The number of hours a person spends playing video games doesn’t affect their well-being, but their motivation to play probably does, according to a new study.
While fears about the effects of playing video games for long periods are often publicized, this research runs counter to those casual concerns. Tracking the playtime of nearly 40,000 participants across seven games, including Animal Cross: New Horizons and Outriders, the Oxford University study (opens in new tab) found no causal link between time spent playing games and a person’s mental health.
The study, which it claims is based on the largest-ever survey of gamers, tracked the number of hours participants spent playing video games over a two-week period. It then measured their well-being by asking participants to reflect on their feelings during this period, as well as their overall level of life satisfaction.
“Over 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 or no impact on well-being. Likewise, well-being had little to no effect on time spent playing.”
a question of motivation
In addition to recording participants’ emotional states, the study asked players to reflect on their sense of autonomy, competence, relationships with others, and intrinsic motivation to play during the two-week period. The idea was to find out if they were playing because they wanted to, or because they felt they had some obligation to do so.
“We found that it really doesn’t matter how much players play [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 games, but the quality that counted… had to play, they felt worse. If they played because they loved it, the data didn’t suggest it affected their mental health. It seemed to give them a strong positive feeling.”
However, this relationship may not last longer in the game. 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 might interact with long periods of play.
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 game publishers, the research team was able to record the duration of participants’ gaming sessions directly, rather than relying on players’ own estimates.
While these titles span a range of genres, from racing sims to MMORPGs, the study suggests that more research is needed: “to truly understand why people play games and to what effect, we need to study a wider variety of games, genres, and players.”
“These are just the first steps into the world of understanding how games fit into players’ lives,” said Przybylski. “And it looks like why you’re playing is the key factor. This is an exciting study, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”