The number of hours a person spends playing video games doesn’t affect their well-being, but their motivation for playing is likely to have an influence, a new study has found.
While fears over the effects of playing video games for extended periods are often bandied around, this research flies in the face of those casual concerns. Tracking the playtime time of nearly 40,000 participants across seven games, including Animal Cross: New Horizons and Outriders, the University of Oxford study (opens in new tab) found no causal link between time spent gaming and a person’s mental health.
The study, which claims to be based on the largest-ever survey of gamers, tracked the number of hours participants spent playing video games across a two-week period. It then measured their well-being by asking participants to reflect on their feelings during that time, as well as their general level of satisfaction with their life.
“Across six weeks, seven games and 38,935 players, our results suggest that the most pronounced hopes and fears surrounding video games may be unfounded,” the study says. “Time spent playing video games had limited if any impact on well-being. Similarly, well-being had little to no effect on time spent playing.”
A matter of motivation
Alongside recording participants’ emotional states, the study asked players to reflect on their experienced sense of autonomy, competence, relatedness to others, and intrinsic motivation for playing over the two-week period. The idea was to ascertain whether they were playing because they wanted to, or because they felt they had some obligation to do so.
“We found it really does not matter how much gamers played [in terms of their sense of well-being],” researcher Andrew Przybylski said in a press release (opens in new tab).
“It wasn’t the quantity of gaming, but the quality that counted… if they felt they had to play, they felt worse. If they played because they loved it, then the data did not suggest it affected their mental health. It seemed to give them a strong positive feeling.”
However, that relationship may not hold for longer playtimes. The study excluded all gaming sessions below zero and above 10 hours to mitigate logging errors. It’s unclear how a person’s well-being may interact with extended gaming periods.
Seven games were used in the study, including Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Apex Legends, Eve Online, Forza Horizon 4, Gran Turismo Sport, Outriders, and The Crew 2. By collaborating with the games’ publishers, the research team was able to record the duration of the participants’ gaming sessions directly, rather than rely on players’ own estimates.
While those titles span a range of genres, from racing sim to MMORPG, the study suggests more research is needed: “to truly understand why people play and to what effect, we need to study a broader variety of games, genres and players”.
“These are just the first steps into the world of understanding how gaming fits into gamers’ lives,” Przybylski said. “And it seems that why you are playing is the key factor. This is an exciting study, but there is a lot of work still to do.”