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'Building a Buzz'

By using a high-tech, company-made video game to introduce itself to the next generation of engineers and scientists, one systems-engineering corporation is building both recruiting buzz and brand recognition.

Monday, June 16, 2008
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Ever wonder what it's like to worry that candidates may be spending too much time at your job-fair booth?

That's precisely the kind of problem that MITRE Corp. Corporate Recruiting Manager Gary Cluff has on his mind these days when he travels to colleges and recruiting fairs toting Job of Honor: A MITRE Experience, a video game created in-house using the latest in gaming technology.

In Job of Honor, the player controls an avatar on a self-guided walk through a virtual version of the company's Bedford, Mass., campus (even dodging rain drops and puddles as he or she enters the main building). There, they learn about the company through interactions with characters in the game.

Players also get to design an interface to assist military pilots flying unmanned aircraft, and then fly an unmanned drone themselves in the virtual airspace above the campus at the end of the game.

"They use the game to build the game, so to speak," says MITRE technical expert Matthew Patron, who headed the group that created the game.

The end result can be, like most good video games, highly addictive.

"It's amazing how sticky the game can be," says Cluff. "The candidate who might spend 20 or 30 seconds picking up brochures is being replaced by someone sitting for 10 or 15 minutes [playing] the game. We have to encourage them to give up their seat for the next person."

MITRE is a not-for-profit systems-engineering corporation and advanced technology support provider with 6,600 employees at its two campuses in McLean, Va., and Bedford, Mass. It serves the federal government and other advanced technologies consumers, and currently runs three federally funded research and development centers for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.

The sensitive nature of the work creates very demanding hiring constraints, says Cluff. "We have to hire almost exclusively U.S. citizens, which gives us a very narrow niche to recruit [from]."

And research has shown that the people who work for companies such as MITRE are not solely focused on climbing the corporate ladder in search of a bigger paycheck. 

"We've done studies on competition for talent [in this field]," Cluff says. "We've found it's pretty common that folks are looking for a meaningful mission to align themselves with so they can make a contribution to a larger role or mission."

Therefore, the goal of the game is "to show how we are working on real-world problems that our soldiers are working on today," says Patron. By allowing players to work on the design for an interface for an unmanned drone, for example, the player "really [does] get a sense that [he or she is] helping the guy in the field."

The company is well-regarded for the breadth of knowledge of its employees, says Cluff. "We tend to hire mid-to-late career professionals serving as technical advisers," he says. But because the average MITRE employee age is well into the 40s, the company recognizes that "many of our employees are looking to retire in the not too distant future."

Therefore, he says, MITRE must try and appeal to the younger recruits and "create an image to prospective employees that we are, to use the jargon, 'cool.' "

Using a video game to help brand a company is certainly breaking new ground, and to Patron's knowledge, only the U.S. Army has attempted something similar. The upside of using an otherwise time-wasting activity to help build an organization's reputation can be huge.

"It's an excellent tool for building that brand of the company as something that people will recognize and come to at a later career transition," he says. "We recognize we will get some recruiting traffic" from the game, but the goal is "not necessarily to play it and then come work for us the next month. It's to show we're innovative and to gain some mind share" for the future.

Making the Game

MITRE's foray into the world of video games was not a cold start. In fact, Patron says they were already familiar with the technology when the company's executive directors wanted to begin marketing themselves to a diverse, young crowd.

"They threw around ideas, suggested putting out a DVD and new promotional materials," says Patron. But when the conversation turned to possibly having a presence on the popular, Internet-based virtual world of Second Life, where people can interact without actually meeting in person, it was the project's moment of serendipity.

"We had been working with video-game engine technology for other, more serious projects," says Patron. "We just used that same technology as the seed."

Convinced that standing alone in a new field would reap more rewards than being "part of the crowd" at Second Life, MITRE decided to go ahead with the creation of the game. Its main goals would be to answer the questions that any prospective employee would typically ask, such as: "Where am I going to work and what will it look like?" "Who am I going to be working with?" "Will it be a diverse community?"

