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Thanks to my friend Sarah for bringing this article to my attention.  The article discusses how games are being used to effectively crowdsource and solve scientific problems.  In light of my previous post about the educational and social value of games over other forms of entertainment, I think it’s worth highlighting here.

Slate’s article continues the story of FoldIt, an experiment by the University of Washington that offered a game to the general populace which challenged players to build proteins into specific enzymes.  “Within hours, thousands of people were both competing against (and collaborating with) one another.  After three weeks, they had succeeded where the microbiologists and the computers had failed,” by identifying an elusive enzyme used by viruses like HIV.   Rather than simply discuss the medical puzzle at the heart of the game, the article highlights a personnel puzzle by showing that often the best people to solve a sophisticated problem did not have and, in fact, did not need background in the field.  This challenges conventional wisdom that a certain amount of experience, training, or education is needed to excel in a particular position.  That’s not to say these measures are unimportant, but as the FoldIt case displays, a PHD or experience with a certain problem set did not correlate to the cognitive skills necessary to solve certain issues despite that these items are more easily highlighted on a resume:

Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack. Others—often “grandmothers without a high school education,” says Popovic—exercise a particular social skill. “They’re good at getting people unstuck. They get them to approach the problem differently.

Human resource representatives are able to quickly and efficiently match people to jobs based upon data-points from game-play.  The game acts as a vehicle to capture and measure soft skills that are usually difficult to quantify and prioritize them over hard skills that usually show up on a resume, but may not actually reflect a person’s aptitude for the kind of work needed.

This paradigm could revolutionize the way other career areas are staffed, particularly in an knowledge- and information-based economy where many fields place a high emphasis on cognitive ability.  For instance, the title “analyst” (near and dear to my heart) does not tell much about a person’s ability to actually analyze an issue or problem.   Supplemental details in an analyst’s resume cannot show how the person thinks, rather they tell a story about the kinds of things the person has previously thought about.   An interview might provide a better glimpse into an applicant’s particular aptitudes, but probably not in a single conversation where often the skills being showcased are the applicant’s negotiation skills.  Those skills may be useful if you’re looking for a political analyst or hostage negotiator, but they are probably useless if you need someone to find a pattern in shipping documents when investigating an illicit network.   Events designed to allow applicants to show their work, either through specific scenario questions or in an applied exercise are more revealing.   Artists keep portfolios to show their work, but it can often be difficult for someone in knowledge- or information-based job to do the same – especially if they cannot carry their work from one field to another due to proprietary or classification conflicts.  On the other hand, a game emphasizing specific cognitive processes needed for certain tasks could go a long way to identifying the right people to fit the job.

We may be a ways off from that future, but I doubt it’s completely beyond our reach.  In the meantime, if I ever start a company, I’m pretty sure the interview process will include a trial by pixelated fire.

  1. SlyChicken
    March 8, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Takeaway: Play more Portal.

    JK. But seriously.

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