Book Review – Play at Work by Adam Penenberg

Book review of Play at Work: How games inspire breakthrough thinking by Adam Penenberg.


Unless you are living in a hole in the ground, it would be hard to have missed the global trend towards games. Certainly for readers of this blog it comes as no surprise that games are the new normal, even in the workplace.


Convincing our peers that games, and more specifically gamification, can drive productivity and engagement at work though can be a little more difficult.  We tend to dress it up in fancy ‘non-game’ terms such as engagement, motivational design, behavioural economics, ‘engagonomics’ (not a joke word, I kid you not) and I’m sure many more.


But then there are those of us who are unapologetic: gamification is, at its heart, about games. We call a spade a spade. There’s no need to hide it in familiar terms just so the c-suite feels safe. The reality is that games are coming and they are going to change not just the way we work, but whole companies and industries.  And, if you are struggling to articulate this change to your own c-suite (or if indeed you are the c-suite), then you could do a lot worse than recommend they read tech journalist, Adam Penenberg’s new book: “Play at Work


Despite being a self confessed ‘non-gamer’,  Penenberg has travelled America to interview real people putting games to work and demonstrating success.  He looks at car companies that crowdsource car designs, medical educators that create high fidelity practice dummies, software gurus that get their software tested and translated for free and, of course, call centers that incentivise bored staff with points and badges.


It’s a roller coaster tour of our changing world where games are spilling out of the virtual into our daily lives. He charts Ian Bogost’s hilarious spin on Farmville – the Cow Clicker game – with glee, while not failing to mention its evident success. Penenberg has an eye for personal stories that keep you reading where dryer books have failed.  At times it feels like a cross between the latest Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics. Perfect for the average business reader, who like David Cameron, found himself addicted to Angry Birds but didn’t quite know why (it’s all about progression, in case you were wondering).


I have two quibbles with the book, 3 if you include the fact that the Easter Egg is a bit rubbish. Firstly, like too many other books on the subject, it is still too weak on covering the problems raised by critics of gamification.  Criticism of gamification is not going away; in fact the lack of clarity from the industry in rebutting issues has made their voices seem even louder. I felt a chapter on the dark side of games was needed. It needed to cover topics such addiction, manipulation, playing when you should be working, reinforcing bad habits, gaming the system and accidentally condoning inappropriate behaviour (‘but I was just playing the game…’). Perhaps something for a next edition.


Secondly, Penenberg’s rather peculiar conclusion had me bursting with incredulity.  Maybe I misunderstood his point, but in it he appears to suggest that we’re already living in the Matrix, a simulated world created for us by the machines of the future.  As far as I’m aware there isn’t really any actual evidence for this world view so I wasn’t sure why it was included. While vaguely interesting as an dorm-room discussion, it  provided a slightly wacky end to an otherwise sensible book.


So, for my own conclusion, I really enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it to gamifiers and non-gamifiers alike, as a wide ranging and solid introduction to games in the workplace. I might just advise you to skip the conclusion.


And for a final spoiler, the easter egg  is in the thank you notes. Pesky gamification bloggers, I don’t know… 🙂



Toby Beresford

Toby is founder and CEO of Rise the success tracking network to track, publish and share success. He was the 2013 chair of - the International Gamification Confederation and organises the UK Gamifiers meetup. As a gamification leader, he speaks at conferences and hosts workshops. Follow him on twitter @tobyberesford and Subscribe to this blog at Gamification Of Work blog feed

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook