Would Video Gamers Make Better Unmanned Aircraft Pilots Than Actual Pilots?

An MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle flies a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. US Air Force Photo / Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt

The control station of an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) looks startlingly like the bedroom of a hardcore video gamer, with a comfy padded chair, multiple screens, a headset, and a joystick. The operators flick buttons, steer the joystick, and react to on-screen stimuli, just like a video game – except for the whole reality thing.

This got psychologists at the University of Liverpool in the UK wondering whether, due to the rapid progression of unmanned aircraft leaving a shortage of actual qualified UAS pilots, video game players could make good substitutes. In their recent study published in the journal Cogent Psychology, they pitted video game player, private pilots, and professional pilots against each other to see who could command a UAS with the greatest skill and safety. Each of these groups had 15 participants each; making 60 in total, made up of 51 males and nine females.

Researchers assessed their levels of accuracy, confidence, and the balance of confidence-accuracy judgments while the participants were asked to take part in a simulated flight. During the simulation, they were faced with 21 decision tasks, aimed to ramp up the levels of risk and danger.

The study cautioned that too much confidence is not always a good thing: "Confidence, while very important, represents overconfidence if it is not correlated in the appropriate direction with accuracy decisions." 

They found that everyone’s levels of confidence and accuracy dropped as the level of danger increased, as you might expect in a hectic scenario.

However, even in the stickier situations, professional pilots and video gamer players showed the strongest level of decision confidence. The gamers also displayed a constant and positive confidence-accuracy relationship even has the level of risk increased or decreased, suggesting they kept a cool head and retained accuracy even throughout their riskier tasks.

"Understanding which potential supervisory group has the best skills to make the best decisions can help to improve UAS supervision,” study author Dr Jacqueline Wheatcroft, of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, said in a statement“Overall, video game players were less overconfident in their decision judgments.”

"The outcome supports the idea that this group could be a useful resource in UAS operation," she added. 

Just like all other media or subculture that came before it, video gaming has often been seen as a bit of a bogeyman in society, with its distractors arguing it promotes violence and/or laziness. However, more and more scientific research is proving it can have its advantages in the real-world, such as sharpening your cognitive function and even improving your memory.

Or helping you land a dream job.

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