Press Start to Play: The Relationship Between Video Games and Well-Being

Yemaya Halbrook

Yemaya Halbrook

Yemaya Halbrook, PhD
Mary Immaculate College

It is commonly believed that video games are unhealthy for individuals and for society. Even when discussing my research over the course of my PhD in psychology at the University of Limerick, people often assumed that I study the negative effects of video games. The release of Pokémon Go in 2016 sparked many anecdotal claims that playing this game lowered players’ depression and anxiety levels. I myself found playing this mobile game to be beneficial, but after some research, I realized there was little empirical evidence to support these claims. Consequently, I decided to focus my research on how video games can actually be beneficial for individuals and set out to examine how and under what conditions video games positively predict well-being. Although this research began in 2016, it seems highly relevant to the current crisis that calls for self-isolation and social distancing. While the initial narrative review and Study 2 focused on the relationship of playing video games with general well-being, Study 1 specifically examined its relationship with social well-being.

Narrative Review

An initial review of the literature examining how playing video games is related to various aspects of general well-being (e.g., depression, happiness, satisfaction with life) suggested that how video games relate to well-being is nuanced and moderated by such individual and socio-contextual factors as the inclusion of social aspects, violence, and physical activity, and type of motivation for gaming, and moderation of gameplay hours. Consequently, the relationship between video games and well-being cannot be considered either “good” or “bad”; rather, the relationship is a function of a combination of many factors (see Halbrook et al., 2019).

Study 1

My review identified a need for additional research concerning the relationship between social (multiplayer) video games and social well-being. More specifically, there was a lack of literature on the context of social gaming, defined as the conditions in which the social game is played. Study 1 examined the relationship between gamers (e.g., family or friends met online) and how this relationship predicted levels of social well-being (e.g., social support) in gamers. This research was based in the self-determination theory (SDT), which suggests that satisfying the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are beneficial to well-being (Church et al., 2013; Ryan et al., 2006). A video game has the potential to satisfy these three needs depending on the way a gamer experiences the game itself. Further, who the gamer chooses to play with will likely determine the way in which a video game is played and the nature of relationships that develops between the players.

The sense of well-being has been severely impacted during this time because of social distancing due to COVID-19 (Samuelsson et al., 2020). It is possible that playing video games with others online has helped gamers to continue to interact and relate with each other. Study 1 showed that playing with known others, whether known in real-life or met online, predicted positive levels of social well-being, and encouraged gamers to gather some social support. These results are consistent with earlier work (Aknin et al., 2011; Reis et al., 2000) which showed that having strong social ties with others is beneficial to social well-being. Also, playing with known gamers predicted higher satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Thus, continuing to play online is associated with the strengthening of social ties and increased feelings of social well-being among gamers.

Study 2

Previous work has demonstrated that motivation is an important factor in determining how video games relate to general well-being (e.g., Billieux et al., 2013; Kuss et al., 2012; Myrseth et al., 2017). Based on Study 1 findings, I hypothesized that motivation would also predict the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs. Participants in Study 2 were not specifically social gamers but also solo gamers, and consequently, the focus was on general rather than social well-being. It was posited that the gamer’s motivation, the nature of their interaction with the games, and their experience of the game should be related to well-being as well as the satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness needs.

Extant research suggests that playing for achievement or obsessive purposes is related to negative general well-being (e.g. Hagström & Kaldo, 2014) and for such players, there are contrary findings as to how social motivation predicts well-being (e.g. Yang & Liu, 2017; Zanetta Dauriat et al., 2011). Therefore, Study 2 included an examination of four different types of motivation for gaming: social (playing to interact with others); enhancement (playing simply to have fun); coping (playing to relieve stress); and self-gratification (playing to indulge one’s own desires, even at the cost of others). The results showed that while playing for social purposes is positively related to general well-being, playing for coping purposes is negatively related. As many individuals play video games to cope with the stress during the current crisis, further research is needed here to determine if playing to cope with daily life (outside of a pandemic) can be positively related to general well-being. Playing for enhancement or self-gratification purposes, however, did not predict any aspect of general well-being. Further, only satisfying competence predicted positive levels of general well-being, though satisfying autonomy or relatedness did not predict either positive or negative levels of general well-being. It is possible that the relatedness need was not a factor as the gamers surveyed in this study were not specifically social gamers; consequently, playing video games alone might not satisfy relatedness needs as much as playing with others.

Taken together, the findings of my studies suggest that many important factors play a role in how video games relate to a sense of well-being. These include the conditions under which the games are played, the aspects that are involved, and how autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied in the video games themselves. Further research is needed to demonstrate that video games are indeed beneficial for individuals.


Aknin, L. B., Sandstrom, G. M., Dunn, E. W., & Norton, M. I. (2011). It’s the recipient that counts: Spending money on strong social ties leads to greater happiness than spending on weak social ties. PLoS ONE, 6(2).

Billieux, J., Van der Linden, M., Achab, S., Khazaal, Y., Paraskevopoulos, L., Zullino, D., & Thorens, G. (2013). Why do you play World of Warcraft? An in-depth exploration of self-reported motivations to play online and in-game behaviours in the virtual world of Azeroth. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 103-109.

Church, A. T., Katigbak, M. S., Locke, K. D., Zhang, H., Shen, J., de Jesús Vargas-Flores, J., Ibáñez-Reyes, J., Tanaka-Matsumi, J., Curtis, G. J., Cabrera, H. F., Mastor, K. A., Alvarez, J. M., Ortiz, F. A., Simon, J.-Y. R., & Ching, C. M. (2013). Need satisfaction and well-being: Testing self-determination theory in eight cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44(4), 507-534.

Hagström, D., & Kaldo, V. (2014). Escapism among players of MMORPGs-conceptual clarification, its relation to mental health factors, and development of a new measure [Article]. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(1), 19-25.

Halbrook, Y. J., O’Donnell, A. T., & Msetfi, R. M. (2019). When and how video games can be good: A review on the positive effects of video games on well-being. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(6), 1096-1104.

Kuss, D. J., Louws, J., & Wiers, R. W. (2012). Online gaming addiction? Motives predict addictive play behavior in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 15(9), 480-485.

Myrseth, H., Notelaers, G., Strand, L. Å., Borud, E. K., & Olsen, O. K. (2017). Introduction of a new instrument to measure motivation for gaming: The Electronic Gaming Motives Questionnaire. Addiction, 112(9), 1658-1668.

Reis, H. T., Sheldon, K. M., Gable, S. L., Roscoe, J., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). Daily well-being: The role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(4), 419-435.

Ryan, R., Rigby, C., & Przybylski, A. (2006). The motivational pull of video games: A self-determination theory approach. Motivation and Emotion, 30(4), 344-360.

Samuelsson, K., Barthel, S., Colding, J., Macassa, G., & Giusti, M. (2020). Urban nature as a source of resilience during social distancing amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Yang, C.-C., & Liu, D. (2017). Motives matter: Motives for playing Pokémon Go and implications for well-being. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 20(1), 52.

Zanetta Dauriat, F., Zermatten, A., Billieux, J., Thorens, G., Bondolfi, G., Zullino, D., & Khazaal, Y. (2011). Motivations to play specifically predict excessive involvement in massively multiplayer online role-playing games: evidence from an online survey. European Addiction Research, 17(4), 185-189.

(Editor’s Note. Yemaya Halbrook received the 2020 Dissertation Award from Division 46, APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology.)

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