University of Calgary

Unlocking Skills: The Power of Brain Games

Submitted by alumni on Mon, 10/31/2016 - 21:26.

Unlocking Skills: The Power of Brain Games

Don't scoff. Those gamers holed up in basements might well become tomorrow’s brain surgeons. Research indicates the “training” players receive through video games may provide just the job skills they’ll need.
By Jennifer Allford

When her teenaged son, Noah, was just a little tyke, Lisa Garcia, BEd/BA’95, was ashamed to tell her friends how much time he spent playing video games — a few hours after school and up to eight hours a day over the weekends. “I lay awake at night and I hid it from my friends,” she says. “It was not acceptable to them and I know their attitude reflected society as a whole and they reflected what I believed in as well, yet . . . ”

Halfway across the world in Singapore, Nathaniel Tan’s parents weren’t exactly thrilled about his gaming, either. But the science grad loved it: “I distinctly remember my first game being a SHMUP — shoot ’em up — and the first time playing it, I just got decimated.” He was six. Maybe seven. Tan, BSc’13, now development director at Calgary-based Peak Pixel Games, remembers the thrill of the flashing lights on the screen and the drag of having to listen to a lot of negative comments from his parents. “I sure did hear about it in a derogatory way on an almost daily basis,” he says.

But hold up. Turns out growing up gaming can take you well past Level 7. Unlocking achievements on the screen can also unlock the skills you need to become a brain surgeon, creative problem-solver or the finder of the next great scientific discovery.


Please Play On

“If your kids like computer games, let them play these games. They really help us as scientists,” says Christian Jacob, professor of computer science, biochemistry and molecular biology and director of LINDSAY, a virtual 3D human simulator at UCalgary. As gamers expect more powerful games, developers load them up with more technology, and scientists like Jacob can use that technology to further their own work.

“When you play computer games, you are helping science,” he says. As gamers work at racking up points, the graphic cards get faster and the software tools get better. Scientists, like Jacob, use that technology to build computational simulations with fully immersive experiences. “Imagine,” he says, “you can literally walk through your body, explore physiology or look at your data sets as holograms.”

"When you play computer games, you are helping science.”
— Christian Jacob

Some gamers even jump in and help solve scientific problems. More and more crowdsourcing sites ask gamers to virtually fold proteins or bend molecules, work that often beats the researcher’s algorithms and helps make biochemical breakthroughs. Players from one such site, Foldit, have been credited as authors in several papers in the prestigious journal Nature (one of the credits reads Foldit Void Crushers Group).

“You can certainly solve some of the scientists’ problems with games,” agrees Beaumie Kim, associate professor at UCalgary’s Werklund School of Education. “They take it to the gamers because they can solve a puzzle really well.” Many gamers even learn to change the code of the game they’re playing — they call it “modding” (for modifying). “Some of these gamers have a much deeper understanding of how things work,” adds Kim. “They engage in a lot of creative practices because they have to understand the context; they have to strategize.”

While Noah Garcia’s mom was worrying about her son being glued to his controller, the 16-year-old was using it to learn about history, warfare and, most recently, the rise and fall of empires playing a game called Civilization VI. “You can play as Rome, Greece, Napoleonic France,” he explains, “and you can choose what kind of victory you want — you can conquer the world, or you can create the United Nations.”

And whether he’s roleplaying as a soldier in the First World War or as an emperor in an ancient civilization, Garcia is also learning to think on his feet. “I think it made me a lot better at making decisions because you have to think fast when you’re in the game,” he says.

Gamer Today — Surgeon Tomorrow

Sitting in the basement with the Xbox could well take you to wearing scrubs in the OR.

“I think the video gamers of today have the potential to become better surgeons of tomorrow,” says Garnette Sutherland, professor of neurosurgery at the Cumming School of Medicine. “Surgery has become very image-dependent.”

Sutherland, in collaboration with MacDonald Dettwiler and Assoc., invented the neuroArm, a groundbreaking surgical robot that, through image-guidance and robotic manipulators, lets neurosurgeons operate on a patient from across the hall, across the country, or even at the International Space Station.

In 2009, Sutherland and research student May Choi wanted to find out if playing video games impacted surgeons’ training on the virtual reality simulator for the neuroArm. So they brought in groups of video gamers, medical students, surgical residents and qualified surgeons to sit down at the simulator and build virtual snowmen, remove “tumours” from a box without touching the edges — and even thread a needle.

The gamers left every other group in the dust, outperforming them at almost every turn. “We know that those gamers have a hand controller and they’re manipulating it in a virtual environment,” says Sutherland. “To control a robot, you’re in both a virtual and real environment, but you are using a hand controller. So, if you had practised a lot with hand controllers and video games, you are going to, invariably, be better at operating a robot remotely.”

From Playing to Building Games

By age 10, Tan was spending a lot of time gaming and he already knew he wanted to build games for a living — he reasoned that’d be cheaper than buying them. Right about that same time, his teachers in Singapore were telling his parents that Tan’s marks weren’t good enough to get him through junior high in the hyper-competitive Southeast Asian school system. So the family moved to Canada. Two years after graduating from UCalgary, Tan’s game, AlexG Infinity (another shoot ’em up) launched on iTunes and Google Play. “I rarely play video games now,” says Tan. “I find I prefer making and developing games more than playing them.”

Tan, who is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at UCalgary, says his parents are no longer concerned about his Grade 6 marks not being good enough or that gaming is bad.

”It’s striking how many people who wouldn’t think of themselves as gamers in the traditional sense, actually are…”
— John Aycock

Lisa Garcia doesn’t worry about her son’s gaming anymore, either. “Over time, I learned to let it go because the negative things that were being said were going to happen to Noah, never did,” she says. Noah gets good marks, spends time on other interests and has plenty of friends.

While there are legitimate concerns around people becoming addicted to video games (see below), most media scholars refute the notion that gaming (or other media) is responsible for school shootings, violence or misogyny. “It’s not these games that are causing this behaviour,” says Jessalyn Keller, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Media and Film in the Faculty of Arts. “But they are, in part, reflecting a sentiment that already exists in society. It’s a lot easier to blame a video game than it is to deal with larger structural inequalities and issues.”

It’s also clear it’s not just kids who like to play video games. Grandpa playing solitaire on a tablet and mom killing time with Angry Birds on her phone are also partaking in the massive global gaming industry. “It’s striking how many people who wouldn’t think of themselves as gamers in the traditional sense, actually are,” says John Aycock, BSc’93, associate professor of computer science.

Games have come a long way since 1950 when a Canadian engineer built one of the first computer games, a four-metre-tall tic-tac-toe game called Bertie the Brain, for the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. Nearly 70 years later, gaming is a $3-billion industry in Canada. And it’s growing.

As well as training would-be brain surgeons and advancing science, gaming is helping students learn (see sidebar, page 43) and benefiting a long list of other sectors. “Continued research in practical utilization of video game playing has also shown positive benefits in training, education and rehabilitation,” says Tan. “They’re a unique blend of art, science and business.”

And, well, video games are fun. “We were playing games long, long before computers came along,” says Aycock. “We’ve applied computers to this problem of playing games and we will continue to do so in the future. One of the basic things that humans like to do is play games.”