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Playing video games could be good for mental health

(Last Updated On: May 7, 2021)

Video games are a waste of time and bad for you, right? Well, don’t throw away your consoles and joysticks just yet. A new study suggests that’s not necessarily true and computer games may actually benefit players’ well-being.

Researchers at Oxford University have found a positive correlation between computer gaming and well-being after studying new and previously unavailable playing data.

Whereas previous research had to rely on self-reported play behaviour, scientists collaborated with two games companies, Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America, to obtain players’ actual gameplay information.

The study used data from two popular video games: Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons and EA’s Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville. Results suggest that experiences of competence and social connection with others through play may contribute to people’s well-being. Those who derived enjoyment from playing were more likely to report experiencing positive well-being.

Support policymaking

“Through access to data on peoples’ playing time, for the first time we’ve been able to investigate the relation between actual game play behaviour and subjective well-being, enabling us to deliver a template for crafting high-quality evidence to support health policymakers,” said Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, and lead-author of the study.

“Our findings show video games aren’t necessarily bad for your health; there are other psychological factors which have a significant effect on a persons’ well-being.

“In fact, play can be an activity that relates positively to people’s mental health – and regulating video games could withhold those benefits from players.”

The study investigated the association between objective game time and well-being. It also explored the roles of player experiences, specifically how feelings of autonomy, relatedness, competence, enjoyment and feeling pressured to play related to well-being.

Findings combined

More than 3,270 players were asked to complete a survey designed to measure well-being, self-reported play, and motivational experiences during play. The findings were combined with participants’ objective behavioural data, collected by the video game companies.

Key findings include:

• Actual amount of time spent playing was a small but significant positive factor in people’s well-being;

• A player’s subjective experiences during play might be a bigger factor for well-being than mere play time;

• Players experiencing genuine enjoyment from the games experience more positive well-being; and

• People whose psychological needs weren’t being met in the ‘real world’ might report negative well-being from play.

Much happier human

Przybylski said at the start of the project he was surprised by how little data gaming companies actually had about their players – but also by how little hard data had been used by previous studies into the potential harms or benefits of gaming.

“The study shows that if you play four hours a day of Animal Crossing, you’re a much happier human being, but that’s only interesting because all of the other research before this is done so badly.

“Without objective data from games companies, those proposing advice to parents or policymakers have done so without the benefit of a robust evidence base.

“Our findings show video games aren’t necessarily bad for your health; there are other psychological factors which have a significant effect on a persons’ well-being.”

A copy of the study, ‘Video game play is positively correlated with well-being’, is available at psyarxiv.com/qrjza/

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© INTERFACE February 2021

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