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Books and lectures are not the only way to learn something nowadays. YouTube has even become the go-to platform to find tutorials on how to do things or watch videos to learn about any topic. Can video games be the next learning tool?

Video games have long since ceased to be exclusively for entertainment. Over the years, gaming has become a way to train people in real-life situations in a simulated environment. For example, you can put firefighters in emergency situations without actually putting them in danger. Video games are also useful for teaching people specific knowledge. Serious games are also used in healthcare for training medical procedures. These types of games are being built by the Spanish company Virmedex, among others. 

The company is a spin-off of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) which was born after years of research in the biomedical engineering lab. Professor Daniela Tost Pardell decided to set up the company with two of her co-workers in the lab, Núria Bonet, and Ariel von Barnekov. The focus is – for the time being – on the medical sector, but the fledgling company aims to develop gamified software for other realms of professional learning too. 

As a professor, Tost Pardell considers gamified experiences to add significantly more to conventional study aids. “The sense of experience is enhanced because users feel like they are in a real operating theater. Moreover, the motivation of the learner also gains from it, because there is a greater eagerness to try out things,” the CEO of Virmedex emphasizes. 

Dani Tost Pardell
© Virmedex

Daniela Tost Pardell

CEO at Virmedex

She teaches computer sciences and is part of UPC’s research center on biomedical engineering.

Full immersion in the operating theater

Virmedex is planning to launch virCPB as its first product. It is a platform for cardiopulmonary bypass training. The bypass – also known as a heart-lung machine or “the pump” – is used in all surgeries where the heart must be temporarily stopped. It is extracorporeal and, as such, takes over the role of the heart and lungs and ensures that blood remains oxygenated while the patient’s organs are prepped. Pausing the heart has become a routine part of various surgeries.

Perfusionists are medical professionals who operate extracorporeal circulation equipment. Perfusion entails the passage of bodily fluids through the circulatory and lymphatic systems to an organ or tissue. When the heart is unable to do that, perfusionists step in. Consequently, the virCPB is designed to train these professionals, but it can also be useful to surgeons as well as a way to play games “to put themselves in the perfusionist’s shoes,” Tost Pardell suggests. 

The game aims to teach users the procedure for bypass surgery. What’s more, the player gets the opportunity to get used to teamwork dynamics. “Communicating is key in an operating theater. It may seem like a detail that is not really relevant, but forgetting to mention that the device is enabled can lead to errors or delays, which is why it is also important to address these subtleties,” the Virmedex co-founder stresses. 

In the updated version of the gamified software, there will also be a multiplayer mode. For now, virtual perfusionists interact with the other professionals in the operating theater that the software runs. 

video game surgeries
A screenshot of virCBP’s dashboard. – © Virmedex

No different than a videogame experience

Users access the games through Virmedex’s online platform – no hefty software needs to be downloaded. That is where they can start practicing. Players get points by completing tasks, instant feedback when they have made a mistake so they can fix it, and a final report detailing what they did well and what they need to practice more of. 

All that is needed is a keyboard and a mouse to use the platform. Playing with virtual reality goggles doesn’t add much to the learning process, according to the researchers. Instead of focusing on wielding equipment, the goal is to train professionals to memorize tasks and perform them with precision. 

“A game can last up to fifteen minutes. In that time, all the operating procedures are covered. That means things happen very quickly and players have to maintain their concentration. This is how the participants learn to perform their tasks better and better. The worst that can happen when a mistake is made is ‘game over,” Tost Pardell points out.

Scope for failure 

Learning involves making mistakes. The freedom to fail while experimenting in a realistic environment is one of the greatest advantages of gamified software. Medical professionals often need to learn new procedures or follow processes that they haven’t performed in a while. The ability to train those skills at any time can help to instill more self-confidence and prepare them for emergencies. Where mistakes in real life can cost lives, they lead to nothing more than poor scores on the platform of Virmedex.

Tost Pardell explains that you can compare it to the tension felt when playing the game with a video game like The Sims. “You can try all kinds of things without any consequences. For example, how comical is it to buy the wrong house, or see what wrong decisions can lead to? In a video game, you will lose points, but you can just start over again from some point if things have gone wrong. The same is true for learning through our games. These spur you on to try new things and be curious.” 

video game surgeries
Virmedex’s founders. From left to right: Daniela Tost Pardell, Núria Bonet, and Ariel von Barnekov. – © Virmedex

“They want to play it again”

The UPC spin-off is looking for investors. VirCBP will be soon launched on the market, then the company will turn its focus towards a virtual platform for training extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Furthermore, the Catalan start-up will offer customized gamified software. This could help companies and institutions facilitate the continuing education of their employees.

In the case of perfusionist clinicians, a lot of professionals make the decision to gain the requisite specialization several years after completing their studies. The Virmedex team tried out its technology on a number of them, including people who had never played a video game before, with some surprising reactions. 

“When we told them what they were going to play, the response was not all that enthusiastic. Once the game starts, they get drawn into it. They yell, get excited and want to play it again,” Tost Pardell recalls. Medical students who had no background in cardiopulmonary bypasses also tested out the virCBP. It turned out that they gained more knowledge after the experiment when they were asked questions about the subject during regular classes. 

Reshaping learning 

All in all, serious gaming may represent the future of learning in so many ways. In healthcare, according to the CEO of Virmedex, it will certainly be of relevance. ” A lot of technologies are being introduced into hospitals and the staff needs to keep up with them. On top of that, the lack of medical staff is driving other types of medical models, such as remote medicine. This is where gamified software can help patients operate medical equipment for home care.”

As a supplement to books, lectures, and training of any kind, serious games can contribute to the learning curve. Several studies already point out how video games help the development of critical thinking and cognitive capacities. Let’s play games then, seriously.

In the main picture: a screenshot from a game.