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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.
One of the most challenging and puzzling trends in the US labor market since the Great Recession has been the persistently high number of long-term unemployed Americans of working age. Even as the economy has improved and the labor market has tightened, labor force participation remains at a lull, and many of those who dropped out of the workforce in the past decade appear unwilling or unable to re-enter it. That’s particularly true of prime-age men without college degrees, who have lost ground in the job market as traditional blue-collar jobs have disappeared or become less lucrative—and will most likely continue to disappear in the coming decade as roles mostly held by women grow in availability and importance.
Employers and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to get these men re-engaged in the workforce, whether through earning college degrees or transitioning into traditionally female-dominated professions like health care. There is, however another possible explanation for the decline of work among young men: What if they’re not working as much because they don’t want to? What if they’d rather be playing video games? That’s the provocative conclusion of a new paper by economists Erik Hurst, Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, and Kerwin Charles, released recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The New York Times‘ Quoctrung Bui goes over the paper’s findings in detail:
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. …
Hurst and his colleagues estimate that, since 2004, video games have been responsible for reducing the amount of work that young men do by 15 to 30 hours over the course of a year. Using the recession as a natural experiment, the authors studied how people who suddenly found themselves with extra time spent their leisure hours, then estimated how increases in video game time affected work.