Jeremy Kirkwood
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

Insights From Professional Gaming Led Him to Brain Research

By on 03/02/2020
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One in an ongoing series.

Jeremy Kirkwood is a research assistant who recruits patients and administers tests to stroke survivors to assess their cognitive deficits. It’s serious business. And it’s a career choice that was oddly propelled by something many would consider the opposite of serious: video games.

Kirkwood, 28, is part of a team assisting the brain research of scientist Edward Wlotko at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute, part of MossRehab.

Kirkwood’s first career choice would have been a professional video game player. Yes, some people do make a living at it – but not many.

And when Kirkwood realized he wasn’t going to be one of them, he also realized that he loved the personality insights necessary to beat the opponents he played in competitive games such as Quake and Team Fortress 2. Winning involves, in part, assessing your opponent’s strategies and your own personality in order to control the game.

“I’ve seen a lot of how I am as a person playing games and I went into psychology because of gaming,” Kirkwood said.

He’d been taking online college courses in game design and graphic design, “and I was reading a lot of books on the side about psychology to better myself as a player. I realized I’ve always loved studying people in general.”

Kirkwood graduated Rutgers University with a degree in psychology and came to MRRI two years ago.

He said his video game experience helped him develop the “poker face” necessary to appropriately administer the cognitive tests on stroke survivors and participants in the control group to ensure that he doesn’t influence the outcome. Feedback to test subjects can alter their responses and therefore mitigate the accuracy of the research findings.  

Among the research Wlotko is performing, Kirkwood said, is a study of the right brain; most stroke research focuses on the left brain. The consensus is that the left side of the brain is responsible for logic and analysis and the right side is responsible for creativity and intuition, though of course both are interconnected and operate in tandem. Kirkwood recruits patients, administers tests, does data entry and provides other support in the lab.

The research is designed to develop treatments for patients with particular deficits resulting from a stroke. “All the research we do here is designed to have practical applications,” Kirkwood said.

MRRI was founded in 1992 to consolidate and expand research activities at MossRehab. The Institute sponsors interdisciplinary research aimed at improving human function and adaptation to disability, which often leads the way to new advances in medical rehabilitation.

That wasn’t necessarily what Kirkwood had in mind when he began his intense focus on video games. He and his twin brother played video games for fun as children.

He later became a competitive player on a first-person game called Quake, which Rolling Stone said is “widely regarded as one of the most influential video games of all time, having pioneered a number of conventions that we now take for granted.”

Kirkwood has attended QuakeCon, a gaming convention in Dallas where tournaments are held to determine the best Quake players in the world. He won a few tournaments last year. He also was part of a team that won $2,000 at an international tournament for the game ShootMania Storm.

Kirkwood is well known in the North American e-sports community and is often invited by game developers to be part of a testing group that helps refine unfinished versions of new video games before they’re officially launched.

And every Thursday night, he leaves work in Elkins Park and rushes to a game store near his South Jersey home to play a four-person game of Magic: The Gathering.

So he’s back to playing video games for fun, and working at the serious business of assisting brain research that the games propelled him to pursue.

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