The Word

Books | Game boy

Books | Game boy

Posting in Technology | From Issue 01 November 18, 2013

A review of Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking, by Adam L. Penenberg.

"I'm not a gamer," writes Adam L. Penenberg in his thank yous at the end of Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking (Portfolio/Penguin, $26.95, excerpted here).

Right. And Richard Nixon was not a crook.

Penenberg's admission contradicts the blissfully short 202 pages of preceding evidence. Why risk alienating your audience, the one you just won over by asking, "Why are these birds so angry?"

When he's not editing PandoDaily, Professor Penenberg teaches at New York University's journalism school, which I attended; we've never met and I wasn't sure why his name sounded familiar until I started reading Play at Work. But as a surrogate student, I encourage him not to distance himself from those of us who play games (ahem, everyone, including his daughters, the benefactors of the Angry Birds shout-out).

Here's what I can extrapolate and appreciate from the phrase, "I am not a gamer" -- Play at Work isn't written in Dungeons & Dragons-speak. Rock-paper-scissors denizens, coupon clippers and drone pilots alike can find something of value.

MacArthur Fellow Luis von Ahn, Ph. D., may have developed the most productive game in the world with CAPTCHA [Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart], even though it's no fun and most of us are unknowing participants. The initial client was spam-sick Yahoo!

"Fraudsters were deploying armies of spambots to automatically register e-mail accounts in a massive scale," Penenberg writes. "He came up with a system to create numbers and letters that would be fuzzy enough so that a machine couldn't read them but a human could. Ever since, people have cursed him for it."

So von Ahn increased our collective vision corrosion as Internet users are now constantly prompted to decipher "x90mb" from "x90m6" and the like under CAPTCHA.

CAPTCHA 2.0, better known as reCAPTCHA, may sound twice as annoying, since it asks users to type out two supposedly random sequences instead of one. However, reCAPTCHA was actually brilliant.

Some day (hopefully), every word of every book will be searchable online. Digitizing such an astronomical amount of text seems insurmountable. And yet it's already happening -- we are the "army of helpers to help translate the entire Internet."

Books are scanned into a computer page by page. Smart as they may be, computers still lack the most nuanced capabilities of human minds. Penenberg writes:

von Ahn is taking words the computer can't recognize and getting people typing reCAPTCHA to recognize them for him. He offers two words because one comes from a book, which the computer doesn't recognize, and the other is a word the computer already knows. The system doesn't tell the user which is which. If she types the correct word that the computer knows the answer to, it will assume she is human and have some confidence she typed the other word properly, too. If 10 people agree, then the system has successfully edited a new word.

Prose-wise, this is far from compelling, but it's logistically amazing.

The reCAPTCHA talk only takes up eight pages in Penenberg's book. He has plenty of room to tell us about games that actually sound like games. Some examples:

The Department of Defense held a daunting national contest with airborne red balloons that sounds like an easier version of the famed University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

Hospitals around the country recommend Nintendo "Wii-hab" for athletes and combat veterans on the mend from surgery.

Then there's Wisconsin doctor Carla Pugh, who helps medical residents recognize the look and feel of malignancies with handmade dummies she outfits with "anything from dried lima beans to glass beads...to pom-poms encased in oily condoms."

While Penenberg paraphrases a much-respected set of rules dictating what technically separates a game from an activity, at the end of Play at Work each reader might have specific scenarios they wish to challenge. Also up for debate: when experience vs. traditional memorization is key.

My qualms with Play at Work, Penenberg's sixth book, are small but stubborn. Several chapters end with hokey idioms or throwaways: "But you can't change the world if you don't dream big." "And there's no app for that." "Now that's what I call the ultimate game design."

In addition, the book is structured a bit too much like one of his syllabi, and he uses unscientific anecdotes from his classes to substantiate certain points.

Mostly, though, I just want Penenberg to embrace his inner gamer.

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Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure