ARLINGTON, Va. — On a seemingly quiet day at the Fort Hood Soldier Recovery Unit in Texas, one might never guess that a squad was in the middle of a fierce battle, using the skills and tactics they’ve learned over the years to outwit their enemy.
That’s because the battle was taking place entirely virtually in the form of a video game as part of a program called, “Cognitive Overmatch,” which seeks to improve squad cohesiveness by teaming up together in video games.
Back in December, Col. Joseph Black — the SRU commander — directed the unit to look into Cognitive Overmatch to see if Soldiers could build better teams, which came out of a university study.
"[The study] basically involved team land navigation and geocaching," Black said. "They created these three teams, they had them go find a mine, and then they compiled the scores. They took one team and had them play Call of Duty while the other team took classes on leadership and how to be a team player. The third team was the control group. They played ‘find a mine’ again, and the team that played the video game dominated."
So the SRU got eight PlayStation 5s and the video game "Call of Duty: Warzone" to put the theory to the test in their unit, modeling the setup after the Army's video game e-sports team.
The SRU created four squads: one that played the video game twice per week as a squad, a rotational squad that played twice per month, and a mobile squad that plays on iPad Minis — which means they don't have to be in the same room together. The fourth was the control group.
When a squad plays a video game, they get a mission brief from the troop leader before they play the game. Afterward, they do an after-action review and fill out a survey.
The squad that plays video games twice per week, which they call the "Dominant Squad,” has been outperforming the other squads, Black said.
"We have 100% validated that when a squad plays a Call of Duty game, they perform better as a squad in all other events outside the video game," he said.
The program pits all of the squads against each other in the outdoor events, such as a Leader Reaction Course, a combat-focused physical competition (which included physical stressors and team-building challenges) and a team obstacle course competition. Since January, the Dominant Squad has won every time.
"We attribute that to them being a more cohesive unit," Black said.
Staff Sgt. Carlos Delgado said that Soldiers at the unit have adjusted well to the concept.
“It is great to see how our Soldiers reacted to video games and used them to meet other Soldiers in the unit," Delgado said. "They let a lot of their walls down and loved the stress relief of just playing together.”
Just because Soldiers are physically limited doesn't mean they can't continue growing their skills in the Army, he added.
"Some may never move with a squad again, but they do use those tactics while playing video games," he said. "Gaming helps them hold on to their experiences and training in the military and utilize them in different ways.”
The goal is to expand this concept to more Soldiers at the unit, and for it to become a validated model to increase communication and foster stress management in the squad environment.
"We'll keep running it at the SRU because it's great for us, and the plan is to expand it to all of Fort Hood," Black said. "We can apply the same model to a tactical unit, which is pretty cool, and that's why we developed the mobile squad — I can't always bring a squad back to play the PlayStation 5s because they may be in the field or just not able to be in the same room as the other folks, but they can play Call of Duty through mobile."
He doesn't exactly have to twist any arms to get the Soldiers to participate.
"The Soldiers love it," Black said. "They really love it. A lot of things have improved since doing this, and it's because of something as simple as playing Call of Duty."