Custom video games aim to take service members’ cognitive skills to next level

Custom video games aim to take service members’ cognitive skills to next level

Sailors and Marines enjoy playing a video game during a game night sponsored by the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) group aboard the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde (LPD 19). A partnership between a video game company and the Office of Naval Research is experimenting with educational games that aim to keep warfighters engaged, help them learn faster and perform their jobs better. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brent Pyfrom/Released)

By Rindi White

Ready, player one, TRAIN!

A partnership between the Office of Naval Research and educational video game company E-Line Media, along with Dr. Shawn Green, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hopes to build a customized video game that can be used for training and education.

The team hopes to better understand what specific components of a first-person shooter and other action video games contribute to cognitive improvement. According to the Office of Naval Research, current research shows that blasting zombies or gangsters sharpens some cognitive skills, including improved multitasking, increased attention span, faster reaction time and greater visual acuity.

The goal of the game development project is to isolate and identify those elements most conducive to human learning. That type of knowledge would help game developers create informative and engaging products for education and job training — not just for the military, but for civilians as well.

According to ONR, the Navy and Marine Corps are interested in using such technology for jobs that require a lot of training time on computer simulators or virtual-reality displays, such as sonar technicians, radar, pilots and surgeons.

“We know people will spend hours playing a video tame,” said Dr. Ray Perez, a program manager in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department. “Is there a way to use some of those entertainment elements to design training that will keep warfighters engaged, help them learn faster and perform their jobs better? What is the secret sauce?”

Green and his team worked with E-Line Media to create a first-person shooter fantasy product that can be played on a laptop or desktop computer. The game, called “Elemental,” is more “Harry Potter” than “Walking Dead,” ONR reported. It’s a non-violent game that enables players to shoot magical spells at otherworldly creatures.

“The spells look like projectiles,” Green said. “There are different spells for certain types of enemies, including rock and water monsters. We kept the game non-violent because we may want to design a kids’ version one day.”

The team added factors to the game that are thought to boost human learning and cognition, such as changing background colors, rapidly appearing and disappearing objects, missions of varying complexity and intensity, and enemy characters that attack at unpredictable speeds.

“We wanted to create a commercial-quality, research-capable game that resembled the popular games out today,” Green said. “At the same time, it will allow us to study and magnify elements that enhance human learning and scale back or even eliminate those that don’t.”

The game was completed a few months ago and is conducting experiments using student volunteers. Each series of experiments lasts six weeks and involves 20 participants, divided into two groups. One group plays a low-action version of “Elemental,” while the other group plays a faster, higher-action version.

Each participant plays 20 one-hour gaming sessions. The participants undergo brain scans in an MRI machine before each session. Another scan follows the session, during which Green looks for changes in the regions of the brain associated with vision, attention, perception and motor skills to analyze what effects these could have on learning and recognition.

After six weeks, the participants complete tests assessing visual sharpness and clarity, multitasking ability, and skill tracking objects moving on a screen. Green will conduct his experiments for two years, after which he hopes to have a new, more refined test game ready for sailors and Marines.

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