For years, the US Department of Health and Human Services has distributed brochures like this one to people who are considering surgery. The packets are full of things you need to know and questions you should ask your surgeon before going under the knife.
And while these pamphlets are certainly thorough and informative, you'll notice that they make no mention of asking your surgeon if he or she plays (or used to play) video games. But recent research suggests that they probably should.
The folks over at BoingBoing recently posted an excerpt from a book by Nick Bilton—lead technology writer for the New York Times Bits Blog—titled I Live in the Future and Here's How it Works. In a chapter titled "Why Surgeons Play Video Games," Bilton presents some of the latest research on the link between surgical skill and gaming experience:
A few years ago, researchers quizzed more than thirty surgeons and surgical residents on their video game habits, identifying those who played video games frequently, those who played less frequently, and those who hardly played at all [the research paper in question can be found here]. Then they put all the surgeons through a laparoscopic surgery simulator, in which thin instruments akin to extremely long chopsticks are inserted into one or more small incisions through the skin along with a small camera that is inserted into an additional small opening. Minimally invasive surgery like this frequently is used for gallbladder removal, gynecologic procedures, and other procedures that once involved major cutting and stitching and could require hours on an operating table. [Featured here is the video from a laparoscopic appendectomy that illustrates the kind of coordination and spatial awareness required for laparoscopic procedures. Just a heads up: this clip is not for the squeamish.]
The researchers found that surgeons or residents who used to be avid video game players had significantly better laparoscopic skills than did those who'd never played. On average, the serious game players were 33 percent faster and made 37 percent fewer errors than their colleagues who didn't have prior video game experience.
The more video games the surgeons had played in the past, the better their numbers.
According to Bilton, surgeons and researchers have actually begun exploring whether video games that involve subtle hand movements and stimulate areas of the brain needed for surgery should be a key part of a surgeon's training and education.
Researchers at Arizona State University, for example, have demonstrated that surgical residents who trained for laparoscopic surgery by playing a video game called Marble Mania (using a Nintendo Wii remote that had been reshaped to resemble a laparoscopic probe, as pictured here) worked faster, made fewer errors, and were more proficient in hand movements than control groups when the video game was swapped out for a simulated laparoscopic surgical procedure. The Arizona State researchers write:
Our results validate the Nintendo Wii gaming system, along with the Marble Mania video game, as an effective laparoscopic simulation device. Given its affordability [the classical surgical simulators used in many hospitals run upwards of 10 grand], availability and the inherent attraction of video games, the Nintendo Wii can be utilized as an effective take-home surgical simulator.
Important questions about the link between video gaming and surgical performance obviously remain. For example, is the association causative or correlative; after all, perhaps the surgical residents who are more naturally dextrous were simply more likely to be attracted to video games in the first place.
Then again, the training research out of Arizona State certainly seems to suggest that there may be some causation at work — though, as the ASU researchers point out, further studies will be necessary to verify whether the skills gained from practicing with the Wii are long-lasting. (It's worth pointing out that the results of the ASU study conflict with those of a similar investigation conducted in 2005 by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, but that the surgical residents in the Pittsburgh study were using classical video game controllers from the original X-Box, not the motion-sensing remotes used on the Wii.)
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the list of studies that reveal the benefits of video games on everything from hand-eye coordination to spacial awareness is constantly growing. I don't know about you, but something tells me that if I ever need to go under the knife, part of me will feel a little more comfortable knowing my surgeon has at least some experience in the world of gaming—provided it was in something like Marble Mania, as opposed to, say, Wii Boxing.