January 15, 2009

Taking video games seriously

I crashed the fighter plane again.

My flight record is pretty pathetic, but since I only climb into the cockpit once a year, I suppose that's to be expected.

The EF-111 Raven is a fighter jet for which the Orlando Science Center has a flight simulator--built into an airplane cockpit that was formerly used for military pilot training. The simulator is part of the center's permanent collection, but I make my yearly flight attempt during Otronicon, which is now in its fourth year.

Otronicon--the name is an amalgam of "Orlando," "electronics," and "convention"--showcases the interrelated realms of simulation and gaming, both of which are key components of Orlando's economy.

EA Tiburon is a local division of California-based Electronic Arts. The folks at EA Tiburon are responsible for EA's Superman video game and the wildly popular NFL Madden game under the EA Sports imprint.

Lockheed Martin has a simulation division here that produces simulators for military training. On display this year: three linked Blackhawk helicopter simulators flying in the same scenario, able to interact.

Full Sail University, the primary sponsor of Otronicon, offers degrees in, among other things, video game design.

Other local companies also have a tie to the simulation industry, including Florida Hospital. Medical simulation is a burgeoning field, especially as regards minimally invasive surgery. That's when the doctor operates by remote control through a tiny incision.

Last year, Dr. James "Butch" Rosser spoke at Otronicon about this subject. It became his specialty when he showed an exceptional aptitude for it, compared with his peers. The main difference between Rosser and the other medical students in his class was that he spent a lot of time playing video games, and had done since he was a child--back in the Pong and PacMan days.

Rosser now trains other surgeons, and has found that students who are avid gamers are consistently better at remote control surgery than those who are not.

The military has seen similar results with pilots. And in fact, the simulators used to train pilots are very like most video games, with a heads-up display that tells you the statistics you need to make decisions.

As Dr. Rosser has pointed out, gamers get used to looking at a heads-up display to tell them what they need to know, then using a controller of some kind to make a virtual device do what they need it to do. Once mastered, this skill is transferrable from a Wii character to a Halo master sergeant to a laparoscopic scalpel to a Blackhawk helicopter.

Gamers have developed this skill. And it is a skill--one that applies to piloting and surgery and, I believe, will apply to a great many more fields in the future.

It is not, however, a skill I have developed, as evidenced by the fact that I crashed the Blackhawk, too.

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