I spent the better part of childhood playing video games. These absurdist approaches to accomplishment — rescuing a princess by jumping over turtles, rolling ever larger objects until you physically create a moon, or growing potatoes to defend against a brigade of the undead — they were immensely enjoyable. “Enjoyable” was all that video games were ever designed to be… until now.
As a kid, when my mom would grow upset when I go over my allotted hour – usually by factors >100% – I would defend by claiming it is improving my ability to think ahead and coordinate my hands and eyes. Now, twenty years later, science has begun to prove me right. However, when I sent this article to her to prove my point, she just chuckled and said that these things don’t actually translate to better jobs, better income, or even better “real-life” skills.
This is why when old business school classmate Frida Polli started Pymetrics, a company featured in CNN Money to profile job applicants through video games, I thought the time has finally come when I can point a finger at my mother and said “I told you so.”
Pymetrics, along with an increasing number of upstarts, focus on measuring a job applicant’s skills such as reaction time, resourcefulness, and ability to learn, by short video games. In one task, you are asked to hit a button as quickly as possible. In another, you are asked to quickly differentiate between two near-identical pictures. In yet another, you are asked to make a choice between two risky decisions – much as you would in a text-adventure game.
Truth be told, calling these tasks “video games” is akin to calling Call of Duty art. Instead, these onscreen tasks are practical applications of years of neuroscience and cognitive psychology research. For example, some of the Pymetrics tasks ask you to remember an ever-increasing number of digits to test your working memory. Digit-span is a well-documented test of working memory, partly summarized by a classic review paper here. Risk tolerance research pioneered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky document a range of “normal,” and repeating the same tests on a person can quantify that individual’s own risk tolerance on the bell curve.
What kind of information are these “video games” actually capable of providing? According to the Pymetrics test, my top skills are:
1) Emotion Identification from Faces
2) Memory Span
3) Pattern Recognition
And my top three match for career fields:
It also creates a bubble-chart of individual qualities, each of which reflects preference towards specific attitudes. For example, the cluster for “Risk” says that “new things grab your interest,” that “you learn from taking risks over time,” but “you are not thrilled about taking big risks without a lot of reassurance.” (I will avoid highlighting my small bubbles / weaknesses because that would be a risky thing to do, and no one’s reassured me yet.)
Just like medical literature, there are risks with applying these tests blindly. What constitutes clinical significance (e.g. a statistically significant ‘lower-than-average’ risk tolerance may not have any real-life implications)? To use this data as a filter for job applicants, one must know which qualities to establish thresholds from – so how does one know what actually matters? Even an old profession like physician has seen dramatic shift from emphasizing book smarts to exulting relational empathy as the most important qualities for a doctor. Finally, some experts caution against discrimination against those who did not grow up with video games such as older individuals or those with lower socioeconomic status.