Economics, Politics, recent, Tech

Video Games and the (Male) Meaning of Life

Virtual worlds give back what has been scooped out of modern life . . . it gives us back community, a feeling of competence, and a sense of being an important person whom people depend on.
—Jonathan Gottschall

When I was seven, my parents bought me and my brother an Atari 2600, the first mass game console. The game it came with was “Asteroids.” We played that game an awful lot. One night, we snuck down in the middle of the night only to discover my Dad already playing.

My brother and I loved going to local arcades and try to make a few quarters last as long as possible. It was the perfect set of incentives—you win, you keep playing. You lose, you’re forced to stand there and watch others play, hoping that someone is forced to leave their game in the middle so you can jump in. We became very good at video games. My favorite was “Street Fighter II.” I memorized the Mortal Kombat fatalities to inflict graphic harm on defeated enemies. On the PC, I was hooked the first time I played “Ancient Art of War” when I was 9. As I got older, real-time strategy games like “Warcraft” and “Starcraft” arrived to combine efficiently building armies and settlements with defeating live opponents. My friends and I would sit next to each other in a house with several networked computers taking on strangers and talking trash. 

The amount of time I spent on video games dropped dramatically after I graduated from college. I wanted to go on dates, and playing video games wasn’t helping. I developed a notion that virtual world-building and real-life world-building were at odds with each other. I started reading books on investing and financial statement analysis, which seemed to me to be the real-world analogue to becoming good at video games. By the time I started dabbling in games again and asked my brother-in-law to school me in Defense of the Ancients (“Dota”) over the holidays, they had leapt forward to a point where I felt old and slow. Memorizing key commands seemed beyond me.

That said, I still understand and appreciate video games on a visceral level. I even imagine that I could get into them again. They speak to a primal set of basic impulses—to world-creating, skill-building, achievement, violence, leadership, teamwork, speed, efficiency, status, decision-making and accomplishment. They fall into a whole suite of things that appeal to young men in particular—to me the list would go something like gaming, the stock market, fantasy sports, gambling, basketball, science fiction/geek movies, and cryptocurrencies, most of which involve a blend of numbers and optimization. It’s a need for mastery, progress, competition and risk.

As of last year, 22 percent of men between the ages of 21 and 30 in the U.S. with less than a bachelor’s degree reported not working at all in the previous year—up from only 9.5 percent in 2000. And there’s evidence that video games are a big reason why. According to a recent study based on the Census Bureau’s time-use surveys, 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. From 2004 to 2007, young, unemployed men without college degrees were spending 3.4 hours per week playing video games. By 2011 to 2014, the average time spent per week had more than doubled to 8.6 hours.

The economists conducting the study, led by the University of Chicago’s Erik Hurst, strained to figure out whether men who were already detached were playing video games to pass the time, or whether video games were actually causing them to drop out. Evidence pointed to the latter. Their research indicated that improved technological entertainment options, primarily video games, are responsible for between 20 and 33 percent of reduced work hours. The trends are different for women, who have not seen the same increase in gaming at the expense of work hours and are more likely to return to school when out of work. For many men, however, games have gotten so good that they have made dropping out of work a more appealing option.

“When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded,” said one 22-year-old who lives with his parents in Silver Spring, Md. “With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.” Jacob Barry, a 21-year old in Michigan, finds it easier to get excited about playing games than his part-time job making sandwiches at a local Jimmy John’s, particularly given the sense of community he finds online. He plays up to 40 hours a week, the equivalent of a full-time job.

How exactly are these game-playing men getting by? They live with their parents. In 2000, just 35 percent of lower-skilled young men in America lived with family. Now, more than 50 percent of lower-skilled young men live with their parents, and as many as 67 percent of those who are unemployed do so. More U.S. men aged 18-34 are now living with their parents than with romantic partners, according to the Pew Research Center.

Video games function as extremely inexpensive entertainment on a time-use basis. After one invests in a console or computer, the marginal cost is near zero. Gamers can log hundreds or thousands of hours for the cost of one game or rental subscription. Time spent gaming is what’s known in economic terms as an “inferior good”—the poorer you are, the more of it you consume. Recent studies found that households making between $25,000 and $35,000 a year spent 92 more minutes per week online than households making $100,000 plus a year.

The image of legions of men in their parents’ basements playing video games for hours on end may seem pathetic or sad. But their satisfaction level is high. “Happiness has gone up for this group,” says the University of Chicago’s Erik Hurst, despite the high rate of unemployment. Hurst describes his findings as “staggering” and observes of his own twelve-year old son, “If it were up to him, I have no doubt he would play video games 23 and a half hours per day. He told me so. If we didn’t ration video games, I am not sure he would ever eat. I am positive he wouldn’t shower.”

