Playing Video Games May Be Good for Your Mental Health, Experts Say

Animal Crossing to the rescue

Key Takeaways

  • A growing number of studies show that playing video games might be good for your mental health.
  • A recent paper found some users benefitted from playing Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for the Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
  • Fears that video games cause violence or poor mental health are not supported scientifically, one expert says.
A father and son are concentrating while sitting down at home playing video games together.
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Playing video games might be good for you despite years of hype to the contrary, experts say. 

A recent paper published by scientists from the University of Oxford finds some games can positively impact a player’s mental health. Researchers studied the effects of Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for the Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and in specific scenarios, the games made people feel better. Some experts agree with the study’s finding that video games can have psychological benefits.

"The benefits of playing video games are similar to those of any other hobby, sport, or recreational activity—relieving stress, experiencing enjoyment, developing a skill, and feeling a sense of accomplishment at a job well-done," Natalie Moore, a Los Angeles-based therapist with expertise in the interaction between gaming and mental health, said in an email interview.

Multiplayer game mental health benefits also include "social connection, a sense of belonging to a group, emotional support in times of distress, and working together as a team to achieve a shared goal," she said.

Game Companies Lend Support

The new study partnered with game companies to get user data via surveys. Players related how they felt when playing and how long they spent playing the games. The game companies provided gameplay data such as start and stop times as a comparison. Researchers drew data from 2,756 Animal Crossing players and 471 Plants vs. Zombies players.

Researchers found a correlation between users' gameplay and positive emotions in some scenarios after examining the data. Researchers said users pressured to play games didn’t get the emotional boost of those who were not pressured.

The latest study is part of a growing amount of research showing that video games can be useful, rather than harmful, Moore pointed out. For example, a 2019 review asserted that video gaming is associated with better cognitive function in the areas of visual attention, short-term memory, reaction time, and working memory. A 2016 study found that video gameplay is correlated with higher intellectual functioning and overall academic competence, as well as decreases in relationship issues with peers.

Friends playing video games
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Dr. Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine studying youth and new media practices, has done research focusing on creative and learning communities that surround complex games such as Starcraft, Little Big Planet, Minecraft, and Roblox

"We found that young people, when engaged in these affinity groups and online communities, are learning a wide range of technical, academic, and digital citizenship skills and knowledge," Ito said in an email interview. "This can range from organizing complex team play, creating and editing videos, or building their own games."

Expert Says Early Studies Flawed

The fears that video games cause violence or poor mental health are not supported scientifically, Moore said. Early studies looking at correlations between video games and mental health were poorly designed, providing misleading evidence, she added.

"The latest study is among a growing amount of research showing that video games can be useful rather than harmful."

"These myths were birthed following the Columbine High School shooting when politicians preferred to scapegoat cultural phenomena like video games and pop musicians for poisoning the minds of youth, instead of examining larger systemic factors at play," Moore said. 

Parents worried about the effects of video games on their children should ask themselves questions, Ito said. "Is your child developing meaningful friendships through the game?" she added. "Are they being treated and treating others with respect and care? Is their interest being pursued in a healthy and balanced way with other life priorities?"

More important than whether or not someone plays video games, is the relationship the individual has to playing the game, Moore said. "If the game is being treated just like any other hobby," she added, "and it’s not negatively impacting the person’s mental health, work, school, relationships, or major role responsibilities, then there’s nothing to worry about."

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