Out of the dumpster fire: games and well-being

I noticed a few similar headlines appearing in my news feed one day towards the end of November. A new report had apparently found a surprising discovery: time spent playing video games is positively associated with wellbeing.

I scrolled past at first and wasn’t going to give them a second glance. Gaming bloggers have become so used to seeing newspapers publish articles about studies like this, where the author disputes the findings and then questions the value of gaming. But one title ended up catching my eye because it mentioned the way the data had been collected for this latest report from Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, entitled Video game play is positively correlated with well-being.

Previous studies have relied upon asking participants to estimate how much time they spend playing and this can obviously be unreliable. For the latest research however, industry data on actual play time was provided by Nintendo and Electronic Arts (EA) for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville respectively. The companies then reached out to regular players to invite them to take part, and participants responded to a survey from the university.

I had the chance to see a session given by Professor Pete Etchells on the psychology of gaming addiction at the Rezzed event last year and remember him talking about data. Scientists are always playing catch-up because they don’t have any information on trends around what the nation is playing; and while the information held by publishers would be invaluable to researchers, they often don’t want to provide it in case the resulting investigations indicate that gaming is bad for us.

Perhaps times are changing then. The fact that big organisations like Nintendo and EA have willingly helped with the Oxford Internet Institute’s study could finally indicate acknowledgement of a need to understand more about our interactions with video games, and encourage other companies to be more open to providing useful data too. The findings here are valuable, not because of what they’ve shown in connection with well-being but because of the method used to arrive at their conclusion.

You see, it’s not really much of a surprise that video games can help improve our mental health. This is something we as gamers have been shouting about for years and we’ve all got our own story of how they’ve helped us through a tough time. We see them as something of worth rather than the ‘mindless entertainment’ view usually held by newspapers and non-gamers, and know that spending your weekend playing the latest release is just as worthwhile as watching a movie or reading a book.

The COVID-19 lockdown has highlighted the benefits of gaming with more people taking up the hobby since March. For some, it has been a way to fill the free hours brought on by being furloughed from work. For others, video games have provided a means to escape from everything going on in the world when a break is needed. And for a lot of us, playing online with friends and family has meant we’ve been able to feel as though they’re still spending time with those closest to us.

I asked my blogger-friends to tell me about their own experiences. Luke from Hundstrasse said that replaying two games he’d completed previously was comforting during the lockdown. Pix1001 from Shoot the Rookie said that although she felt her habits hadn’t changed, gaming has given her a certain sense of normalcy over the past several months. And Athena from AmbiGaming mentioned that watching streams has made her feel as though she’s playing with friends.

These aren’t the sort of stories frequently reported by the media though because they don’t bring in the clicks. Newspapers are usually more content to focus their content on loot boxes, and how they’re a form of gambling which is going to corrupt our children. Unscrupulous publishers who make money from unsuspecting parents when their unchecked kids make in-game purchases. And horrible games which contain too much violence and are surely going to lead to acts of aggression in real life.

But video games aren’t always the cause – playing could be more a symptom, and an interesting example was given by Professor Etchells during his talk. If your guardians had a more ‘relaxed’ parenting style, you may have been given access to titles that contained more violence as a child; but if you become aggressive later in life, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s those games that were the origin of that behaviour. It could instead have something to do with the way you were brought up.

This is something also picked up on in the latest study too. Director of Research and lead-author Professor Andrew Przybylski said of his team’s report: “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.”

To quote Professor Etchells’ talk: “I think video games do have an effect on us. Everything has an effect on us… but by focusing on video games, are we missing more important factors?”. The problem is the lack of available data, something mentioned by Professor Przybylski in his interview with The Guardian. He added: “You have really respected, important bodies, like the WHO and the NHS, allocating attention and resources to something that there’s literally no good data on… For them to turn around and be like, ‘Hey, this thing that 95% of teenagers do? Yeah, that’s addictive, no, we don’t have any data’ – that makes no sense.”

Maybe this latest study will change things and more companies like Nintendo and EA will be willing to share information for the benefit of further research. Perhaps then more news outlets will then start reporting on the positivity of video games and the findings of reports based on valuable data. As Professor Przybylski said: “This is about bringing games into the fold of psychology research that’s not a dumpster fire. This lets us explain and understand games as a leisure activity.”

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6 thoughts on “Out of the dumpster fire: games and well-being

  1. No, no, no. Don’t you *ever* dare to tell me that video games are not dangerous and turn us all into evil mass shooters! I mean, there are *guns* in them, how are they supposed to do anything else?!

    What? Interactive storytelling? I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but I’m pretty sure you made that up.

    Everyone knows that people who play video games are sad little basement dwellers with no life and no ambition! No good things can come from video games. Now excuse me while I sit down in front of my TV to bingewatch 200 episodes of *insert generic romantic comedy series*

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can think of a few people I know who’ll be doing this over Christmas, and will give me a strange look when I tell them I’m spending the day playing WoW with friends. 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it very much depends on what media you consume. It’s been really quite a few years since the kind of news outlets I refer to (the Guardian, BBC or New Scientist for example) have run the kind of anti-gaming stories you’re referring to. I’ve seen far more reports on more positive research – for example on how games (particularly Tetris) are being used to assist in treating and, more particularly, preventing PTSD, which got very wide and excited coverage a while back – than scare stories or stereotypical misrepresentations. I think all of the “quality” press have dedicated games reviewers these days, too, and while gaming is still playing catch-up with the other entertainment strands it’s just going through the same process all new media do. It was the same for television, movies, radio and even novels. New media take decades, not just years, to settle in.

    In the yellow press or the red tops or the click-bait sites, though, facts are irrelevant. That’s not peculiar to gaming and it’s not going to change. All that matters is what sells – or what sells advertising. If the time comes when talking up the positive side of gaming gets more clicks than exaggerating the negatives you can bet that’s what they’ll be doing, regardless of the details of any research.

    Like

    • It’s The Guardian where I tend to read most of my gaming news nowadays. I don’t necessarily always agree with the point being made, but I like the tone of their articles and the way they try to make them accessible to even non-gamers. There are definitely outlets out there that are publishing good work!

      I just wonder if Nintendo and EA now agreeing to share their information is going to have any affect on how video games are reported on and viewed. It’s a big thing: this is going to be invaluable when it comes to future research and understanding why we interact with games in the way we do, and will hopefully encourage other companies to provide their data too. I think the increase in the number of people turning to gaming over the past year could have a positive impact also; it feels like there’s more of a general understanding now of how the hobby has helped people through a long period of isolation and worry.

      Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but it would be nice to believe that positive stories about video games will generate more clicks that the negative articles one day. 😉

      Like

  3. There is a long way to go when it comes to the mainstream media acknowledging videogames as a good alternative pass time for people of all ages. One benefit of YouTube, is that many gaming youtubers have shown how important video games are to us, and how much fun they can be.

    There needs to be balance, of showing the wrongdoings of companies promoting loot boxes and other in-game purchases. Other companies providing great single player games as well as some free ones. For me, when it comes to the social aspect Warzone and Among Us has been amazing. Where as single player games like the Last of Us 2 and Ghost of Thusima couldn’t have come at a better time.

    Like

    • The past year has been tough for so many of us, but video games have helped provide a welcome distraction as well as a social line to friends and family. I think seeing the positive impact they can have has helped change a few peoples’ minds – and maybe even convince them to try picking up a controller themselves. 😉

      Like

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