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.
Luke Carter (@Hundstrasse) November 24, 2020
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.
Shoot the Rookie (@Pix1001) November 24, 2020
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.
Grey Warden Athena (@TheAmbiGamer) November 24, 2020
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.”