MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Simplice Njoya, a University of Memphis basketball forward, sat hunched over a laptop, testing an idea first studied on Israeli fighter pilots.
The premise: Skills he picks up playing a complex computer game can make him a better ball player.
“The theory is, it’s going to be the weight room for the brain,” said Memphis assistant coach Ed Schilling.
The on-screen action looks nothing like a basketball game, but is designed to work on the visual and decision-making skills a player needs. Basketball programs at Memphis and the University of Kentucky are testing the game to see if it gives players an edge.
Called IntelliGym, the game was created by Israeli company Applied Cognitive Engineering Inc. The company’s research supervisor, Daniel Gopher, first tested the theory with a study on Israeli pilot cadets in the 1980s.
In addition to their regular training, some cadets played a computer game aimed at improving their concentration.
Gopher and colleagues at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology said in a 1994 report that cadets who played the computer game “performed significantly better” than other trainees in subsequent test flights.
The basketball training game is different than the one used by the pilots, but ACE says it is based on the same principles. The company hopes to sell the software and support for $5,000 to $10,000 a season to colleges and up to $85,000 to professional teams.
Video games are being used for everything from preparing soldiers for battle to helping surgeons improve hand-eye coordination, said Marc Prensky, author of the book, “Digital Game-Based Learning.”
Daphne Bavelier, a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, said she had not seen the ACE game but knew of Gopher’s work with pilots.
The basic theories are still under study but research indicates that some video games can shorten reaction time for processing visual information, said Bavelier. She has done studies finding that young adults who played video games had better visual skills than those who didn’t.
In IntelliGym, two sets of abstract figures move constantly across a dark screen. One set is larger and egg-shaped, while the other looks like small video-game spaceships.
A player tries to attach one of the smaller figures to a larger one to steal its “energy.” The player also must “shoot” to transfer power from one small figure to another as openings appear. The game gets progressively more difficult as it’s played and is individually adjusted depending on a players’ strengths or weaknesses.
The idea is to increase the player’s ability to focus on several things at once, recognize patterns among moving objects and make decisions quickly.
The training runs from six to 10 weeks with two 30- to 40-minute sessions each week. Results of each player’s training sessions are transmitted to a computer at ACE, then on to coaches.
Njoya said he enjoys it.
“You keep moving, so you’ve got to constantly deal with what’s the best decision,” he said. “It’s like when you’re driving with the ball. Who’s in the open? Who’s being guarded?”
Memphis coaches expect to judge the game’s success by turnover rates, shooting percentages and other statistics. If a player starts picking better shots or getting more assists, it might be due, in part, to the computer game.
“If it decreases one turnover a game, that’s the difference between winning or losing maybe two games in a season,” assistant coach Schilling said.
Memphis players have had only a few sessions with the game.
Danny Dankner, ACE’s chief executive, declined to disclose details of the company’s deals with the schools, but Schilling said Memphis will pay only if coaches consider the program worthwhile.
Memphis player Jeremy Hunt was not impressed.
“It’s an interesting game, but it’s boring once you get the hang of it,” Hunt said. “I usually play sports games. This is more like a shooting game.”
Schilling is happy to give IntelliGym a chance if it means an on-court edge.
“If people had told you 20 years ago that every college team was going to have a weight room and a strength coach and this and that, you’d have said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Schilling said. “Perhaps in 10 years or so, this will be standard.”