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Oxford study: video games can be good for mental health 

A new study from Oxford University which accessed actual gameplay data has suggested that those who play more games tend to report greater wellbeing.

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Animal Crossing: New Horizons - video games and mental health
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A new study from Oxford University which accessed actual gameplay data has suggested that those who play more games tend to report greater wellbeing.

In a departure from the normal methodology for such psychological studies, the Oxford team was able to access true records of game time to associate with their psychological questionnaires. This meant they could avoid the more traditional measurement of self-reported time playing, which the study indeed suggests isn’t a reliable reflection of reality.

Perhaps even more interesting than the study itself is lead researcher Andrew Przybylski’s thoughts on the existing body of research on games he made known to The Guardian – especially when it comes to health policy and their potential adverse effects (or benefits?). Existing psychology research he suggests is “a dumpster fire.”

“You have really respected, important bodies, like the World Health Organization and the NHS, allocating attention and resources to something that there’s literally no good data on. And it’s shocking to me, the reputational risk that everyone’s taking, given the stakes. For them to turn around and be like, ‘hey, this thing that 95% of teenagers do? Yeah, that’s addictive, no, we don’t have any data,’ that makes no sense,” Przybylski said.

The study was based on the very family-friendly Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, so it’s possible other games may not be so positive for your wellbeing. “I’m very confident that if the research goes on, we will learn about the things that we think of as toxic in games,” Przybylski said, “and we will have evidence for those things as well.”

This study was only a first step towards a better understanding of our favourite recreational activity, then. “If you play four hours a day of Animal Crossing, you’re a much happier human being, but that’s only interesting because all of the other research before this is done so badly,” said Przybylski.

The paper discusses both “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” motivations and how that too might affect the mental impact of games. That’s interesting to me, since I wrote a feature this year on the research behind how social games are. “Intrinsic motivation” refers to performing an activity because it is inherently fun or interesting. “Extrinsic motivation,” refers to taking part in an activity to attain outcomes that are both outside the self and separable from the activity. The research suggests you can only really socially benefit from games if you are extrinsically motivated to benefit. You can’t accidentally be social.

Contrariwise, perhaps if people are extrinsically motivated by a game’s manipulative mechanics rather than being intrinsically engaged in the gameplay, that might not be great for their mental health?

All food for thought. If there’s one thing I love, it’s authoritative voices like academics affirming my uninformed opinions. As with most things, games can be good for you and games can be bad for you. It’s certainly good to know that there appears to be enough good that the equivalent of cigarette warning labels don’t need to be slapped on Tom Nook’s head anytime soon, though.

Via: University of Oxford / Oxford Internet Study


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Part-time Artificial Intelligence postgraduate student. Part-time 'video shame' writer. Probably looking for political messages about meaningful systemic change in the latest Star Wars game.