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Video Games Can Enhance Warrior Cognitive Performance
by Bobby Cummings, Office of Naval Research
March 4, 2022

Can a video game actually improve human cognitive performance?

Research at various universities has found that the answer is yes ... certain video games can indeed improve human cognitive functionality.

June 29, 2021 - The U.S. Navy esports team, Goats & Glory, plays Valorant against Navy Talent Acquisition Group Mid America Future Sailors at an esports event during Kansas City Navy Week. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Williamson)
June 29, 2021 - The U.S. Navy esports team, Goats & Glory, plays Valorant against Navy Talent Acquisition Group Mid America Future Sailors at an esports event during Kansas City Navy Week. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Williamson)

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps have been using simulators, virtual reality and video games to train Sailors and Marines for years. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is sponsoring research focused on understanding the cognitive effects that video games have on the human brain.

Dr. C. Shawn Green, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ... who previously won a Young Investigator of the Year award through ONR ... conducts research on human learning and neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to develop and change throughout life.

“Anyone who is in a position where they would benefit from greater than normal cognitive control, top-down attention, peripheral visual processing would benefit from playing action games, which are primarily first- and third-person shooter games,” Green said. “That’s obviously a huge set of individuals, from those involved in combat, to people like surgeons or pilots.”

ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department is sponsoring this research among other programs focused on compiling data on how video games and virtual reality can enhance warfighter performance.

“People who play video games are quicker at processing information,” said Dr. Ray Perez, a program officer in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department. “Ten hours of video games can change the structure and organization of a person’s brain. In the past few years we have gathered data through research that backs that up. The data will eventually be applied for training to enhance warfighter performance.”

For Green, while this is focused on a game, the topic is very serious, and the research results promising.

“My lab is broadly interested in factors that alter how quickly people learn new perceptual and/or cognitive skills, their asymptotic level of performance (i.e., how ‘good they get’ in the end), and the extent to which their learning transfers to new situations,” Green said. “We use video games as one type of experience that seems to produce some pretty substantial changes in perception and cognition.”

Research typically involves giving participants 100 “pre-test” trials of a task that taps a certain cognitive function. The participants then play various video games for an extended period of time (e.g., 45 total hours spread over many weeks), before again doing 100 “post-test” trials of the cognitive task. Researchers then compare pre-test and post-test performance to see if participants improved.

However, Green and his colleagues recently took a different approach.

“Rather than doing a regular pre-test, post-test training design, we did a learning task No. 1, learning task No. 2 design,” he said. “Here, instead of doing, say, 100 trials of a task at baseline, they did many more trials so we could assess how quickly they learned that task,” Green said. “They then did their video game training as usual. Then, at post-test, they did many trials of a new cognitive task so we could see how well they learned that task,” he said. “Consistent with our hypotheses, we found that those individuals trained on the action game showed faster learning of new tasks compared to those on control video games.”

June 29, 2021 - Lt. Daniel Klinge, officer-in-charge of Navy Talent Acquisition Onboarding Center Kansas City, watches the U.S. Navy esports team, Goats & Glory, play Valorant against Navy Talent Acquisition Group Mid America Future Sailors at an esports event during Kansas City Navy Week, June 29, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Williamson)
June 29, 2021 - Lt. Daniel Klinge, officer-in-charge of Navy Talent Acquisition Onboarding Center Kansas City, watches the U.S. Navy esports team, Goats & Glory, play Valorant against Navy Talent Acquisition Group Mid America Future Sailors at an esports event during Kansas City Navy Week, June 29, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chris Williamson)

ONR has funded this research to understand why and how these immersive environments improve the performance of our Sailors and Marines. The research will aid in developing more effective training methods granting Sailors and Marines a strategic advantage in the battles to come.

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Bobby Cummings is a contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications.

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