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"Sticking your head in the sand won't help:" A mental health researcher pleads for game companies' data

Gaming companies need to stop being cagey with data in face of global health concerns: "The World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association aren't going anywhere."

Sam Machkovech

March 23, 2023

6 Min Read
man stands at podium with hand on chin
Oxford associate professor and senior research fellow Andrew Przybylski speaks at GDC 2023.Sam Machkovech

When it comes to the classification of video game addiction, the game industry's need to critically weigh in is a matter of when, not if, according to Oxford associate professor and senior research fellow Andrew Przybylski.

In recent years, the American Psychological Organization and World Health Organization have independently defined and promoted their own versions of gaming addiction "disorders." Both have been joined by what Przybylski calls "low-quality" studies, backed by "arbitrary surveys" and "unclean," non-transparent data sets, that count in the tens of thousands—telling what Przybylski fears may be an inaccurate story of players' relationships with games.

The consequences of these gaming-data assumptions are already happening in Przybylski's view. As he explained in a GDC 2023 presentation, they range from "emerging regulatory frameworks" across the world's lawmaking forces to the medical community's recommendations that could lead to who's liable for addiction-related "insurance reimbursements."

For all the potential players in these conversations, including gaming industry leaders, health professionals, and politicians, "evidence-based policy is ideal," Przybylski said. "We all want predictable rules of the road—how games fit into the wider landscape of our lives and societies. Player health is a common denominator across these stakeholders. To do that, we must acknowledge publicly what we might think implicitly: to have reasonable regulation, in order to serve the strong and vulnerable among us, as backed by rigorous and credible research. Without that, we don't have a firm foundation for intervention, whether it's zero or quite a bit."

Avoiding "the evil influence of a Mushroom Kingdom"

Przybylski spoke to both fraught and promising attempts to engage the largest gaming companies on these matters: to get unfettered access to gameplay data that his teams can quantifiably study, without industry interference, to engage in "rigorous and credible research."

In his view, fruitful, revealing data is just a few clicks away. "Psychology and psychiatry are increasingly very quantitative, data-fed sciences," Przybylski said. "As time has gone on, games have evolved from cartridges or arcade cabinets to very, very data-rich objects. They could hold so much of ourselves and our behavior within them to study."

Over the past three years, Przybylski's team of researchers has engaged in three studies, and each has revolved around limited requests from game publishers: telemetric data for when a group of "thousands" of people start and stop playing select video games over a span of time, and "simple measures of their wellbeing" via "subjective questions of how they felt about their lives," Przybylski said. These were conducted with Oxford as the sole funder, so that the work wouldn't include "the slightest glimmer of evil influence of a Mushroom Kingdom."

"It's a crummy measure if it's compromised"

The first study, conducted in mid-2020, revolved around data pulled from players of EA's Plants Vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Nintendo's Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Przybylski's first finding from this study "might seem boring, but it's important," he said: players across the board over-estimated how long they played games. Meaning, they would answer in surveys a certain number of hours, only for the data to show that their gameplay time was generally lower. "That's key," Przybylski said. "A lot of literature is about excessive screentime and playtime as it relates to wellbeing and ill health, but it's a crummy measure if it's compromised" by the bog standard measure of survey responses.

slide with pilot study findings

His team's second finding was a measured correlation between people having "more free time" to play either game and them indicating more happiness and "life satisfaction"—a potential rebuke of at least some common assumptions about gaming addiction. But this study was "only a drop in the bucket," thanks to its focus on a mere two games instead of pulling data from a wider pool of thousands of popular games played on a daily basis.

This led the Oxford team to directly request telemetry data from the world's biggest console makers—Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony—to use APIs, tokens, and other platform-specific data, along with outreach to participating players to ask them questions about "well-being, motivations for playing games, aspects of anxiety and depression," and a promise to make the resulting data transparent to participants (and give anyone an easy path to exit the study at any time).

"Choice and volition" as opposed to "control and obsession"

"That didn't go very well," Przybylski admitted. "But not because the platform holders are bad." Instead, he cited a range of issues, including how "first-party" and "third-party" data interacts in ways that could be complicated for platform holders to liberate for the sake of transparent study. The Oxford team backtracked and instead collected gameplay telemetry and player surveys for seven games over a six-week period in late 2021.

While Przybylski found the data interesting, he couched his conclusions with a crucial asterisk: "I've never had a paper rejected as many times as I've had this paper rejected. And you know what really stung about it? The reviewers were right." He cited the "compromises" made to study a limited number of games, instead of a wider spectrum of games available on a given platform.

Still, his limited data set pointed to a potentially fascinating thread: the important data may not be the quantity of time playing games, but the quality of that time. Players who reported "higher levels of life satisfaction and emotional well-being" were typically "playing out of a sense of interest and enjoyment" and had "a sense of choice and volition." Unhappier players said their gameplay revolved around "a sense of control and obsession," as if they had to play for some reason.

"Something must really be interesting going on for someone if they feel like they have to play a game, and they don't enjoy it, but they're still plowing hours into it," Przybylski remarked. He didn't offer further clarification about whether specific games, or specific in-game reward models, were more clearly linked to this conclusion.

"These studies are not going anywhere"

In the months since that 2021 study concluded, Przybylski and his team have connected the data-collection dots and secured buy-in from both Microsoft and Nintendo to collect top-level player telemetry data for a two-year study launching later this year, which will also include game-specific data collected from various publishers who are members of the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), along with telemetry pulled from both Discord and Steam. "I would personally love also to see Sony at the table participating," Przybylski admitted, "but we've planned for the eventuality of certain companies and platforms not proactively participating."

Getting a limited data set is only the first step on a journey towards better understanding gamers' behaviors—and both the harms and benefits inherent in the hobby. Przybylski warns that a lack of data transparency may lead to regulators lumping gaming companies into the same kind of demonization that gambling firms and social media companies have faced from political or medical leaders across the world. "Sticking to your head in the sand about it, or simply following whatever the next moral panic is, I don't think that's going to help you," Przybylski said. "Because the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association aren't going anywhere. These studies are not going anywhere. And the number of [negative] press releases [is] only going to rise."

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About the Author(s)

Sam Machkovech

Contributor

Sam Machkovech began writing his first syndicated gaming column as a teenager in 1996, mostly to prove his parents wrong about that whole “rotting your brain” thing. Since then, he has spent his writing career covering both the arts and technology—and the best moments when those worlds collide—for outlets such as Ars Technica, The Atlantic, The Stranger, American Way, Edge UK, Polygon, Billboard, Unwinnable, Seattle Met, The Dallas International Film Festival, and The Dallas Morning News. He has also guested as a contributor on BBC World Service, Marketplace, KUOW, TWiT.tv, and Digital Foundry.

Sam began life as a Texan and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, but he eventually traded tacos for pho after moving to the Pacific Northwest. These days, he can regularly be found losing quarters to the pinball and arcade machines at Coindexter’s in Seattle, WA.

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