I’m what many people would call a gamer. I own and play a lot of video games, I see games as my primary source of entertainment, and I’ve even built my own high-end gaming computer. I’m also pretty well connected with the gaming communities studied in the recent controversial paper claiming that better video games may account for why young men are declining to pursue full-time employment. I don’t dispute the data backing up these economists’ argument, but I do take issue with their framing.
The premise of the paper (as it has been described in the popular press) is that young men are choosing video games over potential jobs because video games are as good at building the social networks and feelings of self-fulfillment as those jobs. However, my experience with this community suggests the opposite: Gamers who choose not to work do so not because because games are a great substitute for a career, but because the jobs they would qualify for don’t make them happy.
Among the gamers I know who best fit the profile of the demographic examined in the study, many are vocal about the dissatisfaction they feel with the roles available to them. This seems to be reflected in the data itself: The paper also finds that while more educated young men are also playing more video games, this has not led to a significant decline in their average work hours. Undereducated gamers, by comparison, tend to qualify only for jobs that are dull and menial, with low pay, poor mangers, no upward mobility, and high and risky barriers to better job opportunities (particularly, college education). Many don’t see gaming all day as a goal, but the best of several bad options—the exception being those few gamers who believe they can play competitively.
This mentality isn’t new or specific to video games, either: Before the advent of gaming, disenchanted young men with poor career prospects would spend their time practicing musical instruments and starting bands, playing or watching sports, working out, or just sulking around their neighborhoods with nothing to do. The uptick in the number of men now suggests that there are even fewer opportunities for this demographic than before; not that games are somehow far superior to these former activities.
The way we frame the impact games have on young men’s “flight” from the workforce is important for organizations that are trying to attract this talent. The framing of this paper seems to suggest that the question employers should answer is: “what makes games so good that young men choose them over our jobs?” I would imagine that, using this framing, gurus would recommend “gamifying” the workplace, making the tasks and the environment of the workplace reflect the games young men seem to choose over gainful employment. In fact, we’ve seen some organizations, such as Uber, do just that.
I would argue, however, that the question employers should ask is: “What makes my job so bad that young men choose games over working for me?” And for those employers, the solutions should be clearer and more actionable:
- Use recognition programs to bolster employee engagement in work.
- Provide training to low-level frontline managers to improve workplace relations.
- Offer meaningful opportunities to employees for advancement, either through internal growth or through a tuition reimbursement program.
Take it from me: It’s entirely possible to be both a devoted gamer and a satisfied, productive member of the workforce. The narrative that men are choosing games over work is a false dilemma. Long-term employment and underemployment among young American men is a serious problem that deserves a serious solution, but let’s not blame the games.