Research by the Naval Department of Research indicates that video games can help make better soldiers and, in general, make people smarter. "We have discovered that video game players perform 10 to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than normal people that are non-game players," said Ray Perez, a program officer at the ONR's warfighter performance department. "Our concern is developing training technologies and training methods to improve performance on the battlefield," said Perez, who holds a PhD in educational psychology. Perez says that gamers have “fluid intelligence,” an ability to adapt, meet and solve new problems without prior knowledge or experience and develop new tactics and counter-tactics. This type of intelligence is vital for soldiers who need to react to new situations on the ground and develop their tactics accordingly.

The military is looking for ways to integrate game-like interactions into training, on everything from PDAs to simulators and virtual environments.

"We're now looking for the underlying neural mechanisms that are responsible for these changes in behavior and in abilities," Perez said. "We're using various kinds of neural imaging techniques like [functional magnetic resonance imaging] that identify different areas of the brain that show activity when you're performing certain tasks, and we can begin to look at what area of the brain is active during the processing of video information."

Perez says that cognitive improvements from video games can last up to 2 ½ years. This goes against the traditional notion that brain-cell capacity is set at around the age of 20 and that knowledge acquisition was a sort of zero-sum game: when you create new brain cells, old ones are killed to make space.

"I think we're at the beginning of a new science of learning," Perez said, "that will be the integration of neuroscience with developmental psychology, with cognitive science, and with artificial intelligence."

By Mark Alvarez