Skip to Content

Games: A job recruiter’s new best friend?

Recruiters can certainly poke around a job seeker’s Facebook or LinkedIn profiles to weed out undesirables, and plenty do. But some companies are finding that using online game techniques to recruit and screen applicants is a more productive, faster route to scouting out stellar hires.

Businesses that at one time might have considered such games a major employee distraction are finding that using competitive, and positive, screening tools can help pinpoint potential hires who may lack the obvious pedigree, but have the skills to succeed. Since young adults often play online games in their everyday lives, they are open to embracing competitive screening approaches

Such “social recruiting” can also expand brand awareness and encourage interest in working at lesser-known companies. People clamber to work for star companies like Facebook, which has posted programming puzzles that have attracted significant participation and has led to some employee hires.

Jockeying for top talent has gotten more intense as companies look for more varied and sophisticated skill sets from candidates, according to a survey by Deloitte Consulting. The survey, which was released last month, found that 25% of corporate human resources professionals were worried about skilled worker shortages, up from 16% last year.

MORE: ‘One time, at CEO fantasy band camp’

Even so, companies still hew to traditional resume screening, interviews, and reference checking, tasks that are time consuming and often fail to produce the right match. These conventional methods were not working for Upstream Systems, a mobile marketing firm based in London and San Francisco, which struggled to find global marketing managers with the right mix of analytical, marketing, and technology savvy to work with its clients in 40 countries.

“We could hire teams of experts, but we wanted a single person to use input from our technologies into the marketing for our clients,” says Guy Krief, senior vice president of innovation at Upstream in London.

Krief decided to incorporate game mechanics to design a competitive test that could identify people with a blend of skills that would have been much harder, or impossible, to discern from a conventional resume.

The “Upstream Challenge” — open to anyone — provides seven timed exercises including math, word images, matching emotion to hypothetical work scenarios, and other challenges to measure a candidate’s analytical skills and marketing knowledge.

Recruiters need to widen their job searches beyond paper credentials, and focus on candidates with “soft skills,” including creativity, ingenuity, and resilience, says George Anders, author of The Rare Find: Spotting Exceptional Talent Before Everyone Else, which examines innovative ways top companies find employees.

MORE: Do you really want to make partner?

“The idea got started back when the Army Special Forces found that tenacity, rather than physical strength or other such attributes, was more critical to recruiting the right candidate,” says Anders.

At Upstream, some 700 people completed the 60-minute online test since it went online in late 2011. Upstream only notified those who scored beyond a certain level of points in order to discourage challenge-takers from assuming that participation would result in a job, Krief says. Those who scored well were contacted by phone, and four have been hired in recent weeks. Another two are in the pipeline, he adds.

Businesses such as Target and Google also have used games to achieve goals like reducing company travel expenses or improving employee efficiency and morale. Other companies are using games to amplify brand awareness, with recruiting as a side benefit.

One of those is Marriott International, which has an online game, “My Marriott Hotel,” where users can simulate hotel-related tasks like running a restaurant kitchen, including buying ingredients and checking completed food orders. The game boosts Marriott’s brand globally, but it is not aimed at screening or selecting employees.

Some online recruiters targeting 20-something job seekers are also adding game-play techniques. The San Francisco-based job search site recently added game-like rewards to encourage job applicants to provide more complete online information.

“Companies use a lot of ways, including handwriting analysis, to identify the right people,” says John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the outplacement company. “Sometimes it’s a way of saying something about their culture.”

Using game mechanics is still an emerging technique, says Gabe Zichermann, chief executive of Gamification Co., which advises companies on incorporating game play thinking and tools with marketing. “It is not about making a literal game. More often it’s about taking elements of games and repurposing them.”

MORE: The secret of success: Needing less sleep?

To be sure, gamification’s appeal is broader than recruitment and screening, and it can apply in areas like education and health services as a way to engage and motivate people. The use of gamification is predicted to “increase significantly in the next few years,” according to a December 2011 study by consulting company Gartner, Inc. Some 70% of the world’s top 2,000 companies will use game techniques as a behavioral motivator to recruit, train, and enhance employee performance, as well as to encourage new ideas, improve employee health, or build customer loyalty, among other goals, according to Brian Burke, the report’s author.

Since Upstream’s challenge went online in late 2011, test takers have included at-home mothers, lawyers, writers, marketers, and a taxi driver. One of them was Katherine Martinez, a technical writer from Oakland, Calif., who was hired by the firm.

“I found the link on Twitter. I love games and puzzles. I’m an ‘Angry Birds’ fan. And I thought it would be fun to try it out,” she says. Martinez, 30, had recently been laid off from her job, and took the challenge on a lark.

But, she says, it “was a lot more difficult than I thought because there are strict time limits to finish, and it requires thinking outside the box.”

About a week after she completed the challenge, she was screened by phone, then traveled to San Francisco for an interview. She moved to London earlier this year to work in Upstream’s office there and is in training.

“I don’t think my resume alone would have attracted their interest,” Martinez admits. But the game played to my strengths because it is a microcosm of what you execute on this job every day.”


You Can’t Fire Everyone:
Committed a work email faux pas? Disparage your boss in an instant message… to your boss? How’d you recover?
Tell us about your most embarrassing digital work moments
. Email us at We’ll highlight the most interesting and instructional ones.