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Video game training?

Featured in the POSA Journal of Tactics and Training (1st Quarter 2005)

Don't Laugh, Modern Video Games Provide More Benefits than Meet the Eyes.

by Officer Paul Markel

It seems all too typical in today's society that a news media story gets picked up and repeated over and over again without question. Case in point: Video games are bad. “Video games dumb down our psyche and lead to violence,” so goes the mantra.

First-Person shooting games have come under particular assault. They desensitize people to violence, glorify violence, and promote violence. At least that is the popularly accepted theory.

Gaming industry research has shown that an average of one of every three American households has a video game system. The most popular systems are the Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft's XBox, and the Nintendo Gamecube. PS2 and XBox are currently in hot competition for market supremacy. Taken to its logical conclusion, if one-third of all households have game systems, and a large percentage of video games are violent, we should be seeing an unprecedented rise in violent crime.

FBI Uniform Crime Statistics have reported just the opposite. According to FBI stats, violent crime was at record low in 2002 having dropped a tremendous sixteen percent since 1993. Firearms related deaths for minors (both intentional and accidental) were at a fifty year low in 2003. If violent video games are promoting and glorifying violence, some critics have even gone so far as to say they train youth to kill, the instances of youth death and violence should be on a steady increase.

Lets face it when it comes to the media: doom and gloom stories are front page news. This has been the standard template for as long as I can remember. To find positive, good news stories, one has to do their own research and digging.

As a part of my never ending quest to seek out new, valuable, and cost effective means of training for law enforcement and armed citizens, I have been considering modern game systems and combat/shooting games. Thanks to the microprocessor and good old healthy American competition, video games today are literally light years ahead of those available ten to twenty years ago. How many “thirty¬something” readers remember when the Atari game system was the coolest thing on the block? “Playing Asteroids and Space Invaders at home, without quarters? It's a miracle!”

Combat / Action games for the PS2 or XBox are more realistic than ever before. Titles such as HALO and the new HALO 2, Medal of Honor, Tom Clancyʼs Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six, and the brand new KillZone truly bring the player into the game. Many of these games offer the user realistic firearms with practical magazine capacities.


My initial thoughts were that realistic video games could instill useful tactical concepts in dedicated players. Most first-person shooter games encourage ammunition conservation. The spray and pray technique quickly depletes your ammo supply. Players are shown that it is best to reload when you can, not when you have to. Use of tactical cover is encouraged. Players soon discover that moving from cover to cover is a better option than standing in the open and spraying bullets.

Many on-screen enemies will not go down with only one hit; often multiple rounds are required to take an attacker out. Head and chest shots do more damage to attackers than peripheral arm or leg hits. All of these are useful tactical concepts.

It also seemed obvious to me that good hand/eye coordination was needed to excel at a video game. Those with moderate to poor hand/eye coordination should logically benefit from time spent playing such games.


Recently I received an email newsletter from Realfighting.com. The editor made mention of a study that showed how experienced video game players, specifically those who played first-person shooting games, had a dramatic advantage in visual perception abilities over those who did not. I dug deeper and found that numerous studies had already been conducted by several professors and psychologists.

In May of 2003 Professor Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester, New York, published her findings regarding the benefits of first-person action games. What Professor Bavelier did was conduct a series of visual perception tests with gamers and non-gamers. The tests were not video games, but clinical repetitive visual perception exams. Using both experienced gamers-those who played regularly for more than six months-and non-gamers, Professor Bavelier ran the subjects through three basic tests. During the first test subjects were shown an object on a screen for 1/160 of a second. They then had to locate the position of the object.

The second test involved showing the subjects a random number of objects, from one to twelve. The objects flashed on the screen quickly and were gone. The test subjects had to type in the number of objects they saw.

The third and final test flashed black letters on a screen in rapid succession. One letter of the group would be white and it may or may not have been followed by a black “x”. Test subjects had to pick out the white letter and tell whether or not it was followed by an “x”. During every test experienced gamers performed far better than non-gamers.

In order to find out whether people with good visual perception skills gravitated toward video games or whether the games themselves improved perception, non-gamers would be re-tested again later.

First, the non-gamers were separated into two groups. One group was instructed to play a first-person shooting game, Medal of Honor, for one hour a day for ten days. The second group was instructed to play Tetris, a puzzle block game for the same amount of time. During the second round of testing, the Medal of Honor group showed a marked improvement in visual perception skills. The Tetris group did not.

Professor Bavelier is not the first researcher to conduct such studies. In 1994, Patricia Greenfield, a professorof psychology, conducted similar tests with the games and systems of that era. Professor Greenfield found that experienced gamers had better strategies for attending to two visual targets appearing simultaneously at separate locations on the screen than inexperienced players did. She also found that practice with video games helped non-players improve their visual attention skills relative to a group that did not play games.

More recently, Alan Pope, an engineering psychologist at NASAʼs Langley Research Center has been using video games to help children with attention deficit disorder. Popehas designed custom-made games that help these children by teaching them how to control their brainwave patterns.