Video games are fun and communal. Nowadays they’re also so well-designed that many almost simulate jobs if a job’s progress were measured in minutes and hours instead of weeks and months. In many games, you perform a variety of mundane, repetitive tasks in order to build points or currencies or accrue items. You then use these items to make yourself more capable. You complete quests with your friends or against the computer. You experience a continuous feeling of progress and accomplishment.

As one can imagine, the problems come later. Playing video games as a pseudo-job that doesn’t pay can be fun, social and even cool in your teens and twenties. By the time you’re in your 30s, your friends may have moved on and you become the loser shut-in who lurks around the local GameStop. “There is some evidence that these young, lower-skilled men who are happy in their 20s become much less happy in their 30s or 40s,” says Hurst. Their work skills and prospects will be limited, and competing in the workforce will be harder and harder. To the extent they ever wanted to go out and start a family, it may seem more and more unrealistic and out of reach. They are likely to stay detached, and may drift from video games to gambling, drugs and alcohol.

Indeed, the most recent General Social Survey showed that 31 percent of working age men who are out of the workforce admitted to illegal drug use in the past 12 months. The Annual Time Use survey in 2014 indicated high levels of time spent “attending gambling establishments,” “tobacco and drug use,” “listening to the radio,” and “arts and crafts as a hobby,” with over eight hours per day spent on “socializing, relaxing and leisure.” The same surveys showed lower likelihood of volunteering or attending religious services than for men in the workforce, despite having considerably more time.

“Every society has a ‘bad men’ problem,” says Tyler Cowen, the economist and author of Average is Over. He projects a future where a relative handful of high-productivity individuals create most of the value, while low-skilled people become preoccupied with cheap digital entertainment to stay happy and organize their lives. 

Games have come a long way since I was a kid, and they’re about to take yet another leap forward. Virtual reality headsets are creating experiences that will take simulations to a whole new level. Digital entertainments will get better and better. The analogue and the real world will become less and less appealing.  Before long, video games, virtual reality and pornography will merge into new forms of immersive experiences that will be more and more compelling. On a pure enjoyment basis, it’s going to be hard to beat.

Imagine a 21-year-old college dropout who is not excited to make sandwiches at Jimmy John’s and prefers his gaming community. 

You could say to him, “Hey, this Jimmy John’s job could go places. Sure you make $8 an hour now. But maybe if you stick with it for a few years you could become a manager. Eventually, you could make $35,000 or so if you really excel and are willing to work long and hard hours, including waking up at 5 a.m. to slice up tomatoes and cucumbers every morning, and commit to it.”

The above is possibly true. Or, the retail district around his Jimmy John’s could shrink and a management job might never open up. Or Jimmy John’s could bring in an automated system that gets rid of cashiers and front-of-house staff two years from now. Or his manager could just choose someone else. 

I can’t really say that the food service job is more intellectually stimulating or social than playing video games. The main virtues seem to be that it pays money, imposes discipline, has face-to-face contact with other real humans and might lead somewhere. In previous eras of growth, it really might have. 

I sympathize with this kid in part because I feel like the trade-offs are more difficult than most people realize. If I was given the choice between a dead-end low-end job for months on end or hanging with my friends playing video games, it would be very easy to choose the latter. The consequences are somewhat vague and down-the-road. Men imagine themselves to be kings, warriors, CEOs, athletes, ladies men, geniuses, soldiers, workers, achievers and part of a band of brothers. All of these things are possible online. 

Of course I believe that people should go out into the real world, get a good job, fall in love, get married, become a homeowner, have a child, be a good parent, leave the world a better place and do all of that stuff. I’ve tried to do it myself. It’s the substance of life and humanity. It requires a degree of evolution and positive social reinforcement—particularly trying to be a good parent.

But this version of achievement is not going to be sustainable for more and more Americans. The jobs are going to lead nowhere and then disappear. There will be very limited social reinforcement. The incentives to stay immersed in the virtual world will rise as the world outside gets harder and less welcoming. Billions of dollars will be spent facilitating their immersion.

A number of my guy friends have gotten divorced in their thirties and forties. Others have become detached from society. Male dysfunction tends to take on an air of nihilism and dropping out. The world and relationships take work. You gird yourself for the workplace in a suit of armor. If you ever take it off and stop working, you get swept away.

Many men have within us the man-child who’s still in that basement. The fortunate among us have left him behind, but we understand his appeal all too well. He’s still there waiting—ready to take over in case our lives fall apart.


Andrew Yang is a candidate for President of the United States in 2020.  He is the founder of Venture for America and the author of The War on Normal People, of which this is an adapted excerpt. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewYangVFA