Success in medical education is typically associated with a balanced lifestyle and a rigorous study strategy. Video games seldom come to mind as a determinant of success, but a new study from researchers at the University of Toronto and University of Ottawa might be on the verge of changing that.

By performing a systematic review of medical students’ experiences with video games, the researchers determined that video game training — or gaming in general — could in fact benefit students’ medical education, namely their hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and performance on surgical tasks such as robotic surgery and laparoscopy, surgery inside the abdomen. 

As our society becomes more and more digital, video games are becoming an increasingly prevalent staple of the student experience. A 2010 Australian study on internet use and computer and video gaming in Australian students found that an astonishing 55.2 per cent of its student sample were gamers. The researchers noted that this prevalence was higher than in previous research, meaning that it’s likely that this proportion will only grow in the coming years. 

Student suggestions as a starting point

For years, students had suggested that technology — including video games —  be included to a greater extent in their medical schooling. Recommendations from residents and program directors for improved technical skills training in medical school may have also motivated researchers to look more into video gaming. 

Prior research suggested video games could build important surgical skills for medical students. The researchers reviewed this literature to get a sense of the general value that video games provide.

They examined a total of 16 primary research articles, including experiments and observational studies, studying a total of 575 students and residents. Although the study types varied, they all examined the same basic question of whether there is a “relationship between video games and surgical skills for medical students.”

The studies in question differed in the way they examined video games. Some considered students’ gaming history or experiences, and those studies typically looked at performance in robotic surgery as an outcome. Others had some students actively play video games in a structured manner — called video game-based training (VGBT) —  while others did not play video games. 

These studies looked at student skills in generic surgery, robotic surgery, bronchoscopy, and arthroscopy, but they more typically tested skills in laparoscopy. Video games included Rocket League and Call of Duty, seminal titles of twenty-first century gaming.

Skill upgrades, with a catch

The researchers discovered that gaming offers some benefits, but there are limits on what can be achieved. First, a history of gaming was associated with quickened student time to completion, reduced unnecessary motion, and improved overall performance in robotic surgery, but VGBT did not offer the same benefits.

Meanwhile, VGBT did improve overall performance when it came to laparoscopy, but being an experienced gamer was only associated with improved time to completion in laparoscopy.

In general, these results suggest that video games improve performance for surgical skills, but VGBT and a history of gaming are not equal in application and value.

VGBT and gaming history appear to support distinct medical skills, and these skills form a limited subset of the overall toolbox needed to become an expert surgeon. The authors noted that a history of gaming would do better than the relatively brief VGBT at building dexterity and hand-eye coordination, as these are reinforced in most video games. That being said, the effect fell through in a procedure that required more specialized advanced training — laparoscopy. 

However, the authors suggested that the use of devices like the Wii U in VGBT may benefit laparoscopy training by simulating the specialized physical motions required in the procedure. But this training wouldn’t necessarily benefit performance in more general robotic surgery.

Next steps 

Although the data is promising, gaming and VGBT aren’t catch-all solutions to improving surgical skills in medical students. It is clear that their effects — which themselves should be further researched — vary based on the type of procedure being trained for. 

Questions about applicability and implementation still linger. What other procedures could gaming or VGBT benefit? When and how should medical schools implement VGBT or a gaming regiment? 

These findings have opened the door to a diverse breadth of future research on gaming in medical education, research that could certainly answer these questions and many more — and perhaps drive a major innovation in medical education.