Practical Application

What does this mean to us? Let's consider the tests individually.

The ability to identify an object on a cluttered video screen translates to picking out a dangerous felon among a group of innocents.

How about the ability to identify multiple objects, without taking the time to slowly count them out? Who has heard of the “plus 1” or “plus 2” tactical theory? When dealing with an attacker always consider that they have an accomplice or two. Wouldn't it be beneficial to have an increased ability to pick out not just one bad guy but a second or third? How long have firearms trainers been preaching about the dangers of tunnel vision?

As for the black and white letter test, could cops benefit from an increased ability to rapidly identify objects? Was that a gun or a cell phone in his hand? Is he holding a shop tool or a knife?

I have a friend who is a cop and a video game player. While preparing this editorial, it occurred to me to put the two aspects together. Last year my friend took part in a Simunitions training exercise. During one scenario a bad guy kicked open a door. My friend perceived a gun and fired three shots from his Sims pistol. The bad guy rapidly retreated and the scenario continued for another minute or two.

In that brief time, my friend had a moment of self-doubt. Did he really see a gun? Or did the role player try to trip him up by holding a non-lethal object?

It turned out my friends fears were unfounded. The role player did indeed have a blue steel gun in his hand. My friend had only a fraction of a second to ID the gun and fire. The role player never got a shot off, but was struck with 3 blue Sims rounds. This is anecdotal evidence to be sure, but it is something to consider.

Many excellent firearms trainers before me have advised that a gun is just a tool. It is a sharp mind and trained body that will keep you alive in a fight. Dedicated shooters spend hours upon hours on the range honing their physical skills. Could modern video games be a viable tool to train the eyes? After all, the eyes are gathering information for the brain and the brain is the “fire control center”.

Granted, a video game is not going to teach you how to clear a malfunctioning pistol, reload a magazine, or draw from a security holster. Those are mechanical, muscle drills that you can perform on the range. I would submit that a certain amount of digital dexterity is needed to perform the aforementioned tasks.

Modern video games do require the use of both hands, particularly the thumbs and forefingers. The better your hand/eye coordination, the more successful at the game you will be. Do gunfights take place on the square range, where the lighting conditions are excellent and only you and the non¬moving target are present?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Deadly assaults on police officers occur quickly, in poor light, and as often as not, there are innocents or possible accomplices present. Yes, we can go to a Sims house or Hoganʼs Alley, employee a dozen or more role players, and practice with training pistols. However, the cost and logistics of such an effort put it out of reach for most individuals and departments.

Practicing What I Preach

While preparing this review I began my own video game training regime. I acquired a PlayStation 2 and the new game, KillZone. KillZone is a first-person action, shooting game. The premise of they game is a futuristic war where an army of free men are fighting off the invasion of humanoids who appear to be futuristic stormtroopers.

Throughout the game, players use pistols, shotguns, automatic rifles, belt-fed machineguns and grenade launchers. Ammunition supplies are limited and you must periodically reload. Try reloading out in the open and more often than not you will get shot. Players who use cover, shoot and move, keep their guns topped off and don't waste ammunition are rewarded by advancing in the game.

Poor tactics make for a very long game as you keep getting killed and have to start over.

Is the game realistic? Yes. While not as realistic as a FATS video, the enemies and allies in KillZone are very realistic looking. I can tell you that you do get emotionally involved in the game. The use of the realistic video, audio, and the optional vibrating hand controls all contribute to the experience.

Players experience feelings of apprehension and anxiety as they maneuver through buildings and fields in search of hidden enemies. They feel euphoria when they successfully defeat the attacking enemy and relief when they achieve their goals and move on to a new stage in the game.

The Wrap Up

It should be obvious that enhanced visual attention skills should benefit drivers as well. What do cops spend a great deal of their time doing? Driving, not just high speed chases, but trying to maneuver safely in and out of daily traffic. We often refer to law enforcement officers as “trained observers”. Could these modern video games and systems be cost effective tools to help officers become better trained observers? A great deal of research would indicate that they are.

These games also have numerous other attributes that good training should include. Many of them are interesting, they are challenging and mentally stimulating. The good games allow the user to progress from the easy to the more difficult over time.

Do not discount other forms of training. Marksmanship fundamentals are the cornerstone. Improved situational awareness and visual perceptions augment good shooting skills. With video games and systems such as KillZone and the PS2 so readily available, most any officer should be able to try them out.

Borrow a game system and go to your local video store and rent one of these games. Better yet, have your fourteen year old son show you how his XBox works. Have some fun and bond with your teenager, while at the same time improving a skill that could save your life.


FBI Uniform Reporting Program for Crime Statistics 2002

Professor Daphne Bavelierʼs study published in Nature, May29, 2003, also found on National Geographic News online at nationalgeographic.com.


Paul Markel is an Ohio officer, a frequent contributor to the professional law enforcement press, and a leader in interactive force-on-force training. He is an Advisory Board member of POSA

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