The Gamer Gene

In our recent video for Fortune, you’ll hear me emphasize again and again that we at Riot Games hire gamers. And we don’t just hire gamers for game design and production roles, but also for roles in art, engineering, publishing, facilities, and finance. When we find someone really, really talented at their craft who’s not a gamer, we do a lot of internal hand-wringing about extending an offer. We’ve passed on everyone from terrific lawyers to guru IT architects because they aren’t gamers. In fact, we’ve been kicking around ways to test how much of a gamer a candidate is and debating “gamer-ness” scales because we don’t just want gamers, we want hard-core gamers.

Why, you may be asking, are we so fixated on hiring gamers? First and foremost, because Riot aspires to be the most player-focused game company in the world. One of the best ways to stay player focused is to be players ourselves. We intuitively ask questions that matter to our audience because, at the end of the day, we ARE our audience. Simple logic, but surprisingly refreshing.

Second, it’s because Riot is a company with a fairly tribal culture. Being a gamer is a shorthand, quick proxy to check if you’re going to pass an important culture test. At Riot, we play games at all hours of the day. Our onboarding process is called Denewbification. We start long e-mails with “TL:DR” and say “GGWP” during meetings. We compare notes the morning after a new World of Warcraft expansion. Gamer-ness, whatever it is, weaves throughout the fabric of who we are, how we speak, and how we operate. Being a gamer doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to love Riot (or that we’re going to love you), but NOT being a gamer pretty much guarantees you feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

These days I’m spending a lot of time interviewing people for Riot’s Talent team. In fact, I’m trying to find world-class, epic problem-solvers in the areas of Talent Operations & Systems, Total Rewards (which I’m debating renaming “Meritocracy”), Talent Development, Talent Acquisition, and Diversity & Inclusion. We’ve got a ton of open roles right now across a wide variety of disciplines.

You know what’s frustrating about a lot of Talent/People/HR-ish people I know? They don’t play games! Aargh! It’s amazing how many folks I meet who are really great technical wiz-kids in their chosen field but grind to a halt when I ask “What games do you play?” or “Have you ever played League of Legends?” Those questions can totally stump candidates. Some people seem genuinely surprised that I would ask. And as soon as I get the “No, I’m not a gamer at all. But I knew one once!” line, my eyes start to glaze over.

It reminds me of when I worked at Gap Inc., one of the biggest clothing apparel retailers in the world. We were hiring a lot of technical experts on the Talent team, and interviewing people from a wide swathe of industries. When I first met a candidate—man or woman—I would pick out something they were wearing and say “Cool [insert article of clothing].” Usually I picked shoes since they’re gender-neutral, and because of this my team labeled my approach the “Cute Shoes Test.” If the candidate engaged me in conversation about the piece of clothing, she or he passed the Cute Shoes Test. If the candidate looked at me bewildered or like an alien creature, she or he failed the Cute Shoes Test, and probably failed to get my endorsement as well. Why? Because every single meeting at Gap Inc. starts with “Oh my goodness! Cute shoes!” followed by ten minutes of excited discussion. If a person can’t talk fashion, he or she will stick out like a sore thumb at Gap.

What’s funny is that I am not a fashionista garmento. Um, at all. I would have utterly failed the Cute Shoes Test. But I learned to love and appreciate apparel once I’d found my way inside and the fashionista garmentos surrounded me. I stayed at Gap for five years, and they are to this day some of my favorite colleagues. Maybe it’s because I’m innately curious, or a cultural chameleon, or… or… Well, I don’t know why it happened.

…Which I guess is the point of today’s blog. I’m still working out my Cute Shoes Test at Riot. I do care about knowing whether someone is a gamer. I do. As I said, it’s important that we hire players and a quickie culture hurdle to pass. More often than not, if someone isn’t a gamer, they shouldn’t get a second interview at Riot.

