Gamers Make Better Surgeons

Curious Fact: Video game players make better surgeons. Really. Specifically, according to one study, surgeons who were avid video game players in their youth were on average 33 percent faster and made 37 percent fewer mistakes during laparoscopic procedures than their colleagues who had no prior video game experience.

The research has been repeated, expanded, and varied many times since the initial study. Furthermore, brain scans performed during video game play show that video games are intensely stimulating to the human brain, causing it to adapt and re-wire itself in meaningful ways. Later studies have shown that surgeons who regularly play video games as adults can gain the same accuracy and speed advantages as those who played video games in earlier years. The results are so dramatic, many medical programs have or are considering adding mandatory video game play to their curriculum.

Something about gaming qua gaming gets the brain working in ways that simply practicing or working on the same medium does not. The surgeons saw gains in performance from playing games that surpassed gains from practicing the same number of hours.

So please don’t flame me when I tell you that my oldest son began playing video games at the age of two (and his younger brothers began as soon as they could grasp a controller in their hands). And that we do not limit the amount of time they are permitted to play video games on most days.

Understand that in many homeschooling circles video games are forbidden or heavily restricted. I get that, and I’m not saying those families are wrong.

But in our family, video gaming is right and, if not strictly encouraged, is certainly not discouraged. To clarify: The children are expected to complete their chores, participate in family activities, attend meals, complete their formal schoolwork, practice kung fu, and engage in a variety of other activities that are chosen on their behalf. But during their free time–which constitutes roughly half their waking hours, on average–they are free to play video games on the Xbox, computer, DSi, smart phones, or any other medium they can get their hands on.

I don’t expect my children to become surgeons (though they do love to use interactive on-line surgery instructables), or video gaming experts (though they do love to map out story lines with rules and milestones for their own invented games), or really to do anything in particular with themselves other than be productive and joyful and compassionate. But I do expect them to grow up into a world that is very different than the one I grew up in and very different even than the world we live in now. I don’t know what specific skills they will need in that world. But I do know they will need the ability to adapt, learn, grow, and be resourceful. And I strongly suspect that they’re going to need to know how to operate in virtual environments in ways that we are only beginning to imagine today.

So I’m letting them develop those specific neural pathways. And the funny thing is, they don’t spend all day at the video games. They do in fact self-regulate most of the time. They eventually get bored and decide to roller skate around the house, jump on the trampoline, or conduct chemistry experiments in the basement. In video gaming brain studies, an interesting thing occurs: the heavy brain activity typical when a person is learning a new video game tapers off as the gamer becomes adept. Perhaps that’s when boredom begins to kick in and legos start to look like fun again.

My almost-90-year-old grandfather bought a computer for $2500 when they first became publicly available in the early 1980s. He has loved the technology all his life and is one of the most technologically proficient older people I know. But he told me tonight that he has always used the computer for practical things–bills, and letters, and so on–and that he wishes he had taken the time to just play sometimes. He believes–and I agree–that taking the time to play would have helped his brain stay supple and adapt to the new technologies, so that he would be even more proficient today. I also believe that it’s not too late–I think I’ll install Myst on his computer tomorrow.

One last story and I’ll close. This is a rough re-telling of a story from the book Reality is Broken, whose author I heard interviewed recently on NPR. I am working my way through I Live in the Future (great read, to which I owe some of the facts regarding surgeons) at the moment, and haven’t had a chance to get to McGonigal’s piece yet. But this story sticks out in my mind from the interview:

A WWII veteran returned to Normandy with his young great-grandchild a few years ago. They arrived on the beach and the grandfather was astonished to see how animated his great-grandchild suddenly became as he appeared to “recognize” landmarks. The child began to talk about historical events as though he had been there, naming the armies and pointing to where they had been and how they had clashed, and describing the action of the famous battle as vividly as any true veteran. The grandfather in amazement asked his grandchild how he could possibly know so much detail and where he had learned his history so well. Pausing to take a breath from his excited retelling, the grandson responded: “I played Call of Duty II, Grandpa!”

So I leave my readers with this thought. In a world where history can be experienced practically first-hand, and lives depend on a surgeon’s former relationship with Atari, am I wrong to let my children immerse themselves in virtual realities?

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