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A couple of years ago, a University of Minnesota business student who had spent the summer playing online poker shared a concern with Lisa Novack, the university’s career development director. The student, who would soon graduate, fretted that prospective employers might look unfavorably on the summer employment gap. But Novack saw an impressive list of transferrable skills in the student’s online experience, including independent study skills and time and financial management skills that produced a high income in online poker competitions.
She coached the student to articulate attributes of the experience on their résumé and in interviews, which garnered a plum job offer as a financial analyst at a large bank. The graduate still works in financial services today.
Students, especially those with scant work experience, have long been coached to list in-person extracurricular and work pursuits such as athletics and internships. Now, a study in the peer-reviewed journal Simulation and Gaming indicates that online gaming could also enhance students’ career prospects.
Professors and career counselors who help students think about their career trajectories might encourage them to consider their online gaming preferences and abilities. Also, students who are asked by employers to participate in online game assessments as part of a job application process might use their interest or ability in the game to infer whether they are a good fit. Finally, some researchers suggest that students’ employability could be enhanced with online gaming.
“People spend hours upon hours on online gaming, learning skills that we totally ignore,” said Anna-Stiina Wallinheimo, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Surrey’s School of Psychology and a co-author of the study. “We shouldn’t let this gaming knowledge go to waste.”
The study, which considered the behavior of 16,033 participants who played a range of online games and provided job details, revealed that engineers were drawn to play strategy games that require problem-solving and spatial skills. Managers preferred role-playing games that value organizational and planning skills. IT professionals and engineers played puzzle-platform games, which require spatial skills.
“It’s like a self-selection bias,” Markus Weinmann, chaired professor in the faculty of management, economics and social sciences at University of Cologne, who was not involved in the recent study, wrote in an email. “People who choose a certain job might also like certain games.” Weinmann co-wrote another study indicating that gamers who do well in strategy games also have strong management skills, such as organizing and planning. That study found a correlation rather than a causal relationship.
The recent Simulation and Gaming study, which considered online gaming behavior in the wild rather than in a lab, also indicated a positive correlation between gaming behavior and career prospects. But an earlier Computers and Education study found a career-relevant cause-and-effect relationship. That is, those who play online games self-report improved skills in three areas: adaptability, communication and resourcefulness.
Some view self-reported results as a limitation, but many researchers see value.
“A lot of what we do, particularly when we get into the workplace, is about confidence,” said Matthew Barr, associate professor at the University of Glasgow and author of the Computers and Education study. “If you feel like you’re a better communicator or if you feel like you’re more adaptable, you probably will be in practice.”
The National Association of Colleges and Employers released a report earlier this year indicating that employers prioritize three attributes when reviewing graduates for jobs: problem-solving skills, analytical skills and teamwork skills. These top three remained the same in both 2021 and 2022. Meanwhile, verbal communication, which was not among the top 10, “tumbled down the list.”
When people engage in online multiplayer games, they do so in contrived settings. But they also interact with others and control the decisions and actions of their avatars. Like athletes who compete in collegiate sports or musicians who train in college orchestras, online gamers have an opportunity to learn teamwork and leadership skills.
“It’s not that you’ve read a book about leading a team,” Barr said of online gaming pursuits. “You’ve actually been giving orders. It’s that real lived and shared experience … In the right [job] interview, with the right person, you could absolutely” cite an online gaming experience as evidence that you have honed skills a company is seeking.
To be sure, Barr is aware that online gaming is sometimes stigmatized as a pursuit of the lazy or violent. Anecdotally, however, he has observed that many who found refuge in live multiplayer online games during COVID-19 social distancing or lockdowns have come to appreciate the opportunity to develop or refine a range of soft skills. Even some researchers have changed to more positive stances.
“I always saw online gaming as a nerdy, not realistic world,” Wallinheimo said. “However, based on these findings, maybe this nerdy, unrealistic world will benefit me. Maybe I will learn skills that I can put into play in my work. Maybe I’m losing out.”
Many employers, including large multinational corporations such as Siemens and Walmart, now factor performance on online video games into their assessment of job candidates. Some argue that such technology helps them create a more diverse workforce, while others speculate that the practice could introduce bias.
Student job applicants’ reactions to such practices fall along a continuum.
“It depends on how they do,” Amy Bugno, career development director at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said. Those who perform well in the games tend to feel positively about the practice, while those who are not asked to continue immediately following an online gaming assessment often feel that the process is unfair, Bugno said.
As a result, career development counselors are now discussing online gaming assessments with college students who are seeking jobs. Bugno, for example, counsels students that a company’s choice of online gaming assessment during a selection process may help them decide whether a company is a good fit.
Employers often assert that there is no way to study for online gaming assessments, Bugno said. But the recent research suggests that some students may have an advantage based on their pre-existing preferences or practices in the online gaming world.
None of those contacted for this article argued that online gaming should be used in isolation as an indication of preference or ability in particular professional roles or trajectories.
“There is a danger that our findings can be misused in that we are supporting online gaming—full stop,” Wallinheimo said. “We are supporting online gaming with the view that those soft skills that can be gained should be used for career planning and career training.”
Higher education professionals might suggest that students consider possible career paths based on preferences for certain games, Weinmann said. Strategy games like Civilization may indicate a preference for managerial tasks, puzzle games like Tetris may indicate a preference for engineering and social games like The Sims may indicate a preference for social professions, according to his research. Such correlations, however, have limitations.
“It is not necessarily the case that all people who play strategic games will also be happy in strategic professions,” Weinmann said, noting that the studies of careers based on gaming habits highlight probabilities. “In other words, game preferences can be one factor in choosing a career, among many others.”
Still, researchers, employers, career development counselors and college students in search of jobs are in conversation about the intersection of online gaming and careers. Such conversations are fueled by new research and practices. They are also driven by open questions, such as: How can students be empowered to use this information? Barr has a suggestion that may help answer that question.
“The next time a faculty member suggests getting video games on campus, say yes.”