To do their job and to stay alive, troops need to be in shape. They need have the right equipment. And they also need to be psychologically sound. The problem is that soldiers aren’t traditionally very forthcoming when it comes to talking about their mental health. That’s why the U.S. Army is proposing to use computer games to help with the diagnosis of disorders such as PTSD and mild traumatic brain injuries.
The Army has awarded contracts to the tune of about $100,000 each to three private companies: Vista Life Sciences, Empirical Technologies, and Aptima Inc. The firms have been tasked with creating a video game that could be downloaded onto a soldier’s smartphone and then beam data, based on the soldier’s performance, to a central computer. The idea is that the Army would then manipulate that data to determine the mental health and stability of a soldier.
At the moment “there’re too many people coming back [from combat] that are not being diagnosed,” Michael Lutz from Vista Life Sciences, tells Danger Room. Lutz hopes to improve on that if he can develop a game that accurately charts mental health.
In an ideal world the game would be given to the solider before they’re deployed to a war zone. That way they’d get an idea of the soldier’s performance under “normal” conditions and be able to note changes over time.
If the soldier was involved in a traumatic event, a roadside bomb for example, and his or her gaming score dropped dramatically, then that would act as a warning flag that something was wrong. The Army could then choose to pull that soldier to a field hospital for a more comprehensive mental health check.
The military has a history of taking a rather, um wide-ranging approach to PTSD treament. From Navy-endorsed neck injections, to medical marijuana, to Samurai meditation, to my personal favorite, drug-induced amnesia. But the challenge for this treatment’s success, as Martin Baruch from Empirical Technologies tells Danger Room, is making an app or a game that’s actually fun to play with and also measures response time, attention span and other mental health indicators. This can’t be just another Nintendo Brain Age, which asks mental arithmetic and memory questions, “That would be the kiss of death if you gave that to a soldier, it’s going to have to be cool or no one will play it,” says Baruch.
To make sure that service members want to keep playing the game throughout and after their deployment, developers say they are planning to use the highest quality of gaming graphics and technology.
No matter who wins the continued support from the pentagon to back further product development, even the best game won’t be the “magic bullet” that the military is hoping for, says Lutz. They’re hoping for a game that’ll be able to diagnose PTSD there and then, but it’s highly improbable that any game will be able to do that, he adds. The best and more probable outcome is that it will act as a first line filter to identify the soldiers at risk of a psychological disorder.
Believe it or not but this isn’t actually the first time that the Army has looked to the gaming world to improve its work force. Military doctors and psychologists have tried using video games to treat PTSD and two years ago the Pentagon introduced some painfully bureaucratic games to advance budgeting and finance skills. The games’ impact on players’ mental health is unknown.