Playing video games all summer won’t hurt your mental health

Video games aren’t hurting people’s mental health, and they’re not helping it. In fact, they don’t do much to move the needle at all, according to a new study of tens of thousands of gamers.

For years, policymakers and public health bodies have expressed concern about the potential for video games to be addictive or harm mental health. This study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, offers one of the more comprehensive looks at the relationship between video games and well-being. It builds on previous research from the same team that also didn’t find bad effects on mental health.

The research team worked with video game publishers to recruit nearly 39,000 people who played one of seven games: Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Apex Legends, Eve Online, Forza Horizon 4, Gran Turismo Sport, and The Crew 2. The game publishers provided game play data for participants over six weeks, and the researchers surveyed participants three times.

Because the team was able to examine player’s gaming data, they didn’t have to rely on player’s self-reporting the amount of time they spent playing games — so the team was able to get a more accurate read on gaming time. The study measured well-being using two tools: the scale of positive and negative experiences, which asks people to rank how often they experienced feelings like “happy” and “afraid,” and the Cantril self-anchoring scale, which asks people to say where they are on a ladder with the top representing their best possible life.

The study also asked people to take the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction survey, which tracks people’s experience with specific games — tracking things like their perception of autonomy and their motivations to play the game.

The analysis found that spending more or less time playing games didn’t have a negative or positive impact on how people felt. Conversely, how people felt didn’t have a major impact on how much time people spent gaming.

Any role video games play in skewing well-being that did pop up in the study was too small to have a real-world impact on how people feel, the authors said. People would have to play games for 10 more hours per day than their baseline to notice changes in their well-being, the study found.

The study did find some evidence, though, that people’s motivations to play games and their experience playing them had a slightly larger impact on well-being. When people played games because they wanted to, their well-being was better than when people played games because they felt compelled to. Still, those relationships were small, and it’s not clear if those motivations would have much of a noticeable impact for players.

There’s still more to learn about the ways video games impact how people feel and how they behave, the study authors noted. This analysis only looked at a handful of the thousands of games on the market. Researchers still need to scrutinize how motivations to play games and quality of gameplay could shift people’s experiences. They also need to figure out if certain people have characteristics that make them more or less susceptible to shifts in well-being.

“We know we need much more player data from many more platforms to develop the kind of deeper understanding required to inform policy and shape advice to parents and medical professionals,” said study author Andrew Przybylski, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, in a statement.