Because of the technical nature of the company's work, Patron says, it's not easy to explain to outsiders what the company actually does.

"Even our Web site has trouble getting that across," he says. "We're very unique. The challenge we had was to apply video-game technology to teach people about MITRE."

A participating player spends "a day in the life" of a project manager, doing the same types of tasks that a real project manager would be working on, such as scheduling, team-building and team-selection activities. Care was also taken to accurately re-create the layout of campus, down to the smallest details, including the location of office plants.

Job of Honor was created by Patron's team using widely available video-game "engines" that do the bulk of the nuts-and-bolts work involved in creating a virtual world and making sure things such as lighting, layout and character movement are accurate and realistic. That frees up the developers to spend more time working on conveying MITRE's mission of providing government agencies with advanced-technology support for prospective candidates.

"Basically, the game engines do the hard stuff," says Patron. "We as developers just have to worry about the unique content." The use of this new technology allows the developers to "come closer to [being] movie producers and directors than the people who have to worry about how the DVD is created."

Patron says "everyone [at MITRE] was so excited" to be a part of the game, but due to legal issues, they could not use employees' faces or names in the actual game, but they did use a few employees' voices for characters in the game. The company is now working on a second version of the game, to be released soon and set at its McLean, Va., campus. In it, the player works with an investigative service that needs help solving an electronic crime.

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"Since we operate three federally funded research and development centers, [a new employee] might work on a certain kind of problem while working for one of those centers, but ... something completely different [at another]," he says.

Selling the Game

Once the game was finished, it was made available to employees first. "We wanted our employees to play it and give it to a friend," he says. "Most of our employee referrals come from inside, so the more tools to demonstrate MITRE, the better."

To engage the outside audience, they also put copies of the game on thumb drives to give away at career fairs, so candidates could take them home and load them directly onto their own computers, where they can sign on and get a passcode to play just by sending in an e-mail address. The game can also be accessed here.

A catchy commercial trumpeting the game was also produced, using employees who volunteered to be involved with the project, and then added to the video-sharing Web site Youtube.com in order to increase interest in the game.

"The viral marketing here is probably going to be the real benefit of being among the first to utilize this as a recruiting tool," says Cluff. To that end, the game's release was also "pushed" to blogs and "a dozen different well-known tech Web sites" to enhance its viral appeal.

"This is going to change the way recruiting is done," says Patron. "It's very hard to imagine video-game technology not being used for recruiting in the future."

Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin & Associates, an Oakland, Calif.-based talent management and learning consultancy, says the use of video games can be "extremely powerful" for companies if used correctly. "Gaming technology being used for training purposes is fairly common," he says. "But I'm skeptical that companies will be using it [for recruiting] a lot in the near future."

He does acknowledge there may be a trend toward it "in a small way" for companies, such as MITRE, in the military and aerospace industries. "But I don't think we're going to find the average bank or insurance company doing a lot of this yet."

Regardless, Cluff believes Job of Honor positions MITRE at the forefront of recruiting and branding efforts.

"We do think that we're fortunate to be leaders of the pack at this time," he says. But, he cautions, "I believe it's important that people constantly look at ways to attract the next generation of workers. Gamers are normally the 35-and-under crowd, and that is the next generation or two that we want to touch and build an identifiable brand with. They are as interesting and unique as the product Matt [Patron] and his team have put together."

Patron says the MITRE Web site front page has received more than 5,200 hits since it went live with the game last September, and there are more than 600 registered players in 48 U.S. states and 25 other countries.

Despite the fact that they are "very early in the process," Cluff says, the anecdotal results show that Job of Honor is more than doing its job. "I have definitely seen that we're building a buzz," he says. "The face-to-face feedback has been phenomenal ... and everyone who gets exposed to it is wide-eyed."

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