the ball more than the conflict. Adults also see it as a safe way for kids to wrestle. The ball is big and soft and filled with air—how could a big ball of air hurt, right?

newton's second lawWell, all that air and the membrane that surrounds it are excellent conduits for Newton’s laws of motion. Especially the second law. In short, if there is even a small difference in the mass of the kids who are pushing against the ball, the smaller one will almost always be catapulted away with often surprising force. It gets worse if one or both of the kids manages to get even a little running start before they hit the ball. After all, force equals mass times acceleration. And if the kids are not pushing on opposite sides of the ball, if they are both even a little to one side of center, the ball shoots off and the two kids collide with whatever part of their body was foremost at the time—generally the noggin.

Although I abandoned Sumo Wrestler early in the day, my attempts to come up with an energetic replacement that would involve fewer than two kids leaving my station in tears left much to be desired.

So this year, with a little trial and error, I came up with a game that I called Sumo Volleyball (please feel free to make suggestions in the comment section—PLEASE). Teams get to push not just one but two giant balls. Here’s the set-up and rules:

  • Set out cones to form 2 parallel lines (about twice the width of your ball apart and maybe 30 feet long).
  • Teams face each other across the space between the lines. Teams play on their knees at all times.
  • An adult stands at each open end of the lines to keep the ball in play.
  • GOAL: push one of the balls over the opposing team so that it lands on the ground behind them. As soon as one ball hits the ground behind a team, stop play and start over.
  • RULE #1: all players must stay on their knees at all times. No standing up. No squatting. If someone gets off their knees, stop play and give a point to the other side.
  • RULE #2: Knees may not cross the line of cones. You can reach across the line but you can’t “walk” across the line. If someone crosses the line, stop play and give a point to the other side.
  • OPTION: every 2 points have the teams switch sides (gives them a chance to stand up, rearrange, and not have a disadvantage because of wind)

Earth Ball GameOnce the kids got over the disappointment that they wouldn’t be knocking each other out in a semi-sumo match, they had a blast. With 2 balls almost everyone is included and you can still get a very satisfying hit on the ball although it is harder to generate as much force compared to when you are standing up. You can still be knocked over, but when you are on your knees your center of gravity is much lower. The greatest risk actually comes from getting knocked over by one of your own team mates. The ball can still shake up a smaller child, especially if it catches the child on the head, but I saw that happen only twice and both times the kids came back after sitting out for a round.

What I loved seeing was that there were many times when the kids just loved hitting the ball back and forth. I think if I had made the lines farther apart they would have been just as happy to spend 20 minutes or so battering these giant balls back and forth with no score at all.

Field Day play at its best. Silly, active, and fun.

Do you want to play a game?

At some moment on the hazy horizon of memory, I am sitting in the tiny breakfast nook my mother called the “kitchenette.” This me is probably still in elementary school but I’m guessing that middle school is not far off. In this particular recollection I am eating cereal from a white Corelle bowl, but I could just as easily be playing with the last few strands of spaghetti from dinner. I am repeating a phrase over and over, sometimes out loud and sometimes just under my breath.

“Do you want to play?”

Each time I emphasize a different word.

Do you want to play?

Do you want to play?

Do you want to play?

Each iteration carries a slightly different meaning without changing the grammar. The emphasis alters the tone of the question which in turn directs the kind of answer that I expect from my imaginary interlocutor. I’m fascinated with the way the tone shifts with only a little extra volume on a single word. I am especially struck by what is implied when I ask, “DO you want to play?” As if I am speaking to a liar or someone who is only humoring me.

OK, so I was no Blaise Pascal, but in the solipsism of youth, the idea that language could be more than the sum of the literal words was quite a revelation. And that fascination with the subtle (and not so subtle) relationship between the denotational and connotational nature of language stuck with me.

When I tell people what I do as Major Fun, their first reaction is generally one of good natured jealousy. “That must be fun!” And it is! I get to play games and then write about the ones that I think are amazing. I can also write about any and all of the things that I think about as I decide what fits the criteria for the Major Fun Award and what doesn’t. I can write about the fun and playful nature of language.

That part of me that was fascinated by how emphasis shifts the tone of a question also drives me to do more than just play the game, but rather play WITH the game and everything it implies.

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

I think many folks regret engaging me in this conversation. It’s about as much fun to listen to wonky abstractions as it is to listen to someone as they relate their dreams. Fortunately for them, in our age of the internet, clicking the Back Button is a handy escape. If you have made it this far then perhaps you are enough like me that from time to time, you will want to splash around a bit in the abstract end of the pool.

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