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Can the Navy’s Million-Dollar Zombie Game Turn You Into a Supersoldier?

I wanted to see if killing the undead would make me smarter.

A screenshot from Project Azriel, a cognitive training game. (Courtesy of CurriculaWorks)
A screenshot from Project Azriel, a cognitive training game. (Courtesy of CurriculaWorks)

As a lone operator in the dreary world of Project Azriel, advertised as “the only first person shooter zombie-themed video game cognitive trainer tough enough to build fluid intelligence without boring you to death,” survival means following instructions and solving memory puzzles while rekilling the undead.

The world has no shortage of “first-person shooters,” in which the player, through the eyes of the protagonist, goes around fighting various foes (people, zombies, monsters, aliens, robots, etc.). There are more of these games than anyone could play in their lifetime, some built by independent developers, others by mammoth studios.

Two things set Project Azriel apart. It purports to represent a breakthrough in “brain training.” And the U.S. Navy spent $949,000 on it.

Released this month by CurriculaWorks, a company that aims to “make learning challenges fun,” the game represents five years of research and development, funded by the Office of Naval Research.

Deanna Terzian, the president of CurriculaWorks, says the goal of the game is to “enter-train” its users. Other developers, she says, have tried including cognitive training tasks in games, but without weaving them in at a fundamental level.

“What we’ve done is we’ve integrated the cognitive training into the gameplay so when you are shooting the zombies you are actually using the mental set switching tasks,” she told Foreign Policy in an interview. “You’re using your mind to determine which weapon to use in order to take down the zombies as they’re coming at you.”

So, the question is, can you make cognitive training fun by weaving in a hunt for zombies? The company is trying to create a game that will convince players to do “something that is arduous but good for them,” Terzian says. “That’s part of our development philosophy: We like to add a spoonful of sugar to do things that are good for you.”

The purpose of the game is to increase the player’s “fluid intelligence” — “the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations.” The company says that 165 paid participants in a randomized and blinded efficacy study saw their Matrix Reasoning Score, which measures fluid intelligence, go up by an average five points after playing for a minimum of 16 hours. And 85 percent of those subjects played 25 percent longer than they were paid to play, according to the company.

Terzian says her fluid intelligence score was “significantly higher” after playing the game. “I don’t want to tell you my previous point because it’s basically a shorthand for IQ, but it went up by quite a bit and I was very surprised,” she says.

I was prepared to test these claims on myself, unscientifically, by taking the test, playing the game, and then taking the test again — a step the company invites players to take. But when I learned I would have to play for a minimum of 16 hours in order to see results, I decided I was happy for my fluid intelligence to remain at its present, perfectly serviceable level.

I did, however, play the game for about an hour, during which I stumbled around a grim, abandoned city and its environs, trying to remember which gun could kill which type of zombie, solving memory puzzles to reduce my infection level, and waiting for my character to finish scanning various areas — a task the purpose of which remained opaque — as an off-screen man who sounded like an action film trailer narrator intoned various commands.

Every once in a while a zombie would sidle up to me from behind and make some phlegmy sounds right into my ear, until I executed it or walked away.

I don’t play many video games, so I can’t really say how it stacks up to other options on the market, but I can say this: It isn’t that fun. That said, the stated goal is not to make the next blockbuster — it’s to advance educational video games to the point that they resemble noneducational ones. And that, it seems to have achieved — if one sets aside the frequent pauses to complete memory tests.

It’s easy to imagine why the military wants warlike video games with the potential to train the player. The Department of Defense, and particularly the Navy, has spent years investing in cognitive science, to find better ways to train members of the military. But the Navy’s intended purpose for the game, and for the research that went into it, remains unclear.

“I am not at liberty to comment on the Navy’s possible future use of products of the Project,” Harold Hawkins, Project Azriel’s program officer at ONR, wrote in an email to FP. “I will say that further, independent, validation effort is needed to confirm the potential benefits of the Azriel products. It is not clear at this time how and by whom this additional validation effort would be resourced.”

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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