By Torie Bosch
— The applicability of video game skills to modern warfare-in the use of drones, in particular-is well known. But a new study suggests, not surprisingly, that gamers might also have an edge in robotic surgery.
Researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston tasked OB/GYN residents and 10th graders who regularly play video games to perform tasks on a robotic-surgery simulation-like suturing. On average, the high-school students, who played two hours of video games a day, performed just as well as the residents-a few individual teenagers even did better. (Some have reported that the study showed the teenagers did better than the residents, but the difference in their performances is statistically insignificant.)
UTMBG's Sami Kilic, the lead author on the study, says high-school students who played virtual doctor were devotees of first-person shooters (especially the Call of Duty franchise-"a wild game," Kilic says), as well as games featuring sports, strategy, and auto racing. Those who devoted their time to shooting games and sports games did the best at the robotic-surgery simulation-perhaps, he speculates, because the unpredictability of the gameplay was similar to surgery.
The question, Kilic says, is whether spending two hours a day at a game, as these high-schoolers did, might hinder other areas of their development, especially social skills. He hopes to explore that issue soon, with the help of behavioralists.
In the mean time, he says, "I'm not encouraging [teenagers] to spend countless hours in front of the computer games, because our job is not to create the best surgeon ever or the best soldier ever … in this age group. They have to have the fundamental human being skills in their developing age."
Of course, it's not exactly surprising that "video games are making us better at video games." Robot surgery will be increasingly common in the coming years-so it's important for people to understand that gaming skills may have real-world applications, or at least virtual applications with real-world consequences.
As Kilic told me, it's funny that a game like Call of Duty that includes so much death (an infographic released last year by Activision said that Black Ops players alone had killed the world's population nine times over) could create skills to save a life. But what about using games to teach actual medicine? In the early '90s,the video game Life & Death made me briefly consider being a doctor. I became an expert at distinguishing gas from kidney stones and performing virtual appendectomies. But that game's co-creator, Don Laabs, said in an email that though they worked with a real surgeon ("and his graphic surgery videos") to make the game feel true to life, it was never intended to be any sort of training ground or even necessarily to inspire kids to want to be physicians.
I recently had a chance to try out a real surgical machine that allowed you to use tiny remote controlled instruments while being able to view the surgical area with magnified 3D vision. The video gamers among us proved quite adept at using the machine. We all agreed, though, that the 3D view was absolutely essential to get the job done. Things have certainly come a long way since Life & Death! With that type of tech available, I'm sure surgery games and simulators will become more and more applicable to real surgery training.
For now, though, Kilic warns that parents with MD ambitions for their children shouldn't mandate two hours a day at the Xbox 360. Sorry, kids.
Bosch is the editor of Slate's Future Tense project.