Since the advent of video games in the latter half of the 20th century, games and gamers have long been subject to demeaning stereotypes and controversial generalizations. However, the explosive industry growth, mainstream popularity, and cultural influence of the medium have made banalities out of common assertions like “video games make kids violent” and “gamers are fat and antisocial.” In recent decades, games have made their debut as conduits for social networking and even as viable competitive ventures. But beyond the scope of LAN parties and eSports, video games have crept their way into practical applications for the medical field for surgical skill enhancement and biomolecule design.
Here’s some promising news for the pre-med gamers out there – studies have shown that surgeons who practice with video games perform better than their non-gaming peers. At the Beth Israel Medical Center, Dr. James Rosser, Dr. Paul Lynch, and Dr. Laurie Cuddihy tested the effects of gaming on completion speed and error rate in simulated laparoscopic surgery among 33 surgical residents and attending physicians. The participants in the experimental group played a variety of popular games, including Super Monkey Ball for the Nintendo GameCube and Silent Scope for the Microsoft Xbox, for at least three hours a week, and demonstrated 37% fewer errors and 27% faster completion compared to the non-gaming control group. In accounting for relative skill and past experience in gaming, top tertile participants made 47% fewer errors and performed 39% more quickly.
Another study done by the Department of Clinical Science Intervention and Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, examined similar premises of gaming effects on laparoscopic surgery performance while also evaluating differences in the genres of games played. In a randomized sample of 30 surgical novices, groups were divvied into Half-Life (a visual-spatially demanding first-person shooter game) players, Chessmaster (an exclusively cognitive game) players, and a non-gaming control group. Before and after five weeks of systematic video game training, the participants were assessed by two virtual reality endoscopy simulators (MIST-VR and GI Mentor II). Interestingly enough, the Half-Life players exhibited the most significant improvement – more so than the Chessmaster players – with regards to two GI Mentor II variables and the MIST-VR task MD level medium. The control group, on the other hand, showed no marked changes. The CLINTEC study explores the correlation between visual coordination in gaming and laparoscopic surgery ability by ruling out certain classes of games that do not encompass the relevant skills. Alas, Candy Crush Saga may not be the most rigorous practice for making clean sutures.
Laparoscopic surgery is a minimally invasive procedure that involves the insertion of a thin instruments and cameras that allow the surgeon to perform the operation using a live video feed. Understandably, the hand-eye coordination and spacial awareness necessary for the operation of a laparoscope by indirect viewing are similar to the skills used in manipulating input devices to control a video game. Though laparoscopy is a highly specialized medical procedure, video games can offer more generalized applications for the training of physicians.
The collaborative and competitive nature of certain video games can shape medical education by allowing students to exercise clinical skills in simulated environments. “[Millennials] are playing these games where they are in the isolation of their environment, but they’re communicating with others playing the same game all over the world,” said Dr. Suraiya Rahman, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “They are coordinating, getting together and building plans. They’re able to adapt different characters, build environments and move in [them].” The flexible nature and boundless possibilities of game environments can be taken advantage of to simulate clinical settings. “You can create a game to mimic any kind of environment—the academic medical center, the community medical center, the VA center,” Dr. Rahman explained. With the freedom of nearly any environment being readily available in simulation, medical educators can use game theory to create tasks and settings for students to reinforce collaborative skills and knowledge proficiency.
Another notable element of gaming is its competitive draw. “Video games offer competitive environments, and medical students and physicians are type A. We love to win,” Dr. Rahman remarked. “We love being really good at something, learning something and getting better at it.” Contesting peers on the leaderboards and surmounting personal bests can prompt self-improvement and self-directed learning. Aside from their competitive and collaborative potential, these games hold the advantage over real settings by granting students personalized training regimens and the freedom to make mistakes without disastrous real-life consequences. Dr. Rahman listed a few games that medical students (and even pre-meds) are already using, such as Prognosis, a clinical decision-making game available on Google Play, and Medical School, an online flash game that simulates life as a student in a virtual medical school.
Aside from training medical students, games have made their mark in research and biomolecule design. A team at the Stanford University School of Medicine has released an online game, called Eterna Medicine, that allows players from around the world – laymen and professionals alike – to build intricate RNA molecules with the goal of creating an effective new tuberculosis test from potentially useful player-made designs. In this game, successfully built RNA molecules, called “OpenTB,” can bind to TB-related RNA molecules that assume different conformations based on the relative concentrations of three types of TB-related RNA. Purvesh Khatri, PhD, is an assistant professor of medicine who developed the plan for this test. “I love this idea because it changes the biological research paradigm,” Khatri said. “If successful, it would allow us to say, ‘We can use publicly available data — ultimately provided by patients themselves — to find a diagnostic signature of one of the biggest killers of mankind. And then we can engage the public to design molecules that can help deploy that test to help other patients using a video game platform.’”
In spite of the ample evidence for the benefits of video gaming on surgical ability, other clinical skills, and even pathology, games are by no means a replacement for concrete medical training. Even so, the complex digital medium has evolved to a point where players can derive tangible advantages from exercising hand-eye coordination, collaboration, and competition. While you should still really hit the books, those hours spent “gitting gud” at Counter-Strike and Dark Souls might be worth more than just bragging rights.