defence connect logo



Cuteness overload: US Navy trains sea lions with video games

Spike is a serious gamer.

Spike is a serious gamer.

His eyes stare intently at the cursor under his control on the 27-inch monitor as he progresses through a series of more challenging video games designed by a US Navy research team.

Spike uses his snout to press a button, manoeuvring the cursor through the maze in a blistering time of five seconds, he is rewarded with clapping and a coveted herring.


He’s one of three male sea lions who have been taught to play video games using a floating sea pen in the San Diego Bay, as the US Navy researches cognitive enrichment for marine mammals.

It’s the first recorded success in testing cognition of California sea lions with an animal-controlled interface, under the US Navy Marine Mammal Program.

The program is run with scientists from Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific and the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF) to develop research on keeping marine mammals happy and healthy longer.

Kelley Winship, NMMF scientist and principal investigator for research using the Enclosure Video Enrichment system and co-leads EVE research with NIWC Pacific director Mark Xitco, said the joy between Spike and his trainer celebrating a job well done is palpable and infectious.

“That’s why I’m doing this. I really care about these animals and the lives they lead,” she said.

“I love all the cool stuff we can look at with this research, but at the end of the day, I want to see them happy and enjoying themselves.

“My favorite part of my job is how multifaceted it is. I find a lot of fulfilment working with animals trained to protect our sailors and marines, especially because these animals are so capable, and they find their systems tasks so rewarding. And with EVE, I get to work on providing them with additional mental challenge and stimulation with a sole focus on their welfare.

“It took so many people at the Marine Mammal Program to implement the EVE system, from building the carts to training the animals to interact with the games. Our success relied on that collaborative effort, and I’m thankful to work with such bright and dedicated people.”

“The research possibilities with this are endless … 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.”

Across the more than 450 sessions, Spike has shown improved weight maintenance and performance in voluntary health checks, she said.

Around 300 people care for the program’s more than 120 sea lions and dolphins, all of which are trained in reconnaissance and recovery tasks.

Sea lions were initially trained by positively rewarding their eyes tracking movement on the screen, before progressing to a “success tone” for successful behaviour, unconnected game controller, and cursor tracking game and later an automatic feeder which could reward sea lions for successful gameplay. It was found that sea lions had a slight preference for trainers who functioned as feeders and cheerleaders over the automatic feeder. The study’s bottlenose dolphins were trained to control joysticks with their mouths to play video games at night.

Sea lions and dolphins exhibit intense focus when facing increasingly difficult tasks which lie at the edge of their abilities and they show delight when they win, Winship said.

“They want to play even when they aren’t getting positive reinforcement for winning, they get tired and quit to take a nap … (and) one way they differ from humans is the absence of frustration,” she said.

You need to be a member to post comments. Become a member for free today!