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Gamification enters talent war – or is it Game Over?

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by Maura Feddersen and Nina Kirsten, economists at PwC Strategy&.

Why recruiters should be serious about games

Gamification has emerged as the latest weapon in the war for talent. In the selection stage of the recruitment process, an increasing number of organisations are turning to game-style elements to improve candidate engagement and satisfaction, while still facilitating the collection of fundamental assessment information.

It is useful to make a distinction between gamified assessments and game-based assessments, where the former is predominantly a psychometric instrument that features game-style elements for better engagement, while the latter is a purpose-built game that assesses user behaviour while playing the game.

Ideally, gamification in candidate selection allows employer and candidate objectives to overlap:

When effectively deployed, gamification in recruitment assessments can:

  • raise candidates’ motivation to complete the assessment and improve the accuracy of results
  • provide immediate feedback to candidates and improve their satisfaction with the hiring process
  • convey a modern and attractive employer brand helping to attract top talent
  • reduce dropout rates helping to control recruitment costs.

However, when clumsily deployed, organisations risk that candidates do not feel taken seriously and exit the hiring process. When candidates find it difficult to detect the fairness and relevance of the game, the game will lack ‘face validity’ by not addressing the characteristics it purports to measure. In this situation, an organisation can risk reputational damage.

The challenge is to ensure that gamification in recruitment is truly fit-for-purpose and is experienced as such. Whether gamified or not, candidates experience assessments as pressured, high-stakes situations, which can limit the scope for ‘having fun’. It is crucial that the candidates’ time and effort are visibly valued. Thus, the process must be clearly justifiable and allow for an assessment of the key metrics required for the role.

Click here to read why gamification is not all fun and games, and about how to win at gamification.

It’s not all fun and games in gamification

The stakes in gamified recruitment are high for employers and candidates alike and, whether gamified or not, accuracy in the assessment of a candidate’s fit for a role remains a critical success factor for any organisation’s recruitment strategy.

It is important to consider that small cues within the gaming environment can influence participants’ responses and may sway an assessment’s validity. In fact, any environment, whether curated or not, will influence our behaviours in some way. With this in mind, behavioural economics, the science of decision-making that blends insights from economics, psychology and neuroscience, offers helpful insights into the optimisation of game-style elements in recruitment.

Below we outline the top five behavioural economics insights organisations should consider to avoid some of the most common pitfalls in gamified candidate selection

1. Avoid game situations viewed as irrelevant for the job

To ensure the assessment has face validity, candidates should be in a position to understand how the assessment is appropriate for the role. For retail jobs emphasising customer service, for example, a game-based assessment centred on operating an oil rig could lack face validity. In addition to carefully selecting the game context, organisations can consider framing the game through an introductory message that helps to explain its relevance to candidates, in particular, how it assesses their fit for the role and how the data will be used. Furthermore, candidates generally appreciate immediate feedback to gauge their results and understand their performance during the assessment.

2. Avoid overwhelming candidates with legal lingo

If the introductory description of the game presents lengthy terms and conditions, worded in complex legal language, candidates are likely to face information overload from the outset. Information overload exhausts candidates’ mental bandwidth and can lead to reduced engagement with the game, a decline in performance and greater dropout rates. Convoluted legal language can also trigger confusion and even unpleasant associations in candidates, tempering an otherwise positive assessment experience.

To avoid confusing candidates, or inducing negative associations before the game, consider the positioning and framing of the terms and conditions. If legal language is required, it should be written in plain language.

3. Avoid inundating players with cheesy game-style elements

In relation to the design and visual appeal of a gamified assessment, candidates may view anything that excessively poses as a ‘game’ as inappropriate and unprofessional. Candidates have a strong preference for assessments in which they feel that they are being taken seriously.

Gamification elements can improve the assessment experience up to a point, beyond which, the benefits not only tail off, but can also cause candidates to disassociate themselves from the experience. Fancy transitions, badges, tokens and inappropriate sounds could be over-the-top if not used organically within the broader context of the game. However, progression through challenges to new levels is a game element usually viewed positively by candidates.

4. Avoid anchoring candidates to an avatar and its personality traits

Some game-based assessments prompt candidates to select or pledge allegiance to an avatar at the start of the game, which reflects a set of personality traits, for example, bold and courageous, or cautious and measured. However, this can create a lasting connection between the candidate and the persona the avatar reflects. The candidate is primed to live up to the personality traits of the avatar, rather than to act according to his/her own preferences.

For example, if a candidate were to select an avatar known in the game for ‘negotiating’ behaviour, he/she would be more likely to choose the ‘negotiate’ or ‘retreat from battle’ options, instead of the ‘fight’ options, to live up to the association with the avatar.

It is worthwhile to consider the possible consequences for the validity of the assessment due to the priming effect of selecting or pledging allegiance to an avatar that reflects certain personality traits. By keeping the avatar a ‘blank canvas’, candidates will have greater freedom and flexibility to choose the options that best reflect their personalities.

5. Consider the impact of polarised choices and choice overload

During a game-based assessment, candidates may need to indicate, at various decision points, which action to choose given the situation encountered by their avatar. In games where candidates can choose between two polarised options only, candidates may experience difficulty expressing their preferred behaviours and may feel frustrated with the game as a result.

Candidates may feel more compelled than otherwise to choose the option that seems more socially acceptable, reflecting a social desirability bias. In a choice between two diametrically opposed actions, the game may thus bias female candidates to select more placating behaviours, while male candidates may opt for aggressive actions.

The design of response scalars can therefore cause the assessment results to be biased and prevent recruiters from selecting the candidates that are the best fit for the job. In this context, however, the impact of choice overload should also be considered. The advantages of diverse options can be cancelled out by the complexity of the options available. Excessive game complexity can reduce game enjoyment, reduce assessment accuracy and increase the dropout rate. Games must therefore strike a difficult balance between allowing sufficient nuance, while minimising biases and choice overload.

Through offering sufficient options from which to choose, candidates can engage more fully and realistically with the game, which will prevent them from selecting a similar option each time. In this way, game-based assessments can stimulate engagement, which ideally acts as a distraction from choosing an option that the candidate deems the most socially acceptable.

Click here to read about how to win at gamification.

How to win at gamification

Insights from behavioural economics, such as those outlined above, can enhance the effectiveness of gamification in recruitment assessments by highlighting how candidates react to contextual cues. Tweaking the game experience based on these insights can improve the way candidates experience the assessment, while allowing the employer access to more accurate information about the candidates’ suitability for the role.

To ensure that organisations effectively utilise gamification in their selection strategies, it is important to consider from the outset how these applications of gamification align to their recruitment objectives. Organisations may aim to differentiate the hiring process from competitors, engage candidates and boost their brand. However, the purpose of assessments remains to measure the relevant capabilities of candidates, and thus to hire the right people for the job.

It is essential for organisations to consider what applications of gamification in recruitment are right for them, if at all, and how these facilitate their ultimate recruitment objectives. At the same time, by ensuring that all game-style elements are candidate-centric, organisations can ensure an overlap of objectives between the employer and candidate – the sweet spot of effective gamification in recruitment.

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