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If You Can Ace 'Guitar Hero,' You Can Remove a Pancreas

“Guitar Hero” players at the CeBIT IT fair in Hanover, Germany

Photograph by Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

“Guitar Hero” players at the CeBIT IT fair in Hanover, Germany

“Play to Become a Surgeon.” It has the ring of late-night advertising (Make millions working from home! Lose weight and increase your IQ by eating only fudge!). However, it’s actually the title of a scientific paper published Wednesday in the online journal PLOS One. Researchers at La Sapienza University of Rome in Italy had medical residents play video games on the Nintendo Wii for an hour a day for four weeks and found that doing so actually made them more adept at performing laparoscopic surgery.

There is already research literature showing that video games improve hand-eye coordination, and that’s probably part of what was going on in the study. But the fact that playing video games gave young doctors a feel for surgery also underlines something about surgery itself. Surgery has come a long way since the days when it meant sawing off legs in a battlefield hospital at Antietam. Surgeons today often perform laparoscopic operations not by manually snipping and sewing, but by controlling precision robots—the robot arms do the actual operating, and the surgeon sees inside the body by looking at a video feed on a screen. In that, it’s like flying a drone, where a pilot in Nevada controls a robotic airplane in Pakistan. Anyone who follows technology is aware of the explosion in clever uses engineers are finding for drones and remote-control robots—from disaster relief to ecological research to maintaining our water supply. A key skill in controlling these technologies—the skill the Italian medical residents honed on their Nintendo Wiis—is the ability to make sense of how the three-dimensional world is rendered on a two-dimensional screen.

This is a bit ironic. Video games are judged largely on how well they simulate the real world, as are the expensive simulators that pilots and surgeons alike train on. The Sapienza study underlines how today’s technologies are upending that dynamic. What we have to train people to do, in other words, is be good at video games.

Bennett is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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