A study performed by professors and researchers at the University of Oxford has found that playing video games is unlikely to affect the well-being of the player, either positively or negatively. This finding comes after China announced a three-hour-per-week limit to online video gaming for its younger citizens out of concern for their health, but also after Animal Crossing: New Horizons made headlines for being the perfect antidote to the fear and anxiety of the pandemic.
The study examined 39,000 gamers aged 18 or over, across seven games: Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Eve Online, Apex Legends, Forza Horizon 4, Gran Turismo Sport, and The Crew 2. The researchers also worked with seven "leading video game companies" — Nintendo of America, EA, CCP Games, Microsoft, Sony, Square Enix, and Ubisoft, the developers of the aforementioned games.
By working with the companies, the researchers were able to track actual play habits, rather than self-reported ones. The games chosen were not randomly picked, but instead a selection of games by the publishers that "are up for open science,” as one of the researchers told The Guardian.
Players were asked to fill out surveys on their moods over the past two weeks, as well as their time playing the games in question. Although the study involved thousands of gamers, and the results indicated that games led to no meaningful effect on mood, the researchers considered the outcome as a small step in the right direction for future policies around video games.
"We know we need much more player data from many more platforms to develop the kind of deeper understanding required to inform policy and shape advice to parents and medical professionals," said Professor Andrew K. Przybylski, a Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has done similar research into the overall effect of media on well-being, including music, TV, books, and movies, with similar results.
Professor Przybylski also called for greater transparency from video game companies: "If we want to truly understand how games influence human health we have to collect data from the thousands of games played every day. Conclusive answers to the questions of how games influence our society will require all of the major console, computer, and mobile platforms to empower their users to effortlessly and ethically donate their play data for independent analysis."
"One thing is certain – right now there is not enough data and evidence for policymakers and regulators to be developing laws and rules to restrict gameplay among certain groups in a population."
- Dr Matti Vuore, Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute
Some of the researchers involved with the study also performed a study in 2020 regarding Animal Crossing: New Horizons' effect on well-being, which found that it could have a positive impact. "“Our findings show video games aren’t necessarily bad for your health," said Professor Przybylski in 2020. "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 also hypothesised that people whose psychological needs weren't being met in the real world were more likely to report a negative outcome from play.
What's the takeaway from all these studies? Firstly, that this study — and any study — "barely scratch[es] the surface of video game play more broadly", and although the findings may be accurate, they're an incomplete image. Secondly, that policymakers need to make decisions based on evidence, not gut feelings about video games.
And thirdly, that we should not rely on video games to improve our mood, nor blame them for unhappiness — although there may be cases in which a game experience can affect the way we feel, games are just one part of a tapestry of things throughout a day. They're not a magical panacea, and they're not the devil, either.
"Going forward, it is essential to cast a wider and deeper empirical and theoretical net and focus on the qualities of play experiences, in-game events, and players for whom effects may vary. Until then, limiting or promoting play based on time alone appears to bear neither benefit nor harm."
- "Time spent playing video games is unlikely to impact well-being", by Matti Vuorre, Niklas Johannes, Kristoffer Magnusson, and Andrew K. Przybylski