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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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A Meaner, More Calloused Digital World? Not According to Researchers

Anyone who’s ever spent any amount of time gaming has had to field criticism from outspoken people that gaming leads to real-world violence.  Like clockwork, any time someone commits a heinous act of violence, the media & politicians will inevitably find a game console in their house & start making leaps that Evel Knievel would be envious of.  In their misguided politicking & fear-mongering, they overlook several basic laws of statistics.  For example, roughly half the population of the United States (155 million according to 2015 statistic) play videogames in some capacity.  Four out of five households contain a gaming device of some description.  Yet these incidents, despite becoming disturbingly frequent, are rare in the broad scheme of things.  Certainly a lot rarer than would be statistically expected if there was a direct link between gaming and violence.  Think about it.  At that level, every other person you met would be a raving psychopath.

While I think most people would agree that young children shouldn’t be playing extremely violent games, the literature linking violent games with aggression has always been suspect.  In fact, in 2013 the Consortium of Scholars, a group of 230 researchers, wrote an open letter to the American Psychological Association asking them take a more rigorous, less bias look at the topic.

“Numerous scholars expressed concerns that the composition of the task force comprised individuals who had taken conflict-of-interest public positions on video games prior to being included on the task force, and that the resultant meta-analysis was methodologically unsound… Concerned that the APA’s task force nomination process was nontransparent and appeared to be ‘stacked’ with scholars who had taken anti-game positions publicly in the past, over 230 scholars wrote to the APA when the task force was originally convened requesting that they retire all of their policy statements on media violence.” – Ferguson & Colwell, 2016

Aside from methodological issues with the conclusions drawn in such research, which would be horribly boring to read about, one of the biggest issues in this line of research is the main assumption behind it.

“Media scholars have often postulated digital game effects consistent with ‘hypodermic needle’ approaches in that no consumers are ‘immune’ to the effects of violent digital games or that the effects should be similar to exposure to violence in one’s family or real life.  Advocates of this position suggest that aggression is due to cognitive scripts learned from watching others and that media violence does not differ from real-life violence in this respect. However, this assumption of equivalence between real-life and fictional violence is a significant assumption.” – Ferguson & Colwell, 2016

In plain language, past media scholars have designed their research under the assumption that we are passive consumers.  Just as a hypodermic needle injects its contents directly into our system without any control on our part, any media we consume bypasses conscious processing, morals & personality predispositions, & will have a direct impact on our behavior.  It’s essentially brainwashing, or perhaps subliminal messages (which, by the way, has been disproved as a real thing).

Most of us would not be surprised to find that modern research views humans as active consumers.  Yes, what we’re exposed to can influence us in a number of ways, but how much it affects us depends on a variety of factors, including our own personalities, how close the incident is to us, & how we process it.  Seeing my father beating my mother on a regular basis will have a greater impact on my behavior than seeing a random bar fight on my way home.

Furthermore, modern research has shown that, contrary to conventional opinion, children do actually have a strong sense of distinction between reality & fantasy, as well as reality & play.  It’s a common technique in research designed to study aggression in children to observe how a child plays with toys or other children after viewing violence.  You can look up the videos yourself by Googling any combination of Bandura & Bobo, but essentially what Bandura’s imitative learning experiments showed was that children who viewed adults playing with an inflatable Bobo the Clown doll violently would themselves play with the doll violently.  However, it’s a far stretch to suggest that the same child who punched an inflatable doll would turn around & punch another child, & an even greater stretch to say that repeated viewing would result in a child more prone to acting aggressively toward others.

Even among animals, there exists a strong concept of play.  If you watch puppies or kittens play fight, you’ll notice that despite how rough they might become, there’s always a limit & a keen sense of when that boundary is crossed.  All is takes is their playmate yelping, & the playing instantly stops.  So if animal children understand this, why would we not think that human children, an arguably more intelligent species, would have an even more developed sense of this?

In their article “A Meaner, More Callous Digital World for Youth?  The Relationship Between Violent Digital Games, Motivation, Bullying, and Civic Behavior Among Children,” Ferguson & Colwell achieved results that not only found no correlation between exposure to violent games & antisocial attitudes, they found no correlation between exposure to violent games & bullying, & no correlation between exposure to violent games & prosocial behavior.  In fact, they found no significant difference between the attitudes & behaviors of children who did play games versus those who didn’t.

Even more amazingly, their results actually showed a correlation between exposure to violent games & higher civic behavior.  Civic behavior is essentially being involved in their community in a positive way, like volunteering.  In other words, not only were children who played violent games not more aggressive (the only measure in their test that affected antisocial & bullying behavior was being older & being male), but they were more actively engaged.  The researchers suggest one reason for this results is that “gaming in general is a social activity & that may be particularly true for action-oriented games.”  Given that most “violent” games tend to be shooters, which have a strong multiplayer component, this reasoning makes sense.  While online gaming can certainly have a toxic element, it can also foster friendships, teamwork & camaraderie.

Another intriguing finding was that they found no relationship between the amount of parental involvement & the amount of exposure to violent games.  In other words, even parents who supervised or even played games with their children didn’t prevent their children from accessing violent games.  This might sound counter-intuitive for gamers like myself that grew up with our parents having no idea what videogames were about, but just consider that statement.  Gamers who grew up.  Many people who grew up gaming are now raising children of their own, & encouraging them to take up the hobby themselves.  I find this to be a heartening thought.  I never had anyone to play games with growing up.  I lived out in the country, none of my friends gamed, & my parents weren’t that into it either.  They never made me feel bad about my games, but they never shared in the experience either.  But now there are parents who want to engage with their children in this pastime.

They don’t go into in this research, but I have a strong suspicion that parents are a big mediating factor in how the content in games affects children.  When a parent takes a vested interest in their child’s hobbies or activities, it opens up a lot of room for discussion.  So even if they are playing games with questionable content, it offers parents the opportunity to talk with them about it.  Contrary to what most people seem to think, we aren’t born knowing how to problem solve, or think through things.  It’s a skill that has to be learned & trained over time.  Games can pose a lot of questions, even without meaning to.  And even if you’re not pondering the universe, it creates a channel between you.  Being engaged makes kids realize that you’re interested in them & what they have to say.  And that means they’re more likely to discuss things with you in the future.

Overall, I found this article very encouraging.  Gaming is here, & it’s growing bigger every year.  It’s good to know that, if we let it, it can be a positive influence as both a hobby & a way to bring people together.

Article cited: Ferguson, C.J., & Colwell, J. (2016, July 18). A Meaner, More Callous Digital World for Youth? The Relationships Between Violent Digital Games, Motivation, Bullying, and Civic Behavior Among Children. Psychology of Popular Media Culture.

–  GamerDame


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