Oxford study says this frowned upon activity may be the key to happiness

This article was updated on October 7, 2021,

At the start of the pandemic, it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see a loved one pick up video games for the first time.

Perhaps the most popular game played was “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” which was released just as the pandemic started to become reality on the Nintendo Switch. The New York Times reported sales figures suggested it was the strongest launch for any Animal Crossing game, which has been around since 2001.

People flocked to the game for its tranquility during a rocky time. It’s been described by some as “comforting” and a “therapeutic” escape from reality. It’s even enabled people to connect with others who may have fallen out of favor. There were others games that were also popular all for the escape they created from getting away from the never-ending news cycle.

Now, there’s scientific backing arguing that spending time playing video games can positively affect your well-being.

Researchers from Oxford University conducted a study on two popular games — “Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville” and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” — finding that playing these games (and other games) created a social experience with others and made people feel happier.

“Previous research has relied mainly on self-report surveys to study the relationship between play and well-being. Without objective data from games companies, those proposing advice to parents or policymakers have done so without the benefit of a robust evidence base,” said Andrew Pryzbylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, and lead author of the study.

“Our findings show video games aren’t necessarily bad for your health; there are other psychological factors which have a significant effect on a persons’ well-being. In fact, play can be an activity that relates positively to people’s mental health – and regulating video games could withhold those benefits from players.”

Although video games tend to get a bad rep for their impact on the mental wellbeing of people, this study connected with Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America, the two game companies behind both titles, to receive measurements of gamers’ play behavior fo their “well-being, motivations, and need satisfaction” during logged game play. More than 500 players responses from “Plants vs. Zombies” were calculated, along with 2,756 people who played “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.”

Like people who escaped to video games during the pandemic citing reasons that made them feel better, the study backed those claims. The amount of time one played had a positive factor in people’s well-being, while those who had a good gaming experience also reported feeling better.

It should be noted that these two games very much mythical compared to others, and that the study only focused on these two games. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” focuses on a simulated village with animals that mimics the real world, while “Plants vs Zombies” is a tower and defense strategic game.

“We are optimistic that collaborations of this sort will deliver the evidence required to advance our understanding of human play and provide policymakers the insights into how they might shape, for good or ill, our health,” the researchers wrote.

The study appears in PsyArXiv Preprints.