Surgeon Still Playing Video Games After 25+ Years of Schooling

by Brian Caulfield

Andrew Wright, MD, is used to working in the dark, with only his fingertips and the artificial eyes of an incredibly tiny camera to help him guide incredibly precise instruments — graspers, dissectors and staplers — through folds of flesh that glisten like fresh cuts of sushi.

Wright specializes in minimally invasive surgery, which is performed by inserting instruments through tiny slits. Threading a 2mm cystic duct armed with tools attached to the ends of long steel rods is like trying to tie your shoes with three-foot-long chopsticks, Wright says.

When he’s working, Wright says he enters a state of flow that can be compared to only one thing: video gaming. “After one particularly tricky procedure I thought to myself ‘achievement unlocked — I deserve some kind of badge for that,’” Wright says during a phone interview conducted between rounds with patients.

You better believe this dude knows how to fillet an opponent in “Assassin’s Creed.”

Playing Doctor

A lifelong gamer, Wright has become an advocate for the benefits of video games in the medical field. It’s a story he’s told to rooms full of his fellow gamers at PAX Prime, as well as peers at the University of Washington, where he’s an associate professor of surgery.

Like a surgeon: you better believe this dude can slide up his virtual opponents.
Like a surgeon: you better believe this dude can slice up his virtual opponents.

“Gamers have a higher level of executive function,” Wright says. “They have the ability to process information and make decisions quickly, they have to remember cues to what’s going around you and you have to make split-second decisions.”

Like many gaming geeks, Wright started young. He began gaming on an Atari 2600 as a child and remembers saving up for what turned out to be one of the worst video games of all time, “E.T. The Extraterrestrial.” He got over it. Later, he learned to program on a Commodore 64, and with his father, Dr. Jesse Wright, created one of the first multimedia programs for the treatment of depression.

He never outgrew his passion for gaming. After four years of medical school, five years of residency, and fellowships in biomedical engineering and minimally invasive surgery, it helped lead him to the burgeoning field of video-endoscopic surgery — which pairs tiny cameras with highly precise robotic tools.

Wright remains a devoted gamer. He’s a huge fan of the Mass Effect series, and is looking forward to the release of “Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag.” “There’s a sense of life and death and urgency that you get in video games,” Wright says. “The only place that you get that in real life — other than rock climbing and rafting — is operating rooms.”

Of course, Wright’s habits have changed as his schedule has grown more demanding. Rather than crawling through the dungeons of “World of Warcraft” on a PC equipped with a mouse and keyboard, he spends a lot more time with his console.

“It’s hard for me to commit a lot of time to something like ‘World of Warcraft,’ where I have to get a group of people together and play for a couple of hours,” says the father of twin girls. “So I play in 15- to 20-minute chunks now.”

A surgeon's eye view: like tying your shoelaces with chopsticks.
Performing minimally invasive surgery is like tying your shoelaces with chopsticks, Wright says.

Research shows it’s time well spent. Surgeons performing laparoscopic gallbladder dissections who got virtual-reality training worked 29% faster and were six times less likely to make errors than residents who didn’t get the same training, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the journal “Annals of Surgery.”

A more recent study, conducted by the University of Toronto, shows laparoscopic  surgeons who warmed up on a simulator similar to a video game prior to surgery performed significantly better than those who didn’t.

And the benefits go beyond hand-eye coordination. Brain-training games improve executive functions, working memory and processing speed in young adults, according to recent research by the University of Japan Science and Technology Agency.

Staying Cool

While games can help surgeons improve their focus, the ability to take a person’s mind off their treatment can be huge boost for patients, too. A virtual reality game developed at the University of Washington called “SnowWorld” helps burn victims get through grueling treatment sessions by immersing them in a virtual world where they throw snowballs at various targets. Not only do patients say they enjoy the game and experience less pain, brain scans show the game reduces pain signals in the brain.

Wright found this out during his own bout with testicular cancer last year. Nausea kept him away from his favorite game, “Mass Effect,” during three months of chemotherapy. So, he turned to puzzle games such as “Peggle” and “Bejeweled” to relax.

Games are even inspiring companies such as Surgical Science to create software that can simulate laparoscopic surgery. Wright is an advisor to the Swedish company and a fan of the idea. “If you mess up in a video game, all you have to do is restart the level,” Wright says. “If you can learn from your mistakes in the virtual world, it’s saving you from making those mistakes in a real live environment.”

Grand Theft EKG? 

Inspired after reading the reviews for “Grand Theft Auto V,” Wright says there might even be room for more realistic depictions of medical procedures in video games. “They have mini-games for everything in ‘Grand Theft Auto V,’” Wright says. “Should they have an EKG interpretation mini-game? Sure, why not.”

So consider this your permission slip. If you’re stuck in school and facing a painful assignment — whether you’re studying medicine or mathematics — don’t be afraid to pick up the controller.

Just don’t expect your skills in the real world to bail you out if you get in over your head.

Wright admits there’s no data that shows surgeons are better gamers, and the anecdotal evidence doesn’t look good. “I don’t play shooters, I can’t keep up with the 12-year-olds,” he says. Who can?