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Benefits of playing video games for your well-being

by on 2020/11/27

This blog was written by Iain Donald, Senior Lecturer at the Abertay University’s School of Design and Informatics.

In November 2020, it was widely reported in The Guardian, The Times, Sky News, Daily Mail and elsewhere that time spent playing video games can be good for players wellbeing. A study undertaken by academics (Niklas Johannes, Matti Vuorre, and Andrew K. Przybylski), at the Oxford Internet Institute, gained significant attention largely because the results focus on the positive aspects of game playing. Historically, when the mainstream press has featured videogames it has often focused on long-standing debates about whether violence in video games leads to real-world aggression, or whether video game ‘addiction’ is a health concern (in May 2019 the World Health Organization officially voted to include an entry on “gaming disorder” as a behavioural addiction to its International Classification of Diseases), or more recently whether ‘loot boxes’ are a form of gambling and require regulation.

What did the study do?

The study included adult players of two popular video games, Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The researchers conducted an online survey on players’ well-being by asking questions about frequency of negative and positive feelings over a two-week period. Participants were also assessed on self-reported play time, as well as using objective telemetry data obtained on time spent playing from the Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America, for their respective game titles. Results showed that players with higher objective playtime reported experiencing higher well-being across both games. Notably, participants tended to overestimate time spent playing by two hours, and self-reported play time was only significantly related to well-being of those playing Animal Crossing. The authors concluded that self-reports of play time (on which much previous research in this area relies) might not be accurate indicators of actual play time.  The study concluded that time spent playing video games can be good for players wellbeing. This research may seem to some as common sense or less than ground-breaking largely because we know that billions of people worldwide play games because they enjoy them. What is novel about the research was that it was based on data from two of the leading publishers of games.

Notably, the study is limited in scope. It only looks at two games and a tiny portion of the respective player bases with the datasets of some 471 players Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and 2,756 of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Nevertheless, represents a significant academic-industry engagement, although one that has garnered more attention because of the games, and arguably the University, rather than the output. Participants were from a limited geographical spread (Canada, UK and the US) and, as such,  may only be generalisable to these populations. The study was also correlational which doesn’t always imply causation, as discussed in our previous blog entry.

How well did the media cover the findings?

Reading or hearing about games or gaming in the news is often focused on the more negative aspects. This study was widely reported on, as having found a positive correlation between time spent gaming and people’s wellbeing. Depending on the publication and the intended audience, the same study was headlined in a variety of different ways. The Guardian’s succinctly put this as “Video gaming can benefit mental health, find Oxford academics” whereas The Daily Mail preferred to shout “Good news for gamers: Playing video games BENEFITS mental health, Oxford University scientist claims”.  Others brought a wry smile to my face (emphasis mine), I liked Business Insider’s “Video games might actually be good for you, Oxford study finds” and Time 24 News’ accurate yet underwhelming “There are two games that can be positive for mental health, according to Oxford study”. Just two everybody, all the others can’t be any good!

Understandably the media have represented the findings as somehow going against established but undefined norms. That somehow, somewhere, it had previously been decided or decreed that videogames are bad for our health. I’ve grown up with video games and consider myself fortunate to have worked in the industry, and now to teach and research them. I think most people that play video games probably think that it’s great that Oxford are catching up. Keza MacDonald reflecting on the study in The Guardian succinctly sums this up as “For anyone who actually plays video games, this is hardly news. Video games are fun and interesting, and doing fun, interesting things makes you happy.”

Looking past the headlines, some reports were lighter on the details than others. The researchers admit the study only provides a snapshot. They also acknowledge that a player’s subjective experiences during play might be a bigger factor for wellbeing than mere play time. Andrew Przybylski, one of the authors of the study noted that “Previous research has relied mainly on self-report surveys to study the relationship between play and wellbeing,” and that “Without objective data from games companies, those proposing advice to parents or policymakers have done so without the benefit of a robust evidence base.” Working with games publishers is a significant advance. Most major games companies have, for a variety of commercial and competitive reasons, been reluctant to share sales, never mind player data. This was summed up in The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest where it stated that the most interesting and exciting part of the study was not necessarily the findings, but 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”.

There were other revelations which could have profound impacts. Andrew Przybylski noted that “Players tend to overestimate the amount of time they play, a pattern which is similar to what we see in smartphone/social media/news research.” This finding was undersold, and one that I think most game players, would be surprised at. As Keza MacDonald stated “There are so many more interesting conversations to be had than “are video games somehow bad for you?” and “gosh, look how much money this industry makes”. Try talking to people who actually play them, which these days is 85% of people under 35 and plenty of older folks too, and you’ll find the real stories.”

Key conclusions and other things to keep in mind

Games are more than entertainment now. The use of video games in health and care settings is an established yet growing area of research. Various types of video games have been used in these settings to support players’ physical, cognitive, and emotional health, aligning with desirable clinical outcomes, such as enhanced motivation, empowerment, and improved cognitive functions. Bespoke experiences – termed “serious games” or “applied games” – have been developed based on the identification of, and focus on, a specific purpose in an individual’s personal wellbeing. One such example is SuperBetter (2015), a mobile game in which the player self-reports on the completion of real-world challenges in order to earn points. SuperBetter utilises techniques such as self-determination and cognitive behavioural therapy to build the player’s mental and emotional resilience. Studies suggest that the use of SuperBetter improved symptoms of depression, anxiety, and motivation after a thirty-day period, as well as rating among the most-effective mobile applications for pain management. Equally, there are also examples of ‘traditional’, commercial games that have evidenced many health benefits: from encouraging players to walk in order to locate and catch virtual monsters in Pokemon GO! to performing dance routines in Just Dance 2020.I’ve seen the power that games have on my own children from inviting them to build and explore vast new virtual worlds in Minecraft, through to the unrestrained laughter and unbridled chaos of the massively multiplayer party game, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, where up to 60 players online battle it out in a free-for-all struggle. When the pandemic stopped all football, FIFA20 became a substitute. Not quite the same, but enough to keep football-obsessed children engaged and has somehow led to a certain Edson Arantes do Nascimento (Pelé) establishing himself as my 8-year olds favourite footballer. The fact that Pelé last played 43 years ago is no longer an obstacle due to the virtual football world.

From → Gaming

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