Back to the Future

Did the 1979-vintage arcade game asteroids enhance cognitive performance..wouldn't it be great to know?

MARINA DEL REY -If Dr. James Rosser Jr. had his way, every surgeon in America would have three indispensable tools on the operating room tray: a scalpel, sutures, and a video game controller.

Rosser looks like a football player and cracks jokes like a comic, but his job as a top surgeon and director of the Advanced Medical Technologies Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York is to find better ways to practice medicine. At the top of his list - video games.

"Traditional academic surgeons look at what I do and thumb their noses," Rosser said at the first Video Game/Entertainment Industry Technology and Medicine Conference, sponsored by the U.S. Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), in early December.

Surgeons who play video games three hours a week have 37 percent fewer errors and accomplish tasks 27 percent faster, he says, basing his observation on results of tests using the video game "Super Monkey Ball."

To devise better systems for training physicians, Rosser and his colleagues brought together surgeons, movie makers and video game designers to discuss ways the three groups can develop better tools.

While the systems are aimed mostly at medical training, he also does classroom demonstrations so kids can get a taste of what it's like.

More than 5,000 people, from schoolchildren to surgeons, have done training exercises on a system Rosser calls "Top Gun," designed to train laparoscopic surgeons, doctors who use minimally-invasive techniques to repair injuries.

Rosser has had subjects play "Super Monkey Ball" as well as practice techniques of laparoscopic surgery by suturing a sponge with long probes and dropping a pea into a hole. In all, he has done "Top Gun" training for more than a decade.


Video games also have much to offer the military, said Greg Mogel, a radiologist and director of the West Coast arm of TATRC, who spoke alongside Rosser at the conference held in Marina del Rey.

"You train as you fight and you fight as you train," he said.

TATRC demonstrated a program called "STATCare," a virtual simulator for combat medics that lets them bandage wounds, apply tourniquets, administer intravenous fluids, inject medications and make all of the other assessments they would be required to do in an actual battlefield.

The program is proven to work, said TATRC's J. Harvey Magee, but "on the negative side, it doesn't respond like a really cool video game yet."

That is where Rosser said he hoped the conference would be of value.

One of the other titles he helped demonstrate was "The Journey to Wild Divine," a $160 game that relies on biofeedback.

Players with heart-rate and skin-conduction monitors hooked to their fingers must calm the body and mind to bring responses in line with the demands of the game.

In a demonstration, players had to control their heart rate and stress levels in order to make a balloon float through a mystical environment.

Another product on display was a system developed by researcher Walter Greenleaf that applies technology to hand rehabilitation -- patients wear a special sensor-laden glove and control a video game by doing exercises. In the classic game "Asteroids," rotating the wrist moves a spaceship left and right, while making a fist fires cannons.

All of that game play may sound like a waste of time to some people, but for Rosser, it's all part of the job.

"You have to be a Nintendo surgeon," he said.

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