A new study by researchers at Oxford University has found that gaming does not have an overall effect on mental health.
The research, conducted by a team at the Oxford Internet Institute, contradicts findings from a previous study by the same team in 2020, which concluded that people who played games for long periods of time reported feeling happier than those who did not.
But there are two key differences between the studies. The new study has a much larger sample size than the first study, with over 39,000 participants compared to fewer than 4,000 in the original. Moreover, the new study was able to directly track the gameplay of its participants, whereas the previous study relied exclusively on player reported estimates.
With permission from players, seven publishers collaborated with the study to share gameplay data from games like Apex Legends, Eve Online, Forza Horizon 4, and Outriders. The participants' playing habits were observed over a period of six weeks, and asked to report on their experiences in terms such as "autonomy", "competence" and "intrinsic motivation".
Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Andy Przybylski said "We really gave increases and decreases in video game play a fair chance to predict emotional states in life satisfaction, and we didn't find evidence for that—we found evidence that that's not true in a practically significant way."
But Przybylski was also keen to stress that, while more comprehensive than most other studies into gaming and mental health, the new study was still limited relative to the size of games industry, and the number of people who play games globally. Having originally approached over 30 publishers to participate, only seven ultimately responded, and those seven took "a year and a half" to provide their data.
Meanwhile, in a separate article published on the Oxford University website, Przybylski stated that gaming may affect a person's well-being in more specific circumstances—such as when they feel like they can't stop. "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," he said.
Nonetheless, Przybylski states there is "no evidence" that limiting the amount you play will improve your mental health, further calling into question policies that seek to crack down on gaming time, such as China's laws that limit children to playing for one hour a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.