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4.0 out of 5 stars Business savvy, tech savvy, authorially challenged, 6 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Total Engagement: How Games and Virtual Worlds Are Changing the Way People Work and Businesses Compete (Hardcover)
Here are the positive points about Total Engagement (TE).

(1) The authors of TE 'get' games and 'get' business and 'get' both together. This is a rare combination. Most books on the business of games are written by gamers who happen to work in business, academics who want to work in business, or business people who want to apply game elements to business ('gamification'). Our authors know business from the entrepreneurial and corporate contexts, and know games as avid players, designers and consultants.

(2) The authors have conducted a wealth of leading-edge research and experimentation. In the Introduction alone, they mention conducting post-graduate research, organising conferences, interviewing professional players, and creating game start-ups. I found the business analysis particularly impressive. They chart in chapter 2 ("the game tsunami") how games are big money, big numbers, and big time. The economic theme is continued in chapter 6 ("virtual money").

(3) Some of the chapters are superb. For example, chapter 4 analyses "ten ingredients of great games": avatars, environments, narrative, feedback, ranks, marketplaces, rules, team, communication and time. I found the material on self-representation by avatars particularly insightful, a theme that they continue in the next chapter ("virtual people"). Likewise, in chapter 9 ("play is not the opposite of work") the authors provide nine forms of play relevant to the topic. Here we encounter play-as: frivolity, power, developmental progress, communal identity, imagination, fate, enjoyment, psychological flow and emotional experience.

(4) On a please-forgive-me-I'm-such-a-nerd note, the Endnotes are mouth-watering. The authors have read every conceivable book, paper, blog, review, site, dissertation, and talk on or around the topic.

There are a few negative points that I need to expunge.

The book is written by two authors and a duality sometimes shows. The tone and writing style is patchy in places. This is highly forgivable. What is harder, though far from impossible to forgive is the uneven nature of the content. Many of the chapters are gold dust, others are fine (chapters 7 and 8), a few read as fillers (chapter 3). This probably flows from TEs nature as an experiential book, one that chronicles the innovative work of the authors and lays out their conferences, products and findings. Smooth is for textbooks.

The level of concentration required to read TE makes it feel like you are reading a textbook, however. TE makes for a tough, largely non-enjoyable reading experience. There is little play in the text, beyond the play of ideas and applications. Why isn't that enough? Because reading it feels like you are in a group of three, listening to two guys who are largely talking to themselves about all the cool stuff they've tried and how big their 'achievements' are. We've all been trapped dinner-party conversations like this. Regardless of how interesting the chat, we always end up drifting away.

The scope of the book may be a little narrow for some in two ways. The type of game examined in TE is computer games as opposed to games of other kinds, and again, within the large range of computer games types the focus here is on MMORPGS. Secondly, the authors choose to focus on the world of work, and leave aside matters of education, leisure, health etc except insofar as they impinge upon work.

On a minor point, the authors err in equating the psychological phenomenon of 'flow' or optimal experience with Maslow's concept of 'peak experience' (p. 182). Other books on game design make this mistake too. They are not identical; in fact, in some ways they are opposites. Flow describes a narrowing of focus to the extent that other factors - such as a sense of self and time - are excluded. Peak experiences comprise of a broadening of experience to include a sense of interconnection and lack of limit.

I also feel the famous Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology deserves a mention when the authors tackle the question of why people play. They suggest the five motivations of achievement, immersion, exploration, competition, and socializing (p. 27-9). Bartle does get a mention in the endnotes here (p. 143, n. 19), although not in the index. This makes me wonder, how much of the rest is derived?

But these are relatively minor points. TE makes a valuable contribution to the field, and marks a shift in the way businesses outside the games industry can use game principles for serious competitive advantage.
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Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland

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