Woman playing video game
Health and wellbeing, Digital and technology

Massive study finds no link between time spent playing video games and wellbeing

Several large game publishers made playtime data available for ambitious longitudinal study.

04 November 2021

By Emma Barratt

Video games are perhaps one of the most politicised forms of entertainment media out there.

In the decades since they were first created, governments, politicians, health bodies and beyond have voiced concerns that the amount of time some players spend in these virtual worlds could be detrimental to their mental health.

Despite all this concern, there’s been a lack of high-quality research into the effect of video games on player wellbeing. To remedy this situation, Matti Vuorre and colleagues at the University of Oxford, in collaboration with several large game publishers such as Nintendo and Square Enix, conducted an ambitious longitudinal study.

These fears, they conclude in their recent preprint on PsyArXiv, are unfounded.

In order to investigate whether longer play times had an impact on player wellbeing, the team recruited a massive 38,935 players of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Apex Legends, Eve Online, Forza, Gran Turismo, Outriders, and The Crew 2. Recruitment emails for this study targeted specifically English-speaking players from several countries. 

Over the course of six weeks, players were asked to answer three “waves” of a survey, sent two weeks apart, containing measures of wellbeing and motivation. The first measure of wellbeing, a 13-point scale of positive and negative experiences (SPANE), asked participants how they had been feeling in the previous two weeks, and to rate how often they had experienced six positive and six negative feelings. The Cantril self-anchoring scale, in which participants rate their level of life satisfaction between 0 to 10, was also used to assess wellbeing.

Players were also asked to reflect on their experiences playing the game over the past two weeks, by filling in the player experience and need satisfaction scale (PENS), which included questions on feelings of autonomy, competence, relatedness (for example, with other players), as well as motivation. Finally, participants were asked to give an estimate of the time they’d spent playing the video game they were recruited through for the previous two weeks (the games’ publishers also provided the research team with each participant’s actual total playtimes for these two weeks).

Analyses looked at the relationship between hours played in one wave and wellbeing scores in the subsequent wave. Sifting through the data like this revealed that time spent playing these games had little to no apparent causal effect on wellbeing or life satisfaction. The effect was so small, the authors say, that if players went from their minimum play time to their maximum play time, their wellbeing scores would only shift by around 0.013 points on the SPANE scale. The impact on life satisfaction scores would be similarly tiny, shifting by just 0.02 points. These kinds of numbers are not indicative of any meaningful impact on wellbeing.

Switching these two factors around to look at the effect of feelings and life satisfaction on play time, the team found that a one-point increase on the SPANE scale of wellbeing would lead to a 0.01 hour per week increase in play time. Similarly, life satisfaction had essentially no impact on duration of play, suggesting that there is no causal relationship between wellbeing and time spent gaming.

In contrast, however, motivation to game was causally linked to wellbeing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when players wanted to engage with video games, they got a subsequent boost in feelings of wellbeing, whereas when they felt like they were playing through compulsion, those feelings dropped.

The span of game genres used in this study is rather wide — Animal Crossing: New Horizons, for example, is a pastoral experience, which differs significantly from the high commitment, often high-pressure experience of Eve Online. Even so, there are many other genres which also merit investigation. Time spent playing mobile games, as well as those with microtransactions or addictive elements, may have different impacts on player wellbeing.

Sampling in this study, the authors say, may also have somewhat limited the validity of this result. Because participants were recruited through self-selection, people with particular traits or dispositions that made them more likely to be unaffected by lengthy gaming sessions may have been more likely to provide data.

The age of participants — on average, 34 years old — may also limit the generalisability of these findings. It’s possible that as adults, these gamers have developed gaming habits that specifically do not affect their wellbeing, which may not be the case for younger players. And of course, these players were all English speakers, so it remains unclear whether there may be cultural differences in the strength of the relationship between gaming and wellbeing.

Despite these limitations, the results of this study stand as much needed preliminary evidence that time spent playing video games is not a threat to wellbeing. In the future, similarly robust research to confirm these findings in other age groups, as well as investigating the impact of specific gameplay features, will help push this research area forward.

Further reading

– Time spent playing video games is unlikely to impact well-being [this paper is a preprint meaning that it has not yet been subjected to peer review and the final published version may differ from the version this report was based on]

About the author

Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest