A first-of-its-kind study from Oxford University has investigated the relationship between well-being and time spent playing video games using novel industry data from two popular video games. The surprising findings revealed a small correlation between longer play-times and positive well-being.
The research began in 2019 with the Oxford team discussing collaborative opportunities with several major gaming companies. One of the general goals was to conduct a correlational study using objective play-time data as opposed to the traditional self-reported data used in prior research.
Using anonymized telemetry data supplied by Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America the research ultimately looked at two games: Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Players were invited to opt-in to the research, and alongside objective telemetry data they completed surveys asking about emotional well-being and motivations for gaming.
Over 3,000 players ultimately contributed to the study and the results surprised the Oxford team. A small but significant correlation between time spent playing and positive well-being was detected.
Andrew Przybylski, one of the researchers on the project, is keen to emphasize these findings do not suggest a causal relationship between time spent playing video games and subjective well-being. Obviously, this is not a case of the more you play video games the happier you will be. But the correlation detected here is important.
“I want to point out this isn’t evidence of causation,” stresses Przybylski. “Absolutely not. It’s fairly strong evidence that the correlation isn’t negative, at least over these time periods.”
Interview with Andrew Przybylski
Przybylski says the data his research gathered suggests when thinking about how video games can influence one’s well-being it may be less important to consider how long one is playing a game and more relevant to ask why one is playing the game. Factors such as need satisfaction and motivations during play were independently related to subjective well-being.
All this goes to suggest regulating video game play solely on duration of play time may not be an effective way to moderate the medium’s possible negative effects. For some people, in some contexts, longer video game play time may lead to more positive well-being outcomes.
“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,” Przybylski adds. “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.”
Przybylski’s recent work has been strongly critical of prior research on the subjective effects of modern technology such smartphones and video games. A 2019 study, for example, found the duration of time teenagers spend on digital devices does not correlate with negative mental health outcomes. Instead, that research suggested much more nuance is needed to parse different uses of digital screens, as opposed to broad sweeping recommendations pushing singular amounts of screen time per day.
A big aspect of this new study was engaging with the video game industry in the research. Historically, the industry has been reticent to work with academics leading to a reliance on self-reported data for research. Przybylski suggests self-reported data on time spent playing is notoriously unreliable, particularly with digital behaviors.
He notes the current study was designed, analyzed and published independently of the game companies, and he commends both EA and Nintendo for taking the plunge, supplying the data without any guess as to what the findings could be.
“Working with Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America we’ve been able to combine academic and industry expertise,” he says. “Through access to data on peoples’ playing time, for the first time we’ve been able to investigate the relation between actual game play behavior and subjective well-being, enabling us to deliver a template for crafting high-quality evidence to support health policymakers.”
The new study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.