Gaming Your Way To Better Problem-Solving At Work

Author

Rebecca Greenfield

September 15, 2014

Heidi Williams has had an affinity for puzzles since she was a kid. Now, as the senior director of platform engineering at Box, she’s somewhat of a professional puzzle solver, helping developers figure out ways to take advantage of Box’s API.

To keep her skills sharp at work, she still puzzles in her free time. “I’m into all of the typical games,” she told Fast Company. “Tetris, Sudoku, and stuff like that.” Since having kids, however, she spends many nights playing Quarto, a wooden puzzle game made by French game creator Gigamic. “My 8-year-old is amazingly good. She absolutely beats me,” says Williams. “I don’t believe in letting her win just to win.”

Heidi Williams

Invented by a Swiss mathematician, Quarto is played on a 4×4 board. Players choose from among 16 different game pieces, each of which is either tall or short, dark or light, square or circular, and hollow top or solid top. The first person to get four with matching attributes across a row wins. “You constantly have to be looking at it from different perspectives,” Williams said.

It’s that quality that keeps Williams gaming. “Just being able to see something from someone else’s perspective, looking at a problem in a new way, thinking outside the box–is there something I’m not seeing?” she said. “I feel like software is like that.”

The research is still out on whether “brain training” games actually work. The studies have shown that playing games only makes people better at those tasks. Arguably, complex problem solving games are akin to making algorithms.

As a software person, Williams insists that it keeps her programming skills fresh. “You can’t just believe the constraints you’ve been given,” she says. “I think software is all about that.”

Any programmer understands the link between puzzles and algorithms. When hiring, tech companies often ask prospective hires to solve a series of riddles and games. In fact, Williams knew that her mind was suited to computer science by identifying her puzzling talents. “If you follow the things that you’re naturally good at, you’ll always be happier in your work life,” she said.

Puzzles can also help non-programming types who want to strengthen problem-solving skills. In addition to Quarto, she recommends Katamino and Quoridor, also wooden games produced by Gigamic. Katamino is a sort of IRL Tetris, and Quoridor is an abstract strategy game involving pawns.

However, for best results, she suggests playing with kids. “I love watching their creativity. As you grow up, you figure out what the boundaries of life are,” she says. “That’s one of the things that has inspired me–engaging with them.”

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