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How video games help war vets

'Serious video games' are now used for everything from educating about Somalian piracy, to explaining childbirth, to helping soldiers cope with the trauma of war. 

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He comes into a training room at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center, a skinny kid with an earring and a cap, and sits down, ready to work. He looks young. But he's been through a lot.

A few years ago, in Iraq with the National Guard, Bryan Kidd suffered a concussion so severe he still has trouble recognizing people. This afternoon he is working with Veterans Affairs therapist Andrea Meehan on cognitive problems. They're using a video game to do it.

This is one example of the burgeoning field of "serious games": tapping what has been an entertainment device for training, education, and therapy. Some serious games have been around for years, like flight simulators. Some are new – including games like Cutthroat Capitalism, which helps people understand the economics of Somalian piracy, or September 12th, which is about the nature of terrorism.

Other games teach about everything from redistricting to childbirth to warfare. The allure of "gamification" seems clear: to make education – or therapy – fun.

Ms. Meehan uses a game called Big Brain Academy, which schools use as well. Since 2006, the VA has used it for vets like Mr. Kidd.

"Start with Covered Cages," Meehan tells him.

Six cages pop up on the screen. Three have birds in them. Suddenly, covers hide the cages. On the screen, the cages begin switching order. It's a therapeutic shell game. Which cages hold the birds? Kidd isn't fooled. He clicks on three and gets a green check.

Later, they switch to a harder test. Kidd sees faces peeking around a corner. Then he sees a bunch of faces. Kidd needs to pick the ones he's seen. He's been practicing at home.

"His scores have gone up," Meehan says.

There are still some levels that give Kidd trouble. "I gotta work harder," he says.

He will do that both here and at home where, unlike Iraq, his battle is personal.

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