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Oxford University study suggests playing video games is good for mental health

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Nov 16, 2020, 1:31 PM EST

This year has been a big one for video games, with the industry seeing a record high in sales, as more and more people turned to interactive entertainment as a source of comfort — something especially true at the start of the still-ongoing worldwide pandemic. 

There's probably a good reason for that, according to a study conducted by researchers at Oxford University, who found that playing video games might actually be good for mental health and that people who played more games tended to report greater "well being." 

As The Guardian reports, the study marks one of the first times researchers have worked with actual gameplay data that they were able to collect themselves, rather than relying on subjects to report their own play-times as previous studies have done, a form of data collection that can often prove unreliable. 

The study focused on two main games, Nintendo's record-breaking spring release Animal Crossing: New Horizons and EA's popular shooter Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, with the Oxford University research team using the internet connectivity feature of the games to link up to psychological questionnaires, allowing them to match answers to accurate records. (Another finding of the study was the playtimes self-reported by players often didn't tend to match reality.) 

"This is about bringing games into the fold of psychological research that's not a dumpster fire," said Andrew Przybylski, the lead researcher on the project. "This lets us explain and understand games as a leisure activity." 

The results, and what they suggest, are a far cry from how research conducted on video games is usually reported on, with many reports trying to draw connections between violent behavior and games themselves, though studies have been showing the opposite. According to Przybylski, this particular one only highlighted how little hard data has actually been collected by previous studies looking into the potential benefits or harms of gaming. In fact, one of the things the team had had to look into was whether the data collected by gaming companies could even be useful for academic and health policy research.

"[The study] shows that 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," noted Przybylski of the findings, also emphasising that this doesn't apply to all games across the board. "I’m very confident that if the research goes on, we will learn about the things that we think of as toxic in games, and we will have evidence for those things as well." 

So far the study has only focused on two games, both of which are suitable for all ages, but could also contain other modes of play that could result in a less positive experience for players. The research team's paper also noted that players' attitude towards gaming can also have an impact on their mental health, with a contrast between playing a game because it's fun (intrinsic factors) and playing a game because you've been bullied into it, by other people or even the game itself (extrinsic factors). 

A wider pool of data from a range of game publishers would allow for a better understanding of how gaming can affect mental health — especially when it comes to negative behaviors. Last year, the World Health Organization classified video game addiction as a mental disorder, classifying it under the same umbrella as gambling addiction, with "Gaming Disorder" being added to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.

"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," Przybylski concludes. "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 percent of teenagers do? Yeah, that’s addictive, no, we don’t have any data,’ that makes no sense." 


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