Educational video games: The idea has spent the last three decades travelling the long and dusty road from a joke to game establishment shibboleth. Sometimes it's easy for us to take for granted that while we (i.e. people familiar with games) understand the potential for games and teaching, it's still an idea-with-legs among people who actually work in education.
So it's always encouraging when teachers of any stripe recognize the value of video games, especially when they come from unexpected corners of education, and when they take the trouble to back up their opinions with actual research.
The University of Texas Medical Branch
in Galveston specializes in teaching young surgeons minimally invasive robotic surgery techniques. It recently conducted a study
] showing that experienced video game players were at least as good, and sometimes better than residents at surgical tasks like suturing, passing a needle or lifting surgical instruments, when using robotic arms.
The study's lead author, Dr. Sami Kilic, told Gamasutra that he came upon video games as a common lifestyle thread among his students after investigating how today's trainee surgeons differed from students in previous generations.
"How should we train future surgeons? They're coming from a different background compared to our background. What kind of things do they do? Mostly, the most common thing, is the computer games they play together."
The hand-eye skills needed to control on-screen video game action is similar to those needed for keyhole surgery. It's a matter of transferring movement to control onscreen events. "If you give someone with classical training that sort of thing, it's new to them. But these kids, with a great background in motor skills and hand-eye coordination skills, they can jump into the simulators right away. They're ready to go from day one. That will change the classical teaching of surgery techniques in the near future."
The UTMB study measured participants' competency on more than 20 different skill parameters on a robotic surgery simulator featuring dual-hand-operated controllers. A group of 15-year-olds performed better than the medical students from Texas A&M University. In a separate study in which the games players were asked to perform simple medical procedures -- real ones -- they performed as poorly as you would expect, far below the level of expertise of the students.
For Dr. Kilic, the lesson is that robotic surgery, previously a stumbling block for many students, was becoming something that young people could take in hand naturally.
"When we interview candidates for medical school, we try to ask to see how much interest they have in medicine," he explained. "I think in the near future, we're going to implement some new interview processes as well to find what kind of background they have in computer games.
"Of course, their exam scores are still going to be important, but as a surgeon, when I interview someone for their medical school application, I would ask them if they play computer games. In my position, they're going to be easier to train for the surgeries of tomorrow."