BOSTON, Mass. (AP) – Parents, don’t put away those video games just yet – today’s gamer may be tomorrow’s top surgeon.

Researchers gathering in Boston for the American Psychological Association convention detailed a series of studies suggesting video games can be powerful learning tools – from increasing the problem solving potential of younger students to improving the suturing skills of laparoscopic surgeons.

One study even looked at whether playing “World of Warcraft,” the world’s biggest multiplayer online game, can improve scientific thinking.

The conclusion? Certain types of video games can have benefits beyond the virtual thrills of blowing up demons or shooting aliens.

In one study, 122 fifth, sixth and seventh grade students were asked to think out loud for 20 minutes while playing a game they had never seen before. Researchers studied the statements the children made to see if playing the game improved cognitive and perceptual skills.

While older children seemed more interested in just playing the game, younger children showed more of an interest in setting up a series of short-term goals needed to help them learn the game.

“The younger kids are focusing more on their planning and problem solving while they are actually playing the game, while adolescents are focusing less on their planning and strategizing and more on the here and now,” said researcher and Fordham University psychologist Fran Blumberg. “They’re thinking less strategically than the younger kids.”

Another study compared surgeons who play video games to those who don’t.

Even after taking into account differences in age, years of medical training and the number of laparoscopic surgeries performed, researchers found an edge for gamer surgeons.

In one study of 33 laparoscopic surgeons, researchers found that those who played video games were 27 percent faster at advanced surgical procedures and made 37 percent fewer errors than those who didn’t. Advanced video game skills were also a good way to predict suturing capabilities.

A second study looking at 303 laparoscopic surgeons found that those who played video games requiring spacial skills and hand dexterity performed better at those skills when tested later compared to surgeons who didn’t play videos.

In laparoscopic, or minimally invasive surgeries, surgeons use small incisions, thin surgical tools and video cameras.

There were several factors determining whether a game helps hone surgical skills or not, including how often they are played, the content, what a player has to pay attention to on the screen and how players control the motions, according to Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile.

“The single best predictor of their skills is how much they had played video games in the past and how much they played now. Those were better predictors of surgical skills than years of training and number of surgeries performed,” Gentile said. “So the first question you might ask your surgeon is how many of these (surgeries) have you done and the second question is ‘Are you a gamer?”‘

Some videos games even appear to sharpen scientific thinking skills.

Researchers looked at a random sample of 2,000 discussion posts about the popular multiplayer online game World of Warcraft to see what the players were talking about. The game is set in a fantasy world where players hunt, gather and battle to move their characters to higher levels. Players who work together succeed faster.

The study found the game encouraged scientific thinking, like using systems and models for understanding situations and using math and testing to investigate a problem.

The vast majority of those participating in the discussion posts, 86 percent, shared knowledge to solve problems and more than half, 58 percent, used systematic and evaluative processes, researchers found.

The forums show that gamers are “creating an environment in which informal scientific reasoning practices are being learned” by playing the online games, said Sean Duncan, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Video game skeptics, take note, the news wasn’t all good.

Other studies confirmed earlier research that found students who played violent games tended to be more hostile, less forgiving and believed violence to be normal compared to those who played nonviolent games. And those who played more entertainment games did poorer in school and were are greater risk of obesity.

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AP-ES-08-17-08 1532EDT

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