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We may never fully know how video games affect our well-being

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We may never fully know how video games affect our well-being

For decades, lawmakers, researchers, journalists, and parents have worried that video games are bad for us: that they encourage violent behavior or harm mental health. These fears have spilled into policy decisions affecting millions of people. The World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in 2019, while China restricts people under 18 from playing games for more than three hours a week in a bid to prevent minors from becoming addicted.

However, in recent years a growing body of research has argued that video games are in fact good for us, improving cognition, relieving stress, and bolstering communication skills

The reality, a new study suggests, is that we simply don’t have a good grip on how games affect our well-being, if at all.

The research, described in the Royal Society Open Science journal last month, found little to no evidence for a causal connection between game play and well-being, meaning that time spent playing video games had neither a negative nor positive effect on players’ emotional health.

Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at the University of Oxford analyzed how long 38,935 players spent playing seven different games: Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Apex Legends, Eve Online, Forza Horizon 4, Gran Turismo Sport, Outriders, and The Crew 2. This data was provided directly by the games’ publishers—a rarity, as the vast majority of studies on video games rely on players’ self-reports of how long they spend gaming. The Oxford team says such data is biased and rarely accurate. 

The gamers’ well-being was assessed through three surveys taken every two weeks over a six-week period. People ranked how often they experienced feelings including “pleasant” and “unpleasant,” and measured their general life satisfaction using the Cantril self-anchoring scale, picturing an imaginary ladder with the top rung representing their best possible life. 

Additionally, they answered questions about their experiences and motivations. The researchers say that examining players’ emotional well-being through their moods and emotional experiences is a stepping-stone to assessing mental health. 

Although the amount of time the participants spent playing games showed limited if any impact on their well-being, and the way they felt didn’t affect how long they spent gaming, their motivations did have an impact on their emotional state. Participants who played because they wanted to, rather than feeling compelled to play to beat a high score, for example, reported higher levels of well-being, although the relationship was small. Gamers would need to clock up an additional 10 hours a day on top of their average play for any noticeable effect to be observed.

The research builds on the findings of a smaller study the same team published in 2020, which found a small positive relation between game play and well-being. This new study is the largest of its kind based on real player behavior collected from real games, which its authors say is a first step toward explicitly determining the real-world causal effects of playing video games on well-being over time.

The findings demonstrate the complexity of making definite conclusions about how and why playing video games affects us. The science of researching games is relatively new, and studying them is tough because of how varied they are: a simple puzzle app on a smartphone is very different from a sprawling massively multiplayer online game, and modern games contain vast amounts of data. Another factor is that the industry’s technology evolves more quickly than researchers can conduct studies, meaning their methodologies for studying effects on mental health or aggression can be contentious. 

The evidence base that the WHO and Chinese authorities are drawing from is “trash” and seriously mismatched to the scale of the decisions being based on them, says Andrew Przybylski, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and coauthor of the report. “That’s not to say that countries, parents, and regulators don’t have a very serious role to play in making sure that games are safe and a rewarding part of people’s lives,” he says. “It just means that if we’re going to regulate them, and give parents advice, it has to be vaguely evidence based.”

The moral panic around video games has stuck in a way that previous entertainment-fueled panics such as those around rock music and TV haven’t. But the evidence isn’t there. 

Media reports that the perpetrators of mass shootings from the mid-1990s onwards were avid gamers, coupled with a slew of studies starting in the early 2000s, fueled concerns that violent games made people more aggressive. These reports found that participants “punished” opponents for longer, gave taste testers larger doses of hot sauce, and were more likely to guess aggressive words such as “explode” in a word completion task after playing violent games. But other researchers have since questioned how effective these studies really were at measuring violent behavior. 

A 2020 meta-analysis in Royal Society Open Science, which reexamined 28 studies from previous years, found no evidence for a long-term link between aggressive video games and youth aggression. Lower-quality studies that didn’t use standardized or well-validated measures, it found, were more likely to exaggerate the effects of games on player aggression, while higher-quality studies tended to find negligible effects. 

The same pattern has repeated with respect to studies linking video games to poor mental health, which tend to report smaller effects once they use objective data on game duration (as the OII study did) rather than relying on subjective self-reporting from participants, says Peter Etchells, a professor of psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University, who thinks the past 20 to 30 years of gaming studies haven’t had a consistent handle on what they were trying to measure or how to do it.

“New studies like this one can help to draw a line under this whole ‘Are video games good or bad for us?’ line, because it is and always has been the wrong question to ask,” he says. “It’s like asking ‘Is food bad for our waistline?’ It’s a stupid question.”

“My hope is that we can get better at not thinking about it in terms of ‘Are video games, are video games bad?’ but thinking about that gray area in between,” he adds. “Because that’s where all the interesting stuff is.”

Przybylski was among a group of academics who wrote to write to the WHO in 2016 arguing against the “premature” inclusion of gaming disorder in its ICD guidelines, citing the low quality of the research base and the fact that scholars had failed to reach a consensus. Six years on, not much has changed, and researchers are still divided over the extent to which being addicted to games could differ from addiction to substances or gambling, for example.

An interesting next step would be to focus on any participants demonstrating problematic behavior in the OII’s study to see how they can be coached or supported, says Tony van Rooij, a senior researcher at the Trimbos Institute in the Netherlands who focuses on gaming, gambling, and digital balance. Another worthwhile area of study, he says, is the predatory business models that game makers use to exert pressure on players’ behavior, including encouraging them to make microtransactions to skip frustrating levels, play at fixed times, or log in daily to avoid missing out on something.

“In our research and experience, we tend to find that there is a large group of ‘healthy’ gamers, who benefit from their gaming,” he says. “But there also is a minority of gamers with unhealthy playing habits—often accompanied by various other issues in life. Gaming is not necessarily the cause of these issues, but obviously extreme participation in gaming needs to be taken into account to restore balance. The study is very rigorous and well done, but I hope it will be a starting point, not a final destination.”

Przybylski hopes game companies will make it easier for players to share data from their play with independent researchers, though he concedes that the industry has no financial incentive to turn over that data and runs the risk that the studies will return undesirable results. “I think it’s totally crazy that people who are already signing over their genetics and health information for study can’t go in, eyes open, and donate their play data,” he says. “It’s theirs legally. It’s about making the tools available for something more creative than selling ads or figuring out new ways to monetize players.”

Ultimately, despite researchers’ best efforts, academics studying games are unlikely to reach a solid conclusion on how they affect us, says Yemaya Halbrook, a psychology researcher for the Lero Esport Science Research Lab at the University of Limerick in Ireland. 

“While we have been moving away from that slowly over the last decade or so, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a general consensus that video games have no positive or negative effect, or only a positive effect. There’s always going to be those people that say that video games are bad for you, and cite biased research,” she says. “We might be able to move them in a direction that says games aren’t entirely bad, but I don’t think we’ll ever get everybody to agree on a singular point, even if it’s a complete, total fact. People are not like that.”

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