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Video games might be good for your mental health after all — study

"Regulating video games, on the basis of time, might not bring the benefits many might expect."

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Suburban moms and frustrated teachers have been toting the negative effects of video games since their inception, but new research now suggests that these accusations may just be the result of bad science.

A team of researchers from the University of Oxford recently teamed up with Electronic Arts (EA) and Nintendo to investigate how video games like Plants versus Zombies: Battle for the Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons really affect the mental health of their players. The results of this partnership were published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Unlike previous research which has pointed to the negative effects of "gaming addiction," these researchers found these games could actually have a positive impact on someone's well-being in certain scenarios.

Why it matters — Previous research evaluating the effect of video games has often relied on self-reported data from users to make conclusions about the ultimate impact of video games. These kinds of responses are notoriously unreliable, argue this new study's authors.

Instead, their study represents one of the first times that independent scientists have partnered with video game companies to use concrete gameplay data in addition to self-reported survey answers to riddle out the effect of these games.

This could be a step towards a whole new era of video game research.

Here's the background — It's no secret that we play a lot of video games. This trend is only on the rise.

In 2020, the number of gamers worldwide was higher than it had ever been (potentially as an antidote to pandemic boredom) and grew to even overshadow the film industry in total revenue.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a fan favorite for relaxing game play.Nintendo

But for all the hours we spend on chasing 1-ups, shooting enemies, or collecting virtual fossils, researchers still know very little about how these games actually affect our well-being. In extreme cases, scientists have pointed toward excessive video game playing as a form of addiction but the researchers behind this new study say those conclusions may be unfounded.

"Unfortunately, nearly three decades of research exploring the possible links between video games and negative outcomes including aggression, addiction, well-being, and cognitive functioning have brought us nowhere near a consensus or evidence-based policy," writes the authors. "[R]eliable, reproducible, and ecologically valid studies are few and far between."

Part of the problem has been that video game companies hold their own in-game data (such as true game play time) close to the chest and have rarely allowed independent scientists to take a look. As a result, much video game research is done using self-reported survey data, which can be unreliable.

"Self-reported video game play is thus an unsuitable proxy of actual video game play—yet researchers and those advising health bodies are depending on self-reports for diagnosis and policy decisions," the team writes.

As a step to change this trend and potentially find a more reliable data source, scientists teamed up with EA and Nintendo of America to take a closer look at how players really react to their games. In this study, they focused on two popular games: Plants versus Zombies: Battle for the Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

What they did — The researcher team used two different data sources in their study. For both games, they partnered with the game company to send out a user survey to establish scale-based metrics like how players felt when playing (e.g. "I experienced a lot of freedom [the game]" or "I played [the game] to escape") and an estimate of how long they spent playing the games.

This self-reported data was then paired with telemetry (or, true game play data such as start and stop times) from the gaming companies themselves to draw comparisons to the self-reported answers.

In total, the researchers were able to collect both telemetry and user response data from 2756 Animal Crossing players (out of 342,825 players who were sent surveys) and 471 Plants vs Zombies players (out of 250,000 who were sent surveys.) The surveys were sent to users in the U.S., U.K., and Canada.

What they discovered — Contrary to the negative narrative around video games, the researchers noticed a positive correlation between users' gameplay and well-being — at least in certain scenarios. They write:

"If players experienced intrinsic motivations and need satisfaction during play, we would expect a more positive relationship between play time and wellbeing compared to players who experienced less intrinsic motivation and need satisfaction during play."

For example, if users felt outside pressure to play, they might not experience the same positive benefits.

The researchers also noticed that players overestimated their own gameplay by two-hours on average, though they found positive well-being was independent of overall playtime.

What's next — Even with these initial positive results, the researchers say there are still a number of limitations that will need to be overcome in future studies to confirm these findings.

For example, future studies could use a longer longitudinal approach that would follow users for an extended period (more than the two-week period used in this study) and could also study the impact of different, more violent genres of games. Expanding their sample size to include non-Western countries will also be important to generalize these results.

But for now, the researchers write that these findings could at least put a stop to (or slow down) overblown fears of video game addiction.

"Overall, our findings suggest that regulating video games, on the basis of time, might not bring the benefits many might expect."

Abstract: People have never played more video games, and many stakeholders are worried that this activity might be bad for players. So far, research has not had adequate data to test whether these worries are justified and if policymakers should act to regulate video game play time. We attempt to provide much-needed evidence with adequate data. Whereas previous research had to rely on self-reported play behaviour, we collaborated with two games companies, Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America, to obtain players’ actual play behaviour. We surveyed players of Plants versus Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons for their well-being, motivations, and need satisfaction during play and merged their responses with telemetry data (i.e. logged game play). Contrary to many fears that excessive play time will lead to addiction and poor mental health, we found a small positive relation between game play and affective well-being. Need satisfaction and motivations during play did not interact with play time but were instead independently related to well-being. Our results advance the field in two important ways. First, we show that collaborations with industry partners can be done to high academic standards in an ethical and transparent fashion. Second, we deliver much-needed evidence to policymakers on the link between play and mental health.