Time spent playing video games has no effect on people’s wellbeing, a study from the University of Oxford has found, countering fears that gaming could be harmful to mental health.
Unlike the vast majority of previous studies on the effect of video games on wellbeing, the Oxford team were able to track actual gameplay, rather than relying on self-reported estimates.
With the cooperation of seven different game publishers, who agreed to share data without control over publication, they were able to track the gameplay habits of almost 40,000 individual gamers, all of whom consented to join the study.
The scale of the study provided strong evidence for the lack of an effect on wellbeing, said Andy Przybylski, one of the researchers. “With 40,000 observations across six weeks, we really gave increases and decreases in video game play a fair chance to predict emotional states in life satisfaction, and we didn’t find evidence for that – we found evidence that that’s not true in a practically significant way.”
What is important, Przybylski said, is the “mindset that people have as they approach games”. Players were asked to report their experiences on grounds such as “autonomy”, “competence” and “intrinsic motivation”, to unpick whether they were playing for healthy reasons, such as having fun or socialising with friends, or more concerning ones, such as a compulsion to satisfy goals set by the game.
Healthier motivation was associated with positive wellbeing, the study found, while players who felt as if they “had” to play the game also tended to have worse satisfaction, regardless of how long they played.
The finding of no link between gameplay and wellbeing could break down at extreme levels: there may be an effect if a player increases their playtime by 10 hours a day above what is typical for them. The study did not collect data for individual gameplay sessions with durations below zero or above 10 hours, due to the risk of logging errors. But it is strong enough to refute many fears of an overall link between gaming time and poor mental health.
That said, the findings cannot cover the whole of gaming, Przybylski said. Despite approaching more than 30 publishers, only seven agreed to take part, and the games that were studied (Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Apex Legends, Eve Online, Forza Horizon 4, Gran Turismo Sport, Outriders, and The Crew 2) represent a broad but not total cross-section of the medium.
“It’s taken a year and a half for these game companies to donate their data,” Przybylski said, “and these games were not picked at random. But these are the publishers that are up for open science.”
Nevertheless, the study, which builds on an earlier paper from the university that followed players of two games, is crucial to closing the “concern-evidence gap”.
“This is a very basic study: we don’t even get into what people are doing when they’re playing games, we’re not creating an experiment, and yet even without that data, countries are passing ordinances, in the case of Japan, or laws in the case of China, that ban or limit gaming. Those are, if we take the explanations at face value, supposed to be about improving the mental health of young people. There’s no evidence that they’re effective.”