Here’s a narrative that’s been gaining steam over the last few months: Young men are working less, quantifiably, and that is, according to economists, because of video games. It makes for a great story, for a very specific, millennial-hating audience. It nourishes the sweet spots of “those lazy kids” and “that gol’durn technology.” But, it’s wrong. And I can speak as to why, as it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the problem, treating video games as a problem as opposed to a symptom. When your life stinks, there’s nothing more magical than a world where everything makes sense and achievement is just a button press away.
The narrative, mostly driven by the work of economists at the Nation Bureau of Economic Research, pitches that video games are the explanation for a worrying drop in the working time of young men. Namely, those young men are working materially fewer hours, and it seems that instead they’re playing video games, as The New York Times sums it up:
By 2015, American men 31 to 55 were working about 163 fewer hours a year than that same age group did in 2000. Men 21 to 30 were working 203 fewer hours a year. One puzzle is why the working hours for young men fell so much more than those of their older counterparts. The gap between the two groups grew by about 40 hours a year, or a full workweek on average…Instead of looking at why employers don’t want young men, this group of economists considered a different question: Why don’t young men want to work?
Or, as the lead economist on the study Erik Hurst puts it, the value of leisure is becoming more valuable than what work provides:
Is it possible that technology has changed the value of leisure? I think the answer is a definite yes, and let me give you an example of how I am experiencing this firsthand. I have a 12-year-old son at home, and we ration video games for him. He is allowed a couple of hours of video-game time on the weekend, when homework is done. However, if it were up to him, I have no doubt he would play video games 23-and-a-half hours per day. He told me so. If we didn’t ration video games, I am not sure he would ever eat. I am positive he wouldn’t shower.
This is a scientist using anecdotal evidence about a person who legally cant participate in the workforce. The conclusions, found in more detail in the paper itself, argue that because video games are more available and more engaging, young men would rather play video games than work. The basic idea is about the opportunity cost of working less to play more video games — the point being that life is improved by an extra few hours of video games more than it’s detracted from by loss of income for those missing hours. Interestingly, there’s some debate as to whether this is also a problem in South Korea and it’s not clear why this affects only young men, and not women, who make up 41% of gamers. Oddly, Japan, which has a problem with NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training), doesn’t seem to be losing its young men to video games.
Having been a young man who got sucked into video games, I think I can offer a different perspective here. If your life is awful, video games can be the perfect escape, to the point where you escape too much. And the worse your life is, the more intense that escape can get.
My early twenties sucked, in the way everyone’s early twenties sucked. Bad relationships, no money, lousy jobs, struggles with friends. And everyone has a different coping strategy, be it sex, chemicals, or binge-watching TV shows. Mine was video games. In video games, the rules are clear, easy to learn, and easy to follow. There’s no confusion about what path to take. If you’re broke in a video game, you can solve it in five minutes. Relationship problems don’t exist; if they do, they can be solved with a few lines of dialogue. If you screw up you can go back and try again.
Everything is simple in a video game. Everything works. Everything, when the game is done right, is fair. Everything is understood, everybody is always on the same basic page, problems are clear with distinct solutions. Who doesn’t want to live in that world?
I could disappear into it for entire weekends, and, in my early twenties, I often did. In fact, when my girlfriend at the time found her employment situation falling apart and suddenly I was effectively the sole breadwinner in a two-person household, video games and beer were pretty much my entire life, often with little regard for the friends I didn’t talk to, the girlfriend who could barely get my attention, and the employers who ultimately decided that if I was going to show up and half-ass it, why keep me around? And I’m a mid-level example. A roommate I had after college inherited thousands of dollars and literally spent a year on his ass playing Kingdom Hearts. And it gets worse; “poopsocking” is slang for not even getting up from your game to take a dump. Guess what the gamers who pioneered this practice do instead?
I’m lucky in the sense that I didn’t slip into that full-on addiction. And I didn’t do any permanent damage to my friends and family — although I did bruise some feelings. And, looking back, I think the person I hurt the most was myself, at least professionally, which lines up with Hurst’s concerns:
There is some evidence that these young, lower-skilled men who are happy in their 20s become much less happy in their 30s and 40s. They haven’t accumulated on-the-job skills because they spent their 20s idle… It’s a bad combination: low labor demand plus the accumulated effects of low labor supply makes economic conditions for these aging workers pretty bleak.
I didn’t spend my twenties idle. I managed to stay employed, get my bills paid, and even eventually turn into an adult when I wasn’t looking. But for years, I was in a haze. I didn’t have to deal, so I didn’t, and that filters down to everything in your life, eventually. It’s so gradual that you don’t even notice.
At the same time, a lot of these young men are facing a situation far bleaker than anything I stared down. The unemployment rate for millennials sits at 12% in an economy with 4.3% unemployment. Worse, about half of millennials with college degrees are underemployed, that is, holding down work that doesn’t require a college degree.
So, millennials are broke and have lots of free time, right when many of the most popular games that eat hours of your time are cheap or even free, and computers have never been more necessary or accessible in modern society. Popular eSports games like League of Legends are playable for free and, unlike the high-spec games of yore, can run on virtually any machine. Smartphones can run thousands of free games, and Hurst’s data, based on self-reporting, doesn’t seem to differentiate between mobile games like Clash of Clans and console games. Even full-priced games come with multiplayer modes that people can (and do) sink years of their lives into. PC games are perpetually on sale. If you’re a millennial whose job sucks, or you can’t find a job, have a lot of free time and no money and are staring down a terrible job market, why are we assuming video games are the problem, and not the symptom of a society that doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain when it comes to allowing you to be a full-fledged adult?
There’s a danger in being too reductive, whether you’re an economist assuming an unemployed young man is just like his twelve-year-old or a video game writer projecting his emotional struggles onto millions of others. People opt out of dealing with their personal circumstances, in a vast number of ways, for a vast number of reasons. But millennials are facing a complex, and unprecedented set of problems. It takes nuance and a dexterous handling. Because the truth is, if young men are playing more video games, it’s far more likely a symptom of wider economic concerns, not the cause.