Published 29 June 2022

A trillion hours of play

University of York and Unity Technologies to explore how we play games in world’s largest games research project

The University of York and international partners have initiated a strategic collaboration with the world’s premier game engine developer Unity Technologies. The collaboration is focused on research exploring gameplay across millions of games titles and forms the largest research project on games that has ever been attempted.

Digital gaming has become a human activity on par with browsing the Internet, eating dinner or hanging out with friends. However, despite the popularity of video games and the hundreds of billions of hours we put into games yearly, how, why and where we play games is still poorly understood.

Reliable data on global gameplay is hard to come by. This means that valuable insights are lacking which the games industry could use to provide games that are enjoyable experiences to a culturally and geographically diverse audience. Now Unity Technologies, developer of the world’s most widely used game engine with over 1.5 million creators, has begun an unprecedented collaboration with researchers from the University of York and partner universities. 

This initiative will allow independent researchers to shed light on our gaming lives, using datasets gathered from hundreds of countries and hundreds of millions of players, expanding the scale of game research by several orders of magnitude. The data are completely anonymized and their use by the research team is governed by strict ethical oversight.

Dr David Zendle, lecturer at the University of York, comments: “We are incredibly excited to work with Unity. We know so little about gameplay globally, and prior work has generally been constrained to looking at only a few games or countries at a time. However, if we want to understand gaming in general, we need to study how we play games across vast numbers of titles and hundreds of countries. Thanks to Unity, we can now build an understanding of video game play on a global scale, especially for mobile games.”

Dr Anders Drachen, professor at the University of Southern Denmark, notes: “This kind of research has never been done before in games - the scale is staggering. We are seeing new market and play patterns emerge that we simply did not know existed. This is the first time we have been able to analyse which games are popular where, how they are played and how we engage with them, on a global scale.” 

The team, which includes Dr Catherine Flick, De Montfort University and Prof Sebastian Deterding, Imperial College London, has already discovered that there are distinct geographical and cultural patterns in which games that are popular where. Starting with mobile games, analysis of hundreds of billions of hours of playtime data from over 180 countries and territories, reveals how the population of these countries play games is incredibly varied but appears to fit within eight distinct profiles. These ‘cultures of game play’ have never been described before and give the global games community valuable new tools for understanding players both globally and locally. 

The project is part of Unity Technologies’ Academic Research Partnership’s Initiative and brings together an international, independent group of experts from across academia, with the University of York’s world-leading research environment in games research and data analytics at the centre. The collaboration initiates a paradigm shift in the cross-disciplinary domain of games research, enabling scientists to explore game playing in ways previously impossible.

The first reports from the collaboration, covering analysis of more than 250 billion hours of play globally, are already publicly available:

Understanding whether lockdowns lead to increases in the heaviness of gaming using massive-scale data telemetry

Did people play games more heavily during lockdowns - or did more people play games? A nascent evidence base suggests that individuals played video games for longer during lockdowns - and school closures in specific. This increase in playtime per gamer is linked to the potential for lockdowns to induce gaming disorder. 

In this longitudinal study we utilise 2 years’ worth of data, spanning 251 billion hours of gameplay from 184 countries, to investigate whether lockdowns did lead to more playtime per gamer. We find that whilst school closures are associated with increases in both total playtime within a country and the number of unique individuals playing games, no lockdown policy can explain substantial increases in playtime per gamer: our telemetry data fails to corroborate public health concerns regarding heavy playtime during lockdowns.

Transnational Patterns in Mobile Playtime

Do different nations play games differently? Previous academic attempts to map international differences in gaming have tended to focus on small groups of nations and self-reports of playtime. This has led to an evidence-base in which the existence of specific national gaming cultures are not well-supported by evidence. In this paper, we conduct a large-scale cluster analysis of playtime across 214 separate countries. Contrary to our expectations, we find that many East Asian countries are not highly different from high-GDP North European countries across several measures of play. Instead, a range of previously unstudied and highly differentiated transnational gaming cultures emerge from the data, ranging from Pacific Island states where gaming is infrequent but heavy; to clusters of small, wealthy east Asian territories (Singapore, South Korea, Macao SAR, Hong Kong SAR) with high standards of living and high levels of daily playtime per capita. This analysis highlights the diversity of gaming cultures across the world, and opens the door to future cross-cultural research in gaming.