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Got game?

How employers are using video games to find their perfect employee match.

When Guy Halfteck graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in law and economics, he confidently applied for a job at a hedge fund. After two months of interviews, he was passed over for someone else—an experience that left him upset and confused because he felt like he’d been a perfect fit for the position.

He was especially disappointed in the company’s interview process, through which he felt, despite the number of interviews, he had no way to showcase his talents.

"When you play the game, we learn an enormous amount of behavioral data about you, which allows us to identify your abilities and character, then compute whether you have a knack for certain desirable traits." – Guy Halfteck, CEO and founder of Knack gaming company

That experience got him thinking: Wasn’t there some way, outside the traditional resume and interview, to prove your skills to an organization—one that would directly correlate with how well you might fit with a company?

Four years later, Halfteck has a thriving business called Knack, which designs video games aimed at assessing job candidates’ skills and aptitudes for recruiters and hiring companies.

Digging deeper than the resume and interview

Wasabi Waiter, the first video game created by Knack, uses the setting of a busy sushi restaurant to “measure the player’s creativity, strategic thinking, social intelligence and time management skills,” says Halfteck, who designed the game with the help of behavioral scientists, engineers and data experts.

Although it’s still new, preliminary results of Knack’s product have been promising. Halfteck reports that, “Wasabi Waiter helped identify the top 10 percent of performers in the area of innovation and idea generation for Shell Oil’s game changer division.”

“When you play the game, we learn an enormous amount of behavioral data about you, which allows us to identify your abilities, your skills, your character traits, and then use our algorithm to compute whether you have a knack for certain desirable traits for one company or occupation,” he says.

Leveling the playing field

And Knack is not alone. There is a growing industry of companies that are creating innovative data-driven methods to assess people for job compatibility.

This new hiring trend is growing for a reason, explains Michael Tannenbaum, CEO for ConnectCubed, a company that provides gaming assessments for such skills as spatial reasoning, multitasking, focus and concentration.

“Research shows that when it comes to hiring, people are pretty bad judges of other people,” says Tannenbaum. “We are prejudiced to hire people that are like us, and tend to be disproportionately unfair to people who are not like us. We also prioritize things that have little to do with work results, like where you went to school.”

With ConnectCube’s assessments, Tannenbaum hopes to level the playing field to give people that didn’t attend a prestigious college a better shot at jobs they may be well-suited for, but wouldn’t normally be offered. “Why should only people from the Ivy Leagues be recruited for certain companies,” he asks, “when research shows that the school you went to doesn’t correlate with performance?”

Tannenbaum argues that with data-driven hiring practices, “anyone, no matter what their background, can become the best candidate for the job.”

Letting your true abilities shine through

Although these games are used to evaluate people, they’re not intended to make people nervous, explains Tannenbaum. “We’ve tried to create assessments that are actually fun for the user to engage with. Our goal is to help people find jobs that they love by giving them access to positions they may not have had access to in the past, and letting their true nature shine.”

Halfteck concurs. “By playing these games, you can find out what you are good at,” he says. In fact, Knack is currently working on an online tool, in the form of a game, that will help students determine which subjects they should study in college in order to match their aptitudes with a successful career path.

Data is just one useful tool among many

Industry experts agree that assessment games aren’t going to replace the traditional resume and in-person interview any time soon. Face-to-face conversations allow for nuances of character, such as personal chemistry and charisma, explains Halfteck. “But if we can help reduce thousands of potential candidates down to a field of ten, that’s a big time-saver for a corporation.”

In fact, Halfteck says, “NYU Medical Center is now having surgery candidates play Wasabi Waiter to help determine which ones will make residency.” According to the data, when top-performing surgeons play the game, they all come out with the same set of outcomes. So Knack uses that successful model to locate others with the same skills.

So what should someone do if they want to become a surgeon, but don’t score the right data set when playing? “My philosophy is, it doesn’t mean you don’t have abilities,” explains Halfteck. But perhaps you need to consider another area of medicine, he says. “Every person has natural aptitudes for different things. The key to being successful in life, and to finding the right career, is to be aware of which strengths you have and to play to those strengths.”

Jenny Jedeikin lives in Northern California and her writing has appeared in San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Rolling Stone and In Style, among other publications.