Do gamers make good soldiers?

Video games
Gaming might be able to build up your hand-eye coordination, but can it prepare you for military action? See more video game system pictures.

Whether it's Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 or Halo on the Xbox 360, no video game has been without people eager to point out its benefits and dangers. Concerned parents have led the continued demand for studies on video games to determine the impact of media on their kids.

Can video games make you better at school or on the job? It's true that games can be educational and improve hand-eye coordination, which have positive real-life applications. Studies of violent video games, though, suggest a correlation between the games and increased aggression and anti-social behavior. So, whether or not you benefit could have more to do with which games you choose to play.


No matter the game, however, there are universal concerns that significant time spent playing games can negatively affect your physical and mental health. For example, increases in childhood obesity are linked to kids exercising less, which may be attributed to watching television or playing video games. Innovations like the Nintendo Wii game console address this with a "get off the couch" approach, requiring the player to balance on a board or move their arms to control game play.

This article explores whether those who play video games make better soldiers. Is the first-person shooter experience a realistic introduction? Do gamers have better tactical skills? Let's start with a general look at how video games can aid in education and training.



Learning Skills from Video Games

Man in a flight simulator
Flight simulators like the F-18 simulator this man's operating have been used to train pilots for years.

As game technology develops, some games use the latest in graphics and artificial intelligence to make the game seem more interactive and real. This can help you develop skills that will translate to the real world, even if the game isn't targeting a real-world activity.

Educators know that you can learn better when you don't have frustration and anxiety toward learning. The more technology has developed, the more options parents and educators have to give kids a fun way to learn. Toys like the Speak & Spell and the See'n'Say opened this market more than three decades ago, and technology has advanced to today's more interactive toys.


Video games have also morphed into tools to develop professional skills. This is great for jobs where real-life situations are too costly or risky to replicate for new trainees. Piloting an aircraft is one such situation, and flight simulators are a common training tool for both military and civilian pilots. Since before the Microsoft Flight Simulator game was released in 1982, pilots and astronauts have used flight simulators to replicate flying an aircraft in certain conditions to accomplish certain tasks. Technological developments continue to make these simulators more comprehensive and realistic.

Back on the ground, a 2002 study concluded that video games might be a good teaching tool for surgical training. Laparoscopy uses small abdominal incisions to insert a thin tube in the patient, transmitting light and capturing images sent to a video monitor. Surgeons use the video monitor to watch their work behind that incision. The study found that past and current video game players participating in a laparoscopic surgical program had around 33 percent fewer errors and more than 25 percent faster completion than their non-playing colleagues. Analysis of the study data also indicated that the more skilled game players performed better, and that past video game experience was a significant predictor of laparoscopic skills [source: Rosser, et al.].

March forward to see how military training has employed video game technology to train soldiers in combat situations.


Military Training Goes Digital

Military training across time and cultures has included developing physical strength, endurance, tactical readiness and specialized combat skills. With the technological developments in weapons and warfare, soldiers require an increasing amount of "book learning" as part of military training. With so much for new soldiers to learn, some military groups have used game-inspired technology to make the process easier and more efficient.

Beyond the flight simulators used to train pilots, the U.S. military branches use other virtual reality military applications to put soldiers in virtual war scenarios. For example, the Army's Engagement Skills Trainer (EST) gives each student the sound and feel of the different firearms he or she might use on the job. Beyond practice firing, the EST provides real-life scenarios to help soldiers determine when to shoot and when not to shoot. Another simulator, the Virtual Convoy Operations Trainer (VCOT), puts a team of soldiers in different roles in combat scenarios, training them to communicate and work together.


With an increasing demand for simulator technology, developers have put soldiers in a position to tweak a simulation to fit their needs. One product, "DARWARS Ambush," is in wide usage by the Army today. Soldiers stationed around the world are taught how to add modifications to DARWARS. Then, the soldiers change the simulated scenarios to best fit their current location and mission. Some simulators go beyond combat to create medical scenarios and cultural interaction.

How do soldiers respond to this training? Soldiers who might have a game console at home prefer the military simulators to their home games. The soldiers describe the simulators as fun because they are like a video game, but even better because they often have actual simulated weapons instead of a game controller [source: Chang].


Soldiers and Recreational Video Games

The military has embraced video games as simulators for training, but how does recreational gaming impact current or potential soldiers?

Potential soldiers may benefit from mental skills developed during certain gaming experiences. Studies have found that video games stimulate learning at all levels. Simulation games such as Sim City enhance strategic thinking, planning and decision-making [source: BBC]. Video games can also improve hand-eye coordination. Even the elderly could benefit, as researchers at North Carolina State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology study how video games can boost memory and thinking skills in their joint project Gains Through Gaming [source: Hamilton].


Current soldiers could play games in their down time, but can this really be a stress reliever? It may depend on the game. The demand for research into the impact of games has focused studies toward violent video games. Results of these studies are as controversial as the games themselves. Recurring themes in the studies find that those who play violent video games are prone to increased aggression and anxiety, with brain scans providing supportive evidence. With stress and anxiety linked to many physical and emotional issues, violent video games may not offer the respite a soldier needs in his down time to maintain optimum mental and physical health.

At ease! Take leave to the next page for links to more information about gaming and the military.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • AFP. "TV, Video Games Increase Teen Depression Risk: Study." Feb. 3, 2009. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • Ajanaku, Zola. "1st, 338th provides training, support at Fort McCoy to deploying units." U.S. Army. Sept. 28, 2009. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • Anderson, Craig. A. "Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions." Psychological Science Agenda, Vol. 16. No. 5. American Psychological Association. October. 2003. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • BBC News. "Video games 'stimulate learning.'" March 18, 2002. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • Chang, Hiro. "Simulators always valuable in military training." April 13, 2009. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • Hendrick, Bill. "Adults Playing Video Games: Health Risks?" WebMD. Aug. 20, 2009. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • Holmes, Emily A., James, Ella L., Coode-Bate, Thomas, Deeprose, Catherine. "Can Playing the Computer Game 'Tetris' Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science." PLoS ONE. Jan. 7, 2009. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. "Childhood obesity." March 28, 2008. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • McLeroy, Carrie. "History of Military gaming." Aug. 27, 2008. (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • McLeroy, Carrie. "Wii Habilitation at Walter Reed." Soldiers. U.S. Army. Vol. 63, no. 9., pp. 20-21. Sept. 2008.
  • "Digestive Diseases: Laparoscopic Surgery and Hand-Assisted Laparoscopic Surgery." (Nov. 18, 2009)
  • Rosser, JC, Jr., Lynch, P.J., Cuddihy, L., Gentile, D.A., Klonsky, J., Merrell, R. "The impact of video games on training surgeons in the 21st century." National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. February 2007. (Nov. 18, 2009)