Study Finds People Who Played Video Games For Longer Had Greater Wellbeing (But Direction Of Causality Isn’t Yet Clear)

Photo: A user plays Animal Crossing, one of the games studied in the new research. William West/AFP via Getty Images

By Matthew Warren

Video games get blamed for a lot. There are long-standing debates about whether violence in video games leads to real-world aggression, or whether video game “addiction” is something we should worry about. And some people have broader fears that more time spent on screens negatively affects our mental health and wellbeing.

However, an increasing number of studies have failed to find much evidence to back up these kinds of concerns. But the field suffers from some pretty big limitations. In particular, studies often rely on people reporting their own time spent consuming media — and we’re notoriously unreliable at making those sorts of estimates.

Enter a new study from Niklas Johannes and colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute, published as a preprint on PsyArxiv earlier this week. The researchers find that more time spent playing video games actually relates to greater wellbeing (though there are plenty of caveats to that finding — more on those later). But the most interesting part of the study is really its methodology: rather than relying on people reporting their own video game use, the researchers established a rare collaboration with games companies in order to get precise data.

Two companies, Electronic Arts and Nintendo, provided the team with data from players of Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons respectively. The companies sent out surveys to hundreds of thousands of adult players; these included a wellbeing measure, in which participants rated how often they’d experienced six positive and six negative feelings in the past two weeks. Crucially, the companies also provided data on the number and length of the players’ gaming sessions during those two weeks. 

Only a fraction of people responded, ultimately leaving the team with data from 471 Plants vs Zombies players and 2,756 Animal Crossing players. And they found that, overall, the more time people spent playing over that two week period, the greater their wellbeing tended to be. It’s worth noting that although significant, this effect was small: even a large increase in time spent playing was related to a very modest increase in wellbeing. Importantly, the data also showed that people weren’t great at estimating how long they had spent playing over the two week period — their estimates were off by about two hours, highlighting the problems of relying just on self-report data.

The results, then, cast further doubt on the idea that spending more time playing video games is detrimental to our mental health. In fact, the study suggests that there is some kind of link between playing video games for longer and greater wellbeing. This is clearly noteworthy, as so much of the discussion around video games (and screen time generally) just assumes that limiting the time spent playing is a good thing, without acknowledging that it could potentially have detrimental effects.

But, inevitably, over the past few days we’ve seen a lot of headlines proclaiming that video games are “good for wellbeing” or “benefit mental health”. That may well be true. But it’s not really possible to make those kinds of claims from the study’s correlational data. Perhaps people who are happier play video games for longer. Or maybe it’s something else entirely that both leads people to play video games for longer and boosts wellbeing (having the luxury of free time, for example). And even if there is a causal link, it’s not clear that it would be a meaningful one, given that the size of the effect was so small.

There are other limitations too. The data comes from the small group of people who chose to complete the survey, all of whom were over 18. So the study can’t necessarily say much about potential effects among the broader population, particularly young people. And it remains to be seen whether time spent playing other kinds of games relates to similar changes in wellbeing.

It’s important to point out that the authors do go to lengths to explain these limitations in the paper. But it feels like the nuances have been brushed over in much of the media coverage.

Still, none of this should detract from the most interesting and exciting part of the study: the fact that the researchers have collaborated with industry and obtained real data on people’s playing habits. The lack of access to data from media companies has long been a major obstacle to this kind of work, as Amy Orben told us earlier this year. Perhaps this study will pave the way for further collaboration. Indeed, the researchers call on companies to share data from other games and audiences, and across longer time-scales. Hopefully this kind of data will help to answer some of the intriguing questions that the study poses.   

Video game play is positively correlated with well-being [this paper is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest