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Study Suggests Video Games Do Not Impact Well-Being

For most, time spent gaming does not appear to affect quality of life.

Key points

  • A new study from the University of Oxford examined the link between video games and life satisfaction.
  • Researchers found that there was no correlation between time spent gaming and either well-being or life satisfaction.

A recent study with 39,000 participants by the University of Oxford on video games and well-being has concluded that gaming has no measurable effect on well-being or overall life satisfaction.

In order to study this, the researchers collected data from some of the biggest game publishers including Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, and Ubisoft. Each of the publishers sent survey invitations to active players of one of their most popular games, such as Apex Legends and Eve Online. The publishers sent three surveys to those who agreed to participate, each separated by two weeks. They also remotely collected data on how much each participant played during these time intervals.

These surveys included questions about participants’ well-being and life satisfaction, such as:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stood over the past two weeks?”

It also included questions about motivation for play. This measured the extent to which each person felt they were choosing to play video games (intrinsic motivation) or whether they felt they had to (extrinsic motivation). This separates those who enjoy gaming as a hobby from those who view it as a chore or an addiction.

In other words, each participant had to:

  1. Answer questions about their well-being over the past two weeks
  2. Wait two weeks
  3. Answer questions about their well-being over the past two weeks
  4. Wait two weeks
  5. Answer questions about their well-being over the past two weeks

This allowed the researchers to analyze data on how well-being and life satisfaction changed over time and how that related to the amount of time each person spent playing video games between surveys.

The researchers reasoned that if video games were making people’s lives worse, they would be able to see it over six weeks. If video games negatively impacted well-being, those who spent a lot of time playing video games would report that their lives were worse six weeks later. Those who spent very little time playing would likely report less of a difference over the same period of time.

When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that there was almost no difference between people who played a lot of video games and those who played very few. For example, on the “ladder” question of life satisfaction, people who played the most video games only reported that their life was an average of 0.013 rungs lower than those who spent the least time gaming.

However, those who reported that they felt they had to play did differ from those who reported that they played because they wanted to. That is to say, those who played because they enjoy games reported higher life satisfaction than those who played because they felt obligated to.

Seeing these data, researchers concluded that as long as gaming is a hobby, video games are unlikely to impact people’s mental health. However, they acknowledged that the study had a number of flaws. For example:

  1. The percent of players who accepted invitations to participate in the study was extremely small. For The Crew 2, for example, 1,013,000 invitations were sent to game players, but only 457 of them accepted. This is called a selection bias - it seems likely that the few hundred people who agreed to participate in a study might act differently than the million who did not.
  2. Each of the games the researchers chose has a significant multiplayer component, so their conclusion does not necessarily apply to games which people play by themselves.
  3. Many participants did not participate in all three surveys. The study had no way to account for anyone who dropped out of the study because their lives became significantly worse. Also, those who dropped out tended to be younger, had lower life satisfaction, and played less than those who stayed for all three surveys. All of these differences could have impacted the data.
  4. The study only lasted for six weeks, which is not long enough to observe any more gradual effects on well-being. This is particularly important because many play video games for their whole life. If video games impact mental health very slowly, this study would not catch it.
  5. The study was correlative, so “confounding variables” could have impacted the results if they had shown a difference between groups. For example, if a participant became unemployed, their life satisfaction might have gone down and their time spent playing video games might have gone up. The data would imply that it was the video games’ fault that the participant’s life was worse, when it was really a third variable which was impacting both.

In my opinion, these flaws do not reflect poorly on the researchers - nearly all psychological studies have similar problems. (It’s hard to study people.) The study does seem to be convincing evidence that video games do not have a large negative impact over the course of several weeks for those who view them as a hobby.

This aligns with a number of other studies which confirm that gaming is generally a harmless pastime and other studies which show that it can become harmful for a small number who have lost control.

This is good news for gamers and for concerned parents who worry that playing games is harming their child. This study suggests that as long as gaming remains a hobby and not an obsession, it will not have any measurable effect on an individual.

References

Vuorre, M., Niklas, J., Kristoffer, M., Przybylski, A.K. (2022). Time spent playing video games is unlikely to impact well-being. Royal Society Open Science, 9(7). Retrieved from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.220411

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