But what I REALLY care about is whether someone has the gamer gene. Take two people from the Talent team as case examples: Jenni and Jordan. Neither Jenni nor Jordan were gamers when they first started interviewing at Riot, and yet now they’re indistinguishable from our Riot tribe. Jordan taught me ARAM and has consistently destroyed me playing Teemo. Jenni (besides also continually beating me in ARAM) has developed an unhealthy addiction to Hearthstone. She sits right behind me and literally squealed when she saw the Lulu plush toy. Forevermore, I believe that both Jenni and Jordan are now officially gamers. Riot unlocked some latent gene.

The question I’m grappling with is: If I can’t naturally find gamer HR peeps, can I find more Jennis and Jordans?

Last week I was interviewing a really engaging candidate for one of our roles. She let me know early in the conversation that she wasn’t a gamer and didn’t want to waste my time. I sensed something intriguing about her, though, so I started to ask questions about hobbies, about what sort of books and movies she loved, and what sort of art captured her imagination. It turns out that she is a passionate, lifelong Scrabble player, she organizes large-scale party games for her birthdays, her favorite book series is Dune, and she took days off of work for each release of a new Harry Potter movie. Huh. An inner gamer waiting to be unlocked? After the phonecall we moved her to an onsite interview panel. We’ll pressure test her gamer-ness and latent gamer-ness in as many ways as possible, alongside testing whether she has the horsepower and aptitude to excel here (I’ve talked today about only gamer / not-gamer, but Riot screens for a ton of other cultural attributes and overall excellence). We’ll also strongly suggest that she play League of Legends between now and the panel and see how seriously she takes this homework assignment.

Sometimes we’ve taken a chance on hiring a non-gamer and that person self-selects out after a few months, costing everyone—them and us—a ton of time and momentum. Hiring a non-gamer is a huge risk at Riot. Yet I’m also looking for any and every way to widen the candidate pool for Talent roles. There’s a Cute Shoes Test for that gamer gene, and by golly I want to know it. Or maybe, just like me at Gap Inc., it’s not a gamer gene at all and instead a test of intellectual curiosity and adaptability. I honestly don’t know, but these are important questions for me right now. If you have thoughts or ideas, please chime in on the comments below!

-jms

p.s. For those wondering about the Riot Rumble, the Golden Ganks lost our last two matches and ended the season 2-5. Alas. We will surely rise from our rocking chairs for another Rumble season, though!

One thought on “The Gamer Gene

  1. I’m glad you wrote about this, though I have to respectfully disagree with the entire gamer gene requirement. Personally, I suspect that this is a vestigial litmus test from the days of game development when it was common for the designer and artist to be the same person. I imagine we just never stopping asking for it, because it sounds good on paper and makes for good PR (“Games for gamers by gamers!”). However, I feel it’s a far less practical requisite now that job rolls are so much more specialized. I do genuinely enjoy playing video games, but it isn’t as simple as that. As a Character Artist, in order to stay sharp and relevant in a highly competitive job market, I often have to invest a considerable amount of time and effort in order to make artistic gains. If I’m spending my free time playing video games, where are the hours for artistic growth coming from? When I come home from work, making character art assets all day, I make a bee line to my office and sit at my home workstation. I make a deal with myself to spend at least one hour on personal art after work. That hour often snowballs into more once I get into the groove. It’s mostly about getting myself to sit in the chair after I’ve been in a chair all day. The harsh truth is that things get formulaic at work, no matter where you work or what project you’re working on. You’re typically locked into a singular artistic direction for years on end, so it becomes very rinse and repeat. Real artistic gains aren’t going to happen there; it’s the stuff you do at home that pushes you out of your conform zone. It’s about discipline, and regularly chipping away at it, and knowing that this adds up and eventually bears fruit. And I bring the fruits of that labor to work with me everyday so that my employer and my team and the projects I work on can all benefit from that hard work. And frankly, while I do occasionally like to just chill and play a game, I enjoy working on art and pushing my capabilities far, far more. I can’t imagine why any team wouldn’t want that quality in their artists.

    Cheers,
    Dustin Brown

    Like

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