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August 28, 2011

Good Video Games

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The Education Arcade – MIT-sponsored group advocating "the future of video games in education"

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Is your child wasting summer vacation inside playing video games? While many parents might feel that way, this ScienCentral News video reports on research showing that playing video games can have beneficial effects on the brain.

Your Brain on Video Games

Laparoscopic surgeon Butch Rosser had an epiphany several years ago when a reporter sat in on one of his procedures and wrote, "I saw the work of the Nintendo surgeon."

"Now that just hit me when I read that," says Rosser, who is now director of minimally invasive surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "And I said, 'Well I am a gamer, all the way back to the days of pong. Is that why I can do this a little better than the average bear? Is that why this seems so natural to me? Because I navigate in a video game environment?'"

Laparoscopic surgeons work by cutting very small holes in a person's skin and inserting what are essentially long joysticks — with a fiber optic camera and surgical tools attached to the end of them — into a person's body to perform "minimally invasive surgery". Without having to cut a person open to look inside, the tiny camera allows them to operate by seeing everything on a video monitor, while making post-surgery recovery much easier.

A laparoscopic training task.
The similarities between this kind of procedure and playing video games struck Rosser so much, he did his own study in 2004 where he compared the surgical skills of surgeons who played video games with those who did not. Skill was measured in a standardized laparoscopic training exercise created by Rosser called "Top Gun."

"The results were really astounding," he says. "First of all, if you played video games [at any time] in the past, it was found that you were significantly faster and, more importantly, you created fewer errors than people who had no previous video game experience. Then when we looked at whether you were a current video gamer, we found that if you played video games currently, you were over 30 percent better — faster, and created fewer errors — than someone who did not play video games at all."

Rosser's is one of many studies featured in a recent Discover Magazine article detailing the growing body of research suggesting that video games can exercise the mind the way physical activity exercises the body.

"Previous research has shown that video game players have more attentional capacity and can carry out search functions in more efficient manners," says Alan Castel, psychology professor at Washington University of St. Louis. "Our research was interested in examining whether there were differences in how video game players and non-video game players search the visual environment, how they carry out visual search. We were interested in whether video game players would carry out visual search in a different way relative to people who don't play video games."

Can you find the "q" among the "d"s?
Castel (who performed his study while working at the University of Toronto) had people from both groups perform a simple, standard task of looking for a particular object, such as a letter, among a group of other objects (like other letters) on a computer monitor. When they found the letter, they pressed a button on the keyboard.

"Video game players had faster reaction times on the order of 100 milliseconds, which might not sound like a lot but in this domain it's quite a strong finding," says Castel. "And you can imagine, when driving, a difference of 100 milliseconds could really help you avoid accidents."

On top of the difference in reaction time, Castel says the gamers were using the same searching technique as the non-gamers, "but video game players were faster and more efficient when carrying out this search." Search technique was inferred by a standard measure called "inhibition of return," which determines how people search the visual field based on their response time to objects placed in specific locations at specific times.

Castel says that video games essentially help people "practice" performing things like visual searches and the mental processes that accompany them, which shows why they are effective in training for tasks where fast visual searching is important (military flight training, for instance). He also thinks video games could be a good tool for rehabilitation for people recovering from brain injuries.

As for Rosser, he's already preaching the benefits of video games to the surgeons he trains and directs.

"Mine is an interesting lab," he says. "Where along with the laparoscopic training instruments, virtual reality training instruments and all this other research technology… you have an X-Box, Playstation 2, side by side with these medical-related items. And so… for warm up before laparoscopic cases, we're gaming! Alright? Down time, we are gaming. Because we know from a new study that when we are doing that, even warming up with these games before going in and performing a laparoscopic task, can have a significant positive impact."

Nevertheless, he warns that moderation is important. Rosser says the video-gaming surgeons who performed better showed this effect with just three hours of video game play per week, so kids who play much more than that shouldn't feel vindicated: "I say to the kids out there that Butch Rosser would not be here in this capacity if he played video games and did not have good grades, did not develop perseverance. And I would say to that child out there that thinks that they got a free pass to play video games carte blanche, I say 'Nooo, sadly mistaken.'"

Castel's research was published in the March 2005 issue of the journal Acta Psychologica, and was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant and scholarship. Rosser's study was presented at the 2004 Medicine Meets Virtual Reality Conference, and received no outside funding.

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