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Game On! U.S. Navy Trains Sea Lions to Play Video Games [Video]



Quick Smiles:

  • The U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program has trained sea lions to play video games as part of their cognitive enrichment exercises. The games, designed to resemble Snake, are part of a broader care program that includes open ocean swims and playtime.
  • Three California sea lions have been trained to control a cursor using their snouts in a virtual maze game, which has shown potential benefits in weight maintenance and voluntary health check performance over the past three years.
  • Looking ahead, the program plans to develop multiplayer games and possibly even interspecies gaming competitions. Plans for dolphin-friendly gaming systems are also underway, with sessions taking place after sunset due to visibility issues with sunlight.

In an unexpected twist in the world of marine training, the U.S. Navy has found a novel way to keep their sea lions mentally stimulated: training them to play video games.

But don’t start envisioning sea lions battling it out on Call of Duty just yet; the games are more akin to Snake and are designed as a cognitive enrichment exercise for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program.

Kelley Winship, a scientist with the National Marine Mammal Foundation and principal investigator on this project, is passionate about ensuring the animals in the program are not just working, but also enjoying their lives.

“At the end of the day, I want to see them happy and enjoying themselves,” Winship expressed.

The Marine Mammal Program, established in 1959, employs over 120 sea lions and dolphins. These underwater superheroes are trained to detect explosives and recover missing Navy equipment from the ocean floor.

Based at Point Loma in San Diego since the 1960s, the program also emphasizes enrichment activities, such as open ocean swims and playtime, to maintain the animals’ wellbeing.


Enter the Enclosure Video Enrichment (EVE) system, a sea lion-friendly video game system, designed by Winship and her team.

Three California sea lions have already been trained to control the cursor with their snouts through a virtual maze.

Maison Piedfort, from the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, described the excitement and joy shared between the sea lions and their trainers when they cross the finish line.

The sea lions have been training with the games for three years now, showing improvements in weight maintenance and health check performance. However, it’s not yet clear whether these improvements are directly linked to the gaming sessions.

The game development team isn’t forgetting their dolphin squad members either. The process is a little trickier, though, as dolphins can’t leave the water, and the large screen needed for gaming is affected by sunlight. Thus, gaming sessions for dolphins take place after sunset.

In a playful promise of what’s to come, Winship shared their hopes for the future, including multiplayer games and the possibility of interspecies gaming competitions.


“We built a game where we can compete against Spike [the sea lion]—he can chase us around and we can move away,” Winship revealed.

“He hasn’t seen it yet. He’s going to be really excited.”