Today's gamer, tomorrow's surgeon?
■ Researchers hope video games can attract youths to medical careers.
By Damon Adams — Posted May 3, 2004
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It started with a simple blip on a screen. James "Butch" Rosser Jr., MD, was introduced to the dawn of the video game era, and he was hooked.
"I started with Pong in the student union building at the University of Mississippi [in 1973]. It just took off from there. I went through Intellivision, Atari, and it went on and on."
Now a laparoscopic surgeon in New York, Dr. Rosser began to wonder whether there might be a link between video game prowess and surgical skills. He conducted a study that found physicians who played video games at least three hours a week made 37% fewer errors in laparoscopic surgery than those who don't play video games. Video gamers also performed their surgical task 27% quicker than those who aren't players.
Dr. Rosser, who announced his findings in April, said being a good surgeon requires some of the same skills as being a good video game player, including spatial visualization and hand-eye coordination.
The link also makes sense, he said, because a laparoscopic surgeon watches an external video screen to perform surgery and maneuvers joysticks to control surgical tools in the patient's body.
He thinks video games could be used to attract Generation Xers and minorities to medicine.
"We can maybe recruit individuals not only into the surgical field, but to embrace science-related endeavors as well," said Dr. Rosser, chief of minimally invasive surgery and director of the Advanced Medical Technology Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.
There is one possible downside: Children may start telling their mothers that their long hours with Nintendo are really career training.
"Does this mean that playing video games will make them become surgeons? No, I'm not willing to go there," said Douglas Gentile, PhD, who studies the effects of video games and helped design Dr. Rosser's study.
Actually too much video gaming could backfire, as there has been a correlation with poor academics, Dr. Gentile said.
"Playing 'Grand Theft Auto' a lot is likely to hurt the kids' grades. The more they play makes it less likely that they will get into medical school," said Dr. Gentile, director of research for the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis.
But, in small doses, video games serve surgeons well, Dr. Rosser found.
He and fellow researchers studied 12 attending physicians and 21 medical school residents from May to August 2003. The study was designed around Dr. Rosser's laparoscopic skills and suturing teaching program called "Top Gun."
"Top Gun" subjects each completed three video game tasks that tested reaction time, eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills, nondominant hand emphasis and depth perception compensation -- skills similar to those needed in laparoscopy.
One of the games used was "Super Monkey Ball," in which the player guides a monkey along a pathway that moves.
"We picked games that were not overtly violent. The monkey never dies," Dr. Rosser said.
Doctors were surveyed to evaluate their past and present video game experience, level of laparoscopic training and cases performed and years in practice. Doctors who ever played video games had a 28% reduction in errors while suturing and accomplished their suturing 24% quicker.
The study's authors said the findings might apply to physicians who perform other procedures.
"My guess is if you play the right types of video games, it would probably lead to better procedural skills," said co-author Paul J. Lynch, MD, research coordinator of Dr. Rosser's lab.
The researchers said they want to study other ways that video game skills translate to medical ability. In the meantime, there are games to play.
"When I go to Dave & Buster's, the kids say, 'Mr., give me a chance to play,' " Dr. Rosser said.