Headlines have been announcing that video games are keeping young men out of the workforce. Specifically, these headlines point to research by some well-credentialed authors suggesting that young men would rather game than work. The authors of the study used survey data collected from 2004-2007 and from 2014-2017 to make the case that as hours worked by young men have decreased, hours playing video games have increased (to be clear, they focused on folks not in college). Moreover, the cost of gaming and video game equipment have also decreased, making gaming software and hardware more affordable for people with lower wages (or presumably no wages). On top of that is the fact that games – unlike sports or dating – have changed radically in the last few years, becoming more immersive, diverse and portable than gaming has ever been. Given all that, are games leading young men to leave the workforce to pursue a life of gaming?
No. Well, at least, that’s not what the authors can conclude from this paper. They data they report shows that gaming is increasing but hours spend looking for work is increasing as well; in fact, the gain in gaming hours seems to come at the expense of other activities (e.g., sports or television) rather than job search. Other authors have raised other questions such as why hasn’t this occurred in Japan, where gaming is a much larger part of the culture? Shouldn’t any effects here be much more magnified there? Why are we seeing increasing in gaming hours from everyone, not just these young men? Everyone is playing more games, not just the unemployed young men the headlines focus on. These effects supposedly began in 2004, did games really dramatically improve in 2004? [Well, it was the year Halflife 2 premiered.] There is one point that has me really frustrated: if these gamers are happy to stay at home playing games instead of working, then why are they spending twice as much time looking for work and taking classes as they are playing games? Wouldn’t we anticipate a decline in job seeking to offset alongside an increase in gaming hours?
It’s actually kind of shocking how much harder young men are working to find work in the more recent survey. Heck they’re spending fourteen hours a week looking for work now compared to the nine hours they were spending a decade ago. While the headlines all complain about the increasing hours young men spend playing games (2.5 more hours in 2014 compared to 2004), they ignore the fact that the number hours young men spend looking for work has increased twice as much (5 more hours in 2014 compared to 2004). The headlines could just as easily read: “Young men spending 50% more time looking for work than they did ten years ago!” But why write that when you can just blame the problem on video games.
One of the chief criticisms of the study is that the longitudinal data the authors’ use indicates that the biggest driver of unemployment for young men is the economic downturn of 2008. The authors argue that the impact of that recession has mostly evaporated which is not at all clear. The other criticism is that – as everybody knows – correlation is not causation, so even if gaming hours and unemployment are related, it’s not evident that one causes the other. Perhaps gamers are choosing work less, or perhaps people who work less are choosing to game more. Again, if these gamers are so happy to be free to play games, it’s surprising that they spend so many hours looking for work. For such lazy gamers, they sure seem interested in finding jobs.
To me, this seems like one more example of blaming societal ills on video game culture. It’s much easier and more comforting to blame the trouble young people have getting started in this economy on their video game habits than on more complicated, structural issues. Historically, video games have been blamed for school shootings, car surfing, bank robberies, and rickets (among other things). And, for whatever it’s worth, we are all for games becoming less violent, more egalitarian, and more educational. But to blame video games (or video game “addiction”) for the employment rates of younger, uneducated men seems like a stretch beyond the data presented here. Ultimately, I feel that the argument that young men choose video games over employment feels like an argument that would originate from people with little understanding of video games or young men.