Meet Spike, the most avid gamer in a sea pen floating in the San Diego Bay. He likes fish, ice, naps, and when people cheer his name. He was last of three male sea lions to learn how to play video games, but first to complete training on a game system Navy scientists created as part of their latest research on cognitive enrichment for marine mammals.
His name isn’t really Spike; you can think of it more like his gamertag. His ability to understand the concept of controlling a cursor on a screen, then progress through a series of more challenging games, marks the first recorded success in testing cognition of California sea lions with an animal-controlled interface.
On paper, it’s a clear win for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, under which scientists from Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific and the National Marine Mammal Foundation come together to care for the Navy’s sea lions and dolphins. A proven method for cognitive enrichment opens doors for more research on keeping marine mammals happy and healthy longer.
On the deck of the sea pen, it’s pure delight: Spike uses his snout to press a button and maneuver a cursor through a maze. His eyes track the cursor with laser-like focus. When he crosses the finish line, we cheer and his trainer rewards him with herring. The joy in the eye contact between him and his trainer as they celebrate a job well done — Spike with his side-to-side dance and victory yelps — is palpable and infectious. He turns back to the screen and positions himself to win the next game.
“That’s why I’m doing this, you know?” said Kelley Winship, NMMF scientist and principal investigator for research using the Enclosure Video Enrichment (EVE) system. “I really care about these animals and the lives they lead. 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.” Winship co-leads EVE research with Mark Xitco, NIWC Pacific’s director for the Marine Mammal Program. Both hold Ph.Ds. in cognitive psychology.
Spike is clearly enjoying himself, just like you or I would when noticing our practice transform into mastery. For Spike and his fellow gamers, that joy has translated into three years of voluntary sessions, some without the positive reinforcement of food. Over that period, Spike showed improved weight maintenance and performance in voluntary health checks, though the research hasn’t definitively linked the two to gaming just yet.
So far, research on sea lions’ interaction with EVE centers a simple goal: Are they having fun? Do they want to keep playing it? More than 450 sessions among Spike and his two friends say yes. Now that other sea lions in the program have learned to play video games with EVE, that number has climbed to more than 750.
For the Navy, sea lions enjoying themselves means meeting standards laid out by the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, which calls on NIWC Pacific to deliver the highest quality of care for marine mammals. Since 1959, the Marine Mammal Program has been answering that call: dolphins and sea lions part of the program are healthy, happy, and live longer than those living in the wild thanks to world-class veterinary care.
Roughly 300 people care for the program’s more than 120 sea lions and dolphins, all of which are trained in reconnaissance and recovery tasks marine mammals can perform better than humans. But enrichment activities such as open-ocean swims, playtime with toys, and now video games, remain central to their care programs.
“My favorite part of my job is how multifaceted it is,” Winship said. “I find a lot of fulfillment 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.”
Testing the first enrichment system of its kind for marine mammals took some ingenuity: they needed a device that could be portable, inexpensive to build, quickly assembled and disassembled between sessions, and manipulable by pinnipeds — semi-aquatic, fin-footed marine mammals. Previous research on cognitive enrichment in pinnipeds required large contraptions and proved only that they could identify stimuli on a screen, but fell short of proving they could control and interact with it.
That ingenuity took the form of a plastic utility cart outfitted with a 27-inch monitor and lockable wheels. An acrylic glass sheet protects the monitor from water and animal contact on the bottom of the cart; a computer rests in a case on top. An external speaker connects via Bluetooth. The game controller connects via USB and consists of a 6-inch by 6-inch electrical box fitted with four 2.4-inch plastic arcade buttons at compass orientations.
Getting started took some creativity, too. Before EVE, sea lions had been trained to ignore irrelevant stimuli and focus on trainers. First they needed to be taught that the screen contained relevant stimuli. Sea lions were directed to sit in front of the monitor while researchers controlled gameplay, and sea lions were rewarded when their eyes tracked movement on the screen.
It took a single session of hearing the “success” tone for gamers to respond like they do when their trainers say “good” after successful behavior. They progressed from exploring an unconnected game controller with their snouts, to watching their trainers point to the correct buttons, to pressing buttons themselves. They were first trained on a cursor tracking game, in which success was moving a blue dot across the screen to meet a black square. Later, more challenging iterations provided the variability needed to prevent habituation, key for enrichment programs over the long term.
Over time, Spike and his friends could switch directions when the cursor bumped up against a wall, complete levels at an average clip of six seconds, and win in fewer than seven button presses.
An automatic feeder comprised of a USB controller, 8-foot tube, and water tank could reward sea lions for successful gameplay, but was mostly used in earlier trials. Researchers found a slight preference by sea lions for sessions in which trainers functioned as feeders and cheerleaders over sessions using the automatic feeder. Because the automatic feeder requires regular cleaning, assembly, and disassembly, it proved less labor intensive for trainers to act as feeders for short sessions. Plus, it’s just more fun that way.
“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,” Winship said. “Our success relied on that collaborative effort, and I’m thankful to work with such bright and dedicated people.”
What’s next, now that the team has proven that pinnipeds can operate a complex interface? “The research possibilities with this are endless,” Winship said, including the possibility of interspecies and 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.”
And in case you were worried about the program’s dolphins feeling left out, they’ve been gaming on their own EVE system rigged for the gamer who never leaves the water. Gaming dolphins need a large screen visible from the water, and sunlight interferes with visibility of a projector set up on the pier, which means gaming sessions happen after sunset. What looks like an eerie pierside movie night has a way cooler explanation: it’s just bottlenose dolphins controlling joysticks with their mouths to play video games late into the night. (It could also be a TV night — the dolphins like watching “SpongeBob Squarepants.”)
Like us, sea lions and dolphins exhibit intense focus when facing increasingly difficult tasks which lie at the edge of their abilities: challenging and engaging enough, but not impossible. They show delight when they win; they want to play even when they aren’t getting positive reinforcement for winning. They get tired and quit to take a nap, some days more quickly than others. One way they differ from humans, noted Winship, is the absence of frustration. “You don’t really get a sea lion scoffing and throwing the controller down,” she said. Sessions last only as long as gamers are interested.
When they are, it is a marvel to watch. On the deck of a sea pen in the San Diego Bay, off the coast of Point Loma, Spike gets a fish, does his victory dance, and we all cheer his name. A sea lion navigates a cursor through a maze in five seconds flat, six humans clap, and the small notebook in my pocket is empty, because capturing the depth of the moment with words seems unthinkable.
If one had to try, the words might look like this: they are so much like us, they are more patient gamers than us, and they are smarter than I realized before watching them play video games. Xitco, however, isn’t surprised: “I knew they were smart enough to use EVE. But it took Kelley to figure out how to make it happen.”
Then there’s the gravity of the potential ripple effects: studying the outcomes of sharing this human experience with them could be huge for their health and longevity. We already know it makes them happy.
“The EVE system itself is proof of how much we care about marine mammals,” Winship said. “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.”