Can computer games double as personality assessment tools?

It can be hard for recruiters to determine the reliability of personality assessment tools. Guy Halfteck, CEO of game producer Knack, thinks he has the answer.

For as long as personality tests have been tools in the hiring process, recruiters have wondered, To what degree can the answers be trusted? Discovering a few months into employment that a person is not who she represented herself to be can be an unpleasant revelation. But what if a recruiter could objectively uncover a candidate's behavioral traits -- and increase engagement at the same time?

It's a tall order, and rather than improve upon personality tests, Guy Halfteck proposes replacing them altogether -- with games.

Halfteck is founder and CEO of Knack, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that creates computer games engineered to measure a person's innate strengths, or "knacks," through game play. According to Halfteck, HR departments can use these games as personality assessment tools and base hiring decisions on personality profiles that identify candidates as "risk takers," "socially savvy" or "super curious."

"Knack is a combination of computer games (both online and mobile), 'big data' and behavioral science," he said. "Take all three together, and what we're going for is 'behavioral computing.'"

A small number of customers are currently testing the assessment tools, so the results remain to be seen, but two experts speculated about Knack's potential impact on the recruitment software market.

Pros and cons of using games for candidate assessment

Halfteck demoed Wasabi Waiter, a game where the player assumes the role of a server at a sushi restaurant, during the 2012 HR Technology Conference's "Awesome New Technologies for HR" session. Game play is simple: Players take customers' orders and prepare the dish that matches his or her facial expression -- such as "happy," "sad," angry," or "any mood" if the player is unsure. After a customer finishes eating, the player brings the plate to the sink.

The game can produce an accurate behavioral profile of the player after only 15 minutes of play, Halfteck claims. "It's such a complex system that every millisecond of gameplay translates into hundreds of data variables," he said. "What you chose to do, what you chose not to do, how quickly you did things, how you changed your game play over time -- all those behaviors help us tease out your abilities and personality characteristics."

Halfteck explained that when a company implements the assessment tools, a group of high performers in various jobs plays the games first. Candidates' game play is then benchmarked against the successful employees' behavioral profiles.  

Bill Kutik, technology columnist for Human Resource Executive magazine and a Knack investor, said the software could possibly eliminate self-reporting errors. Whereas it can be relatively easy for a person to figure out what the desired answer is on a personality test, "you can't 'game' a game because you just don't know what they're measuring," he said.

But how transformative will these assessment tools be? Halfteck admits that integrating games into the recruitment process will require HR managers to break with convention. "A game is a fundamental shift -- a quantum leap compared to anything else," he said.

John Sumser, principal analyst at HRxAnalysts, based in Bodega Bay, Calif., raised the point that since not all companies use personality tests in their recruitment process, the assessment tools might not have broad appeal. "There is extraordinary potential in the use of games in recruiting. The marketplace question is somewhat different," he said. "Market adoption of Knack's approach is probably limited to companies that already use assessment in their hiring process, so it's not likely to be disruptive in the general market."

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Sumser also questioned if game play can translate into or predict real-life behavior. "The company opens the door to a very interesting question about whether or not Web-based behavior can be correlated to actual performance in a job," he said. "The answer is a very definite probably."  

People refusing to take the games seriously could also inhibit game play's adoption, especially among older members of the workforce. "Generation Y people are very connected and Web-savvy, so playing games and using them to showcase who they are makes perfect sense," Halfteck said. "With older employees, the adoption curve is not going to be the same."

While Kutik predicts some people will balk at the idea of playing a game as part of a job application, he said adoption ultimately hinges on the quality of the assessment tools' results. "There will inevitably be some backlash, but how strong it will be depends on how good the results are," he said. "If they are provable and correct, then people will be told [by employers] that this game will tell you stuff about you that you may not even know, and it's a requirement for being employed here. The last phrase is the most powerful one."

Still, just how many companies will implement the software remains unclear. "My bet is that they [Knack] will find a good niche specializing in solving particular problems for particular companies, rather than instigating a revolution," Sumser said.

Games vs. gamification

Kutik said Knack's assessment tools fall outside the bounds of gamification trends affecting HR.

"What we're seeing in HR for gamification are group contests towards a mutual goal where people are awarded badges or some other form of recognition if they do well," he said. "What [Halfteck] has is a real computer game. No one's patting you on the back for taking part."

Halfteck said Knack's games can help engage candidates in the recruitment process, and strengthen the employer's brand. "It's not just about how to find the right people; it's about how you engage people in a world shifting to mobile," he said. "We're getting lots of interest from companies who say we are redesigning the candidate experience."

The assessment tools currently have a limited but high-profile customer base. "We're working with 15 Fortune 200 companies," Halfteck said. Although the trial users have only deployed the games internally thus far -- they have not been used to screen candidates yet-- one company seems excited about the product. Shell Oil, one of Knack's trial customers, recently gave the game producer a GameChanger Award.

Halfteck said trial customers will start using the games for recruitment in the first quarter of 2013. The hiring process might be about to become a lot more fun.

This was first published in November 2012

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