The Ever-Growing “Threat” of Video Games

Another month, another societal problem that videogames take the blame for.  If only problems truly could be solved by simply not playing videogames.  Not only are they making kids violent, but they’re apparently making our young men into bums.  An article published by The Washington Post made a bold claim last month that recent research “attributes one-third to one-fifth of the decline in work hours by less-educated young men to the rising use of technology for entertainment — mainly video games.”  You read that correctly.  Videogames are actually luring people away from meaningful career choices.

Even as the unemployment rate has fallen to low levels, an unusually large percentage of able-bodied men, particularly the young and less-educated, are either not working or not working full-time.  Most of the blame for the struggle of male, less-educated workers has been attributed to lingering weakness in the economy, particularly in male-dominated industries such as manufacturing.  Yet in the new research, economists from Princeton, the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago say that an additional reason many of these young men — who don’t have college degrees — are rejecting work is that they have a better alternative: living at home and enjoying video games…

Young men without college degrees have replaced 75 percent of the time they used to spend working with time on the computer, mostly playing video games, according to the study, which is based on the Census Bureau’s time-use surveys…

The researchers are not merely saying that young men, out of work, are turning to video games.  They’re saying that increasingly sophisticated video games are luring young men away from the workforce.

‘Tis a bold claim, & not one I could swallow at face value.  Popular culture and media just loves to take insignificant claims & blow them completely out of proportion — even assuming they get the claims right.  Thus how I found myself researching employment trends.

This research initially came to my attention via an article on Destructoid.  It essentially parrots the same claims as The Washington Post article but, if the title of “Studies show our large, unemployed sons are playing hella video games to feel better” wasn’t a dead give-away, with a somewhat more ironic tone.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to review the research data myself, which is my preference in these cases.  The Washington Posts’ hyperlink leads to the agenda of the Center for Human Capital Studies Annual Employment Conference on unemployment, wages & productivity.  Doesn’t that sound like a riveting good time?  I actually feel bad for whoever got this story for The Washington Post.

But despite not being able to look into the study myself, there are several ways I can pick the supposed argument to pieces.  Firstly, the title of the lecture was “Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men,” which alone started raising some red flags.  Based on the name, it’s possible the researchers studied a variety of leisure activities, but The Washington Post chose to ignore the findings & instead decided to sensationalize a link with videogames.  Without evidence, I’m not even sure what was directly claimed by Aguiar, Charles & Hurst (the researchers).  The only direct quotes in the article were related to young men showing increased happiness despite the lack of income & the rapid increase of use in all areas of technology.  It would hardly be the first time a news outlet misfocused for ratings/views.

Also suspect is the fact that “Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men” is the only presentation during the 2-day conference that doesn’t have a PDF of the research article linked.  To their credit, The Washington Post does state that this research hadn’t been peer reviewed yet, meaning it hasn’t been scrutinized or attempts made to recreate results.  So other economists might not even agree with the results.

But, let’s assume that what The Washington Post reported was indeed exactly the claims  Aguiar, Charles & Hurst made.  Do the claims themselves stand up to scrutiny?

Well, firstly, they aren’t incorrect about the growing trend of unemployment.  Studies show that, even with the improvement in the economy, unemployment rates remain uncomfortably high.  Those particularly hard hit are men with high school level education or lower, matching the claims of the article.  However, these studies also show that all areas of the workforce have been affected.  While Aguiar, Charles & Hurst’s study showed that 22% of men with less than a B.A. aged 21-30 aren’t working, a study just a few years prior conducted by the US Census showed a decline of 21% in employment for men aged 30-50 with just a high school diploma, as well as a general drop in employment rates for all groups, though none as steep.

Interestingly, according to recent research into gaming trends, 42% of Americans play videogames at least three hours per week.  Also, the average age of those who play videogames most frequently was older than the demographic apparently afflicted by games, at 35 for men & 43 for women.  This fact, combined with the general ubiquitousness  of games in the population at large, suggests that videogames cannot be the main culprit behind the decline in employment.

So what might really be going on here?

Well, given that those without a college degree are the most affected, it seems clear to me that this remains a key factor.  The job market has changed considerably even over the past few years.  It isn’t like when my parents were growing up & those with just a diploma or less could expect to get a decent, steady job in manufacturing.  With most manufacturing jobs going overseas, it’s almost a requirement to have some level of college education to get something half decent.  However, I don’t feel comfortable blaming it entirely on the job market, as distribution warehouses have sort of taken over that role.  There’s still a place for unskilled workers, but given that the minimum wage has barely moved despite the spike in cost of living, even these options might not be viable for making a living.

I would also suggest, from personal experience, that changes in the way employers treat their employees might also be a factor.  Going back to warehouses, many of them have a mostly temporary staff to avoid paying full benefits, & rotate people out or hire on more to fulfill holiday demands.  Contract work has also become increasingly popular as a way for employers to hire people part-time while saving on benefits.  Even I only work maybe 20 hours every pay period as a contractor.  It’s an attractive way to both hire staff for a high wage while avoiding extra costs.

I also blame a large part of this trend on the welfare system itself.  I won’t try to explain how the system is messed up, but the long-&-short of it is that most people have correctly assumed that it’s pointless to work a low-paying job that doesn’t give you enough to live comfortably on while not negatively affecting your state benefits.  If the difference between working a crappy job & not working all together is only a few thousand dollars, not much by today’s standards, what’s the point?

As an article from The Brookings Press put it, quite simply, it’s complicated.

If videogames have impacted working habits, at worst they’ve offered a form of escape for gamers, at best they might even open up new opportunities.  I tried to find statistics on the number of people who partner to earn money through gaming in sites like Youtube & Twitch, but while I’m sure most channels don’t make enough for it to become a living, such new avenues might provide supplemental income for those stuck in low-paying, part-time positions.

So let’s stop demonizing gaming for a while, shall we?



“Studies show our large, unemployed sons are playing hella video games to feel better” by Steven Hansen from Destructoid
“Why amazing video games could be causing a big problem for America” by Ana Swanson from The Washington Post
“The Problem with Men: A Look at Long-term Employment Trends” by Michael Greenstone & Adam Looney from The Brookings Press
“The Vanishing Male Worker: How America Fell Behind” by
“Here’s how many people are playing games in America” by Colin Campbell from Polygon


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