A positive take on video games

Play said to boost skills useful for science, medicine

By Steve LeBlanc
Associated Press / August 18, 2008
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Parents, don't put away those video games just yet - today's gamer may be tomorrow's top surgeon.

Researchers gathering in Boston for the American Psychological Association convention detailed studies suggesting video games can be powerful learning tools - from increasing the problem-solving potential of younger students to improving the suturing skills of laparoscopic surgeons.

One study even looked at whether playing "World of Warcraft," the world's biggest multiplayer online game, can improve scientific thinking.

The conclusion? Certain types of video games can have benefits beyond the virtual thrills of blowing up demons or shooting aliens.

In one study, 122 fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade students were asked to think out loud for 20 minutes while playing a game they had never seen before. Researchers studied the statements the children made to see if playing the game improved cognitive and perceptual skills.

While older children seemed more interested in just playing the game, younger children showed more of an interest in setting up short-term goals needed to help them learn the game.

"The younger kids are focusing more on their planning and problem-solving while they are actually playing the game, while adolescents are focusing less on their planning and strategizing and more on the here and now," said researcher and Fordham University psychologist Fran Blumberg.

Another study compared surgeons who play video games with those who don't. Even after taking into account differences in age, years of medical training, and the number of laparoscopic surgeries performed, researchers found an edge for gamer surgeons.

In one study of 33 laparoscopic surgeons, researchers found that those who played video games were 27 percent faster at advanced surgical procedures and made 37 percent fewer errors than those who didn't. Advanced video game skills were also a good way to predict suturing capabilities.

A second study looking at 303 laparoscopic surgeons found that those who played video games requiring spatial skills and hand dexterity performed better at those skills when tested later compared with surgeons who didn't play videos.

In laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, surgeries, surgeons use small incisions, thin surgical tools, and video cameras.

There were several factors determining whether games help hone surgical skills, including how often they are played, the content, what a player has to pay attention to on the screen, and how players control the motions, according to Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile.

"The single best predictor of their skills is how much they had played video games in the past and how much they played now. Those were better predictors of surgical skills than years of training and number of surgeries performed," Gentile said. "So the first question you might ask your surgeon is how many of these [surgeries] have you done and the second question is, 'Are you a gamer?' "

Some video games even appear to sharpen scientific thinking skills. Researchers looked at 2,000 discussion posts about "World of Warcraft" to see what the players were talking about. The study found the game encouraged scientific thinking, like using systems and models for understanding situations, and using math and testing to investigate a problem.

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