We will probably never fully understand how video games affect our health

For decades, lawmakers, researchers, journalists, and parents have worried that video games are bad for us; That they encourage violent behavior or harm our mental health. These concerns have led to major decisions and have affected millions of people. The World Health Organization added gaming disorder to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in 2019. On the other hand, in order to prevent people under the age of 18 from becoming addicted, China has banned them from playing for more than three hours a week.

But in recent years, a growing body of research has argued that video games are actually good for us, improving our cognition, reducing stress, and enhancing communication skills. However, according to new study findings, the reality is that we don’t really know how games affect our health, if at all.

New research in Royal Society Open Science Journal published, found little evidence for a causal relationship between gaming and health; This means that the time spent playing video games has neither a negative nor a positive effect on the emotional health of players.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford analyzed the time spent by 38,935 players playing seven different games: Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Apex Legends, Eve Online, Forza Horizon 4, Gran Turismo Sport, Outriders, and Crew 2. Data is provided directly from game publishers, which is a rare occurrence; Because most studies on video games rely on players’ self-reports of how much time they spend playing. Oxford researchers consider such data to be biased and rarely accurate.

Time spent playing video games has neither a negative nor a positive effect on players’ emotional health

Gamers’ health was assessed through three surveys administered every two weeks over a six-week period. Subjects rated the number of times they experienced “pleasant” and “unpleasant” emotions, and measured their general life satisfaction using the Controll Self-Reliance Scale, depicting an imaginary ladder with the top rung representing their best possible life.

Additionally, gamers answered questions about their experiences and motivations. Researchers say that examining the emotional health of players through their mood and emotional experiences is considered the cornerstone of mental health evaluation.

Although the amount of time participants spent playing games had a limited effect on their health and how they felt was unaffected by the amount of time they spent playing, their motivations did affect their emotional state. For example, participants who enjoyed playing rather than feeling compelled to score high reported higher levels of well-being; However, this relationship was small. In addition to their average game time, gamers need to achieve 10 hours of game time per day in order to see any significant effect.

New research based on the findings A smaller study It is from this group of researchers that it was published in 2020. That study found a small positive relationship between gaming and health; But the new study is the largest of its kind based on the behavior of real players and data collected from real games. According to the authors, this study is the first step toward definitively determining the causal effects of video games on health over time.

The findings highlight the complexity of drawing firm conclusions about how and why video games affect us. The science of research on games is relatively new and difficult to study because of their diversity. For example, a simple puzzle app on a smartphone is very different from a massively multiplayer online game. Also, modern games contain huge amounts of data. Another factor is that the technology of the video game industry evolves faster than researchers can conduct studies; This means that their methods for studying effects on mental health or aggression can be dangerous.

Andrew Shebelsky, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and co-author of the paper, says the evidence base cited by the World Health Organization and Chinese officials is “garbage” and seriously out of step with the scale of decision-making based on it. He adds: “I’m not saying that countries, parents and regulatory bodies don’t play a very serious role in making sure that games are safe and valuable in people’s lives. “I just mean that if we’re going to monitor them and give advice to parents, we have to do it based on some evidence.”

Moral panics about video games have persisted to this day; Whereas earlier entertainment-related fears, such as concerns about rock music and television, faded over time. However, there is no evidence to justify this fear.

Media reports that the perpetrators of mass shootings from the mid-1990s onward were avid gamers, along with extensive studies beginning in the early 2000s, raised concerns that violent games make people more aggressive. According to those reports, participants punished opponents for longer, gave taste testers higher doses of hot sauce, and were more likely to guess aggressive words like “explode” in a word-completion task. But other researchers have since questioned how effective the studies actually were in measuring violent behavior.

In 2020, A meta-analysis in Royal Society Open Science which reviewed 28 studies from the previous years, found no evidence of a long-term link between aggressive video game play and youth aggression. According to this research, lower-quality studies that did not use standardized or validated measures were more likely to exaggerate the effects of games on player aggression; While higher quality studies usually found small effects.

Peter Etchells, professor of psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University, says the same pattern has been repeated in studies linking video games to mental health. When these studies use objective data (such as the Oxford Internet Center study) rather than relying on participants’ subjective self-reports, they typically report smaller effects. Etchels believes that studies of play in the last 20 to 30 years have not had a valid control over what they are trying to measure, or even how they are doing it.

“New studies like the one from the Oxford Internet Center could help end the debate about whether video games are good or bad for us, because that’s always been the wrong question to ask,” adds Etchels. It’s like asking, “Is food bad for our waistlines?” This is a stupid question.”

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Shabelsky was among a group of academics who wrote a letter to the World Health Organization in 2016, citing the low quality of the research base and the fact that researchers have not been able to reach a consensus, arguing against the premature inclusion of gaming disorder in the international classification guidelines. Six years later, not much has changed, and researchers still disagree about how gaming addiction can be different from drug or gambling addiction.

Tony Van Roy, a senior researcher at the Trimbus Institute in the Netherlands, which focuses on gaming, gambling and digital balance, says an interesting next step would be to focus on each participant who showed problematic behavior in the Oxford Internet Center study to see how we can guide or support them. Another area worth studying, he says, is the predatory business models that game developers use to pressure players’ behavior; Including encouraging the gamer to make microtransactions to skip difficult stages, play at fixed times or log in daily to avoid missing opportunities.

“Whether video games are good or bad for us is the wrong question.”

“We tend to find in our research and testing that there is a large group of ‘healthy’ gamers who benefit from playing,” says Van Rooy. But there are still few gamers with unhealthy gaming habits and these habits are often associated with various other issues in life. The game is not necessarily the cause of these issues; But it is obvious that extreme gaming should be addressed with the goal of restoring balance. The new study is very detailed and well done; But I hope it is not the final destination, but the starting point.”

Shebelsky hopes that game companies will make it easier for players to share game data with independent researchers; However, he acknowledges that the gaming industry has no financial incentive to hand over this data and faces the risk that the studies will yield unfavorable results. “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that people who have already signed off their genetic and health information for a study can’t step forward and open their eyes and donate their game data,” he says.

Yemaya HolbrookUltimately, despite the best efforts of researchers, academics who study games are unlikely to reach any firm conclusions about how they affect us, says psychology researcher at the LeRo Sport Science Research Center at the University of Limerick in Ireland.

“Although we’ve been slowly changing beliefs over the past decade or so, I don’t think there’s ever been a general consensus that video games have no positive or negative effect, or only a positive effect,” Holbrook adds. There are always those who say video games are bad for you and cite biased research. We might be able to get them to say that games aren’t bad at all; But I don’t think we’ll ever get everyone to agree on a single point.”

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