At Their Leisure: Why Some Men Don’t Work: Video Games Have Gotten Really Good

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Other experts have pointed to a host of reasons — globalization, technological change, the shift to service work — that employers may not be hiring young men. Instead of looking at why employers don’t want young men, this group of economists considered a different question: Why don’t young men want to work?

Mr. 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.

Between 2004 and 2015, young men’s leisure time grew by 2.3 hours a week. A majority of that increase — 60 percent — was spent playing video games, according to government time use surveys. In contrast, young women’s leisure time grew by 1.4 hours a week. A negligible amount of that extra time was spent on video games. Likewise for older men and older women: Neither group reported having spent any meaningful extra free time playing video games.

What Are People Doing With Their Free Time?

The time spent playing video games has grown sharply only for young men. Below, weekly averages.

The analysis excluded full-time students, and showed that the amount of time young men spent on household chores or child care was not going up.

In some ways, the increase in video game time for men makes sense: Median wages for men have been stagnant for decades. Over the same period, the quality of video games has grown significantly. In the 1990s, games like Mario Bros. were little more than eight-bit virtual toys. Today, you and your closest buddies can go on quests in games like World of Warcraft that can last for days.

Large, social video games did not become hugely popular until the release of World of Warcraft in late 2004. These games are very different from more rudimentary games like Pong and Space Invaders that older men grew up playing.

Experts say that the social aspect is particularly important.

“Games provide a sense of waking in the morning with one goal: I’m trying to improve this skill, teammates are counting on me, and my online community is relying on me,” said Jane McGonigal, a video game scholar and game designer. “There is a routine and daily progress that does a good job at replacing traditional work.”

Adam Alter, a professor of marketing and psychology at New York University who studies digital addiction, highlighted the fact that, unlike TV shows or concerts, today’s video games don’t end.

Most forms of entertainment have some form of a stopping cue — signals that remind you that a certain act or episode is ending, like a commercial or a timer. “Many video games don’t have them,” Mr. Alter said. “They’re built to be endless or have long-range goals that we don’t like to abandon.”

These characteristics make video games attractive to many people, and 41 percent of the American game-playing population are women, according to the video gaming advocacy group Entertainment Software Association. But this data showed no increase in video game time for women.

Mr. Hurst argues that women are more likely to choose the types of mobile games that people tend to play while doing something else, like riding in a car or standing in line. The time use survey captures only people’s primary activity, not the secondary nature of casual mobile games like Candy Crush.

The analysis also did not count activities like using Facebook and Snapchat or browsing the web. Time spent on those activities did not grow as much as time spent on video games.

Some economists are skeptical of the conclusions, pointing out that the labor force participation rates for young men in other countries where video games are popular, like Japan, have not fallen in similar fashion.

But if we accept the authors’ claim that some segment of men is dropping out of the labor force to play games, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Young non-college-educated men — the group most likely to be home playing games — are more likely to say that they are happy than similar men a decade ago. Older non-college-educated men are the unhappier ones.

According to Mr. Hurst, young men may simply be shuffling around the years in their life that they want to work. “Why not have a little fun in your 20s and work in your 80s?” he said.

Of course, that assumes that young Americans who choose video games over work — a group for whom there is no historical data — will be able to find good jobs someday. And that they won’t be seduced by the kinds of games available in 2070.

Correction: July 3, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated an employment status for the video game scholar Jane McGonical. She is continuing to design video games; she is not a former game designer.

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