Doug Bonderud

Mar 25th 2022

Leveling Up: Can Gaming Technology Solve Real-World Problems?


Global video game sales hit $180 billion last year — which means this market is now worth more than the North American sports industry ($75 billion) and global film industry ($100 billion) combined. Given ongoing pandemic uncertainty, the spending uptick makes sense; lacking other options, gaming technology offered a much-needed escape from reality.

But is fun the only function of video games? Or do these digital systems offer a new way to approach real-world problems?

Blurring the Lines

Games have come a long way since the days of Pong, Frogger and Pitfall. Gone are 4- and 16-color displays, clunky pixels and obstinate controls. Now, games offer fully realized worlds that allow players to discover new experiences, meet new people and learn new skills. Graphics in high-end games have evolved to meet — or exceed — real-world fidelity, while emerging technologies such as augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) offer even more immersive adventures.

Gamer demographics have also evolved. Gamers run the gamut — young, old, male, female, life-long player to relative noob — there’s no bar to entry. Much of this shift stems from the proliferation of different types of games. While first-person shooter (FPS) titles remain popular, there’s also a massive market for real-time strategy games, role-playing games (RPGs) building and puzzle games, and massively-multiplayer online (MMO) games.

The upshot? No matter your preference and play style, there’s probably a game that fits your interests. But there’s also a push to move games outside the realm of digital distractions and leverage them to tackle real-world problems. And so far, games are proving to be just as versatile outside their virtual environments.

Solving for Strategy

The classic 1980’s movie War Games offered a terrifying glimpse of what might happen if hackers infiltrated a computer system designed to play “real” strategy games — spoiler alert: World War III was narrowly averted by hero Matthew Broderick. However, outside of Hollywood hype, there’s a substantive case to be made for the use of video games in developing advanced military strategy.

Consider Gamebreaker, an initiative of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Gamebreaker program is designed to discover unfair ways for opponents to play in virtual war games simulator called “Command: Modern Operations.” Northrop Grumman was awarded the Gamebreaker contract in May 2020. NG teams have now added more than 200 quadrillion options designed to find causal models within the game that can be exploited to gain operational advantages. This effectively mimics the dynamics of the conflict. Our adversaries are not looking to play by the rules — they’re looking for any way to win. AI-driven models can help to uncover these unexpected advantages in secure computer models, in turn equipping commanders in the field with better intelligence before they engage enemies in battle.

Correcting for Crashes

Holographic heads-up displays (HUDs) are familiar sights in FPS and racing games. They offer critical information to players, such as how many rounds of ammunition they have left, their current level of health or how fast they’re traveling. Well-designed HUDs in games are both customizable and unobtrusive, offering exactly the data you need — and nothing you don’t.

As SciTechDaily notes, these HUDs are now making their way into the real world thanks to light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technologies. Using LiDAR, a research team from the University of Cambridge has created a 3D HUD that delivers ultra high-definition holographic projections of road objects, effectively creating an augmented reality for drivers. What’s more, the nature of LiDAR solutions makes it possible for them to “see” through objects, potentially offering a way for drivers to see vehicles or pedestrians coming at blind corners or spot road signs that are hidden by landmarks or buildings.

Aiming for Accuracy

FPS gamers love weaponry. Every FPS game has its own unique take on weapons such as guns, rocket launchers and grenades, with these weapons getting more powerful — and often more outlandish — the farther players progress. One of the most popular weapon types that often makes an appearance in near-future sci-fi games is the augmented grenade launcher. Along with the ability to shoot multiple grenade types depending on the scenario, gamers can also detonate these grenades on command to achieve a specific effect.

New technology from the United States Army now offers this ability. Known as the Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE)-XM25, this grenade launcher provides “a leap-ahead overmatch capability that will dramatically increase lethality and range with a family of 25mm programmable airburst munitions.” In practice, this makes it possible for soldiers to deliver pinpoint grenade strikes in any combat environment.

Mining for Math

Games are also making inroads into education. Partly driven by pandemic necessity, games offer a way to engage students with concepts they may find challenging — such as math or science — in a way that’s more familiar and fun. One of the most common approaches to this educational effort uses the massively popular game Minecraft, which sees players building virtually anything they want in a simple, block-based environment.

Now, schools are using the game’s “Education Mode” to help students construct complex shapes and solve complicated math problems. This mode features no fighting and no monsters. Instead, it conforms to natural laws and makes it possible for kids to explore the reaction between chemicals, better understand physical processes and engage with math in a way that simply isn’t possible with pen and paper.

Folding for the Future

What if you could help save the world with a video game? That’s the idea behind Foldit, a crowdsourcing game that challenges players to find new ways of folding proteins. Given the complexity of protein structures and the almost innumerable potential permutations, scientists have struggled to unlock many of their secrets. Foldit tasks players with finding the most efficient way of folding proteins, which could in turn help researchers predict their shape and provide clues about how they operate in the human body. Equipped with improved protein knowledge, experts may be better equipped to treat or prevent critical illnesses — all thanks to puzzle-solving gamers.

Games are fun. But they’re also functional; video gaming technology now has practical applications in everything from military strategy to heads-up displays and medical research. Bottom line? If you find something you like, start playing — you could help change the world.

Are you interested in all things related to VR and AR? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.