The stereotype of a video gamer involves slouching in a basement, munching endless snacks in sweatpants and, with bleary eyes and unwashed hair, battling other gamers around the world.

That doesn’t sound like a healthy existence – and many studies have indicated excessive gaming negatively influences physical and emotional well-being – but new research out of the University of Oxford stated extended stretches of play can actually leave gamers feeling significantly happier. The data was taken from surveys of more than 3,000 gamers over 18 who played Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing.”

The results surprised Dr. Paul Weigle, associate medical director with Natchaug Hospital, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network, and a national expert on video gaming, who cautioned that the lens through which the Oxford researchers examined gaming must be considered, especially with the study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most studies have found that any sort of screen media, including video games, for more than two hours per day is associated with a decline in well-being,” he said. “The reasons are thought to be related to displacement, meaning that the more time we spend playing video games, the more we neglect work, socializing in person, exercise, other hobbies and sleep.”

Life during COVID, he added, has been anything but normal, especially for youth.

“Opportunities and demands for socializing in person, hobbies, exercise and schoolwork are decreased,” he said. “The displacement effect of spending more time playing video games is, therefore, less than at other times.”

The study also focused exclusively on a nonviolent, noncompetitive game that rewards acts of kindness, which is not representative of a market in which the most popular games are competitive and encourage repeated acts of violence.

“Although many games involve interaction with others, most interactions involve either players inflicting virtual violence upon one another or teaming up to inflict violence on others,” said Dr. Weigle.

Previous research has shown that those experiencing the most mental health effects from excessive gaming are the most competitive and seeking accomplishment and an escape from real-world problems. Other studies found people who play nonviolent, prosocial games experience positive changes in real-world thoughts and behavior.

“It’s important to put this one study in the context of a much larger body of scientific literature,” said Dr. Weigle. “Some who find gaming the most engaging find it very difficult to stop, and get into a habit of excessive gaming leading to a great deal of distress and impairment.”

He suggested that parents considering buying video games or a gaming console for their children this holiday season should:

  • Establish rules for how long and what types of games the kids can play.
  • Use the parental controls found on all gaming devices to help enforce the rules.
  • Choose nonviolent, noncompetitive, prosocial games like “Animal Crossing.”