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?