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US Navy Trains Sea Lions To Play Video Games

Marine Mammal Program research into cognitive enrichment could show link between voluntary gaming sessions and welfare

230118-N-WY087-029 SAN DIEGO (Jan. 18, 2023) A California sea lion uses his snout to press buttons while observing the screen of the Enclosure Video Enrichment (EVE) system, a game system Navy scientists created as part of their latest research on cognitive enrichment for marine mammals, Jan. 18, 2023. Under the U.S. Marine Mammal Program, scientists at Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific care for more than 120 sea lions and dolphins; enrichment activities such as such as open-ocean swims, playtime with toys, and now video games, remain central to their care programs. (U.S. Navy photo by Jaime Ciciora/Released)

The US Navy is teaching sea lions to play video games – and the sea lions are loving it. Scientists from Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Pacific and the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF)  work together as part of the US Navy Marine Mammal Program to care for the Navy’s sea lions and dolphins.

Of the three male sea lions training to play video games, it’s Spike who is the most proficient. Despite being the last trained, Spike was the first to complete video game training on a game system created by Navy scientists to research cognitive enrichment for marine mammals. The sea lions use their snouts to press a button and move a cursor through a maze.

Sea lions game on the EVE system

The main goal of having the sea lions play using the Enclosure Video Enrichment (EVE) system is for them to have fun. So far, the sea lions are enjoying themselves with a combined 750 gaming sessions.

“The EVE system itself is proof of how much we care about marine mammals,” Kelley Winship, NMMF scientist and principal investigator for research using the Enclosure Video Enrichment (EVE) system. “We built them something that nobody else did. We trained them on it, and now we just get to enjoy watching them love video games.”

Spike has participated in voluntary gaming sessions for three years and has shown significant improvement in weight management and checkups. However, scientists are still determining if the two are linked.

To train marine mammals on the EVE, the Navy scientists had to develop a portable, inexpensive system that could easily be disassembled and reassembled between sessions. The result was a plastic utility cart with lockable wheels and a 27-inch monitor protected by an acrylic glass sheet. A computer sits in a case on top of the cart. The system also connects to external speakers via Bluetooth. The controller is a small electrical box with four plastic arcade buttons.

An automatic feeder was set up to reward the sea lions for successfully completing a game. However, it was mainly used in early sessions as the sea lions preferred being rewarded by their trainers.

Winship also brings up the possibility of interspecies multiplayer games, “We built a game where we can compete against Spike — he can chase us around and we can move away. He hasn’t seen it yet. He’s going to be really excited.”

You can see a video of Spike in action here:

Dolphins Are Gamers Too

The Navy is also training its dolphins to play games. However, they required a different EVE system that is permanently in the water. Primarily the dolphins play games after sunset due to the issue of glare from the sun on the large screen. The dolphins use their mouths to control joysticks.

Written By

Jack Brassell is a freelance journalist and aspiring novelist. Jack is a self-proclaimed nerd with a lifelong passion for storytelling. As an author, Jack writes mostly horror and young adult fantasy. Also an avid gamer, she works as the lead news editor at Hardcore Droid. When she isn't writing or playing games, she can often be found binge-watching Parks & Rec or The Office, proudly considering herself to be a cross between Leslie Knope and Pam Beasley.

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