Winning Games, Losing Life

Video games have begun to lure young men into a contented unemployment—and we should be worried
December 2, 2016 Updated: January 27, 2017

If our society had a canary that fell silent when the air became noxious, it would be the young men trading a job and family for video games—and saying they are happier for it.

Many young men between the ages of 21 and 30 have opted out of the workforce and are spending increasing amounts of time playing video games. But they’re not depressed washouts of the new economy.  Surprisingly, they report being happier than both working men their age and older men out of work.

Lawrence Summers, former World Bank chief economist and U.S. secretary of the Treasury, wrote recently that he expects virtual reality to entice greater numbers of young people to opt out of the job market, if current trends continue.

Erik Hurst, a macroeconomist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University, are citing research that video games are now so enticing they can keep men from going to work—and presumably, these men like it so much they don’t mind the stigma of living in their parents’ basement or on social welfare.

It’s a recent and profound change. In 2000, out-of-work, low-skilled young men were generally discontent. This is no longer true—though it remains true of older out-of-work men who are presumably less inclined to reach for a game controller.  

Krueger’s paper “Where Have All the Workers Gone?” notes that older unemployed men show “low levels of emotional well-being throughout their days and … derive relatively little meaning from their daily activities.”

For younger, lower skilled men, it can be more difficult to find work, but researchers are starting to believe this is not the only thing keeping them out of the workforce. And the allure of more immersive video games would also seem too simple an explanation, as few things as complicated as human behavior and changing social norms have such simple explanations.

Cynics and Skeptics

The fact that young people today also have a deep and abiding cynicism and distrust of society at large may be making it easier to turn their backs on it.

This cynicism among young people was documented in Harvard and Gallup polls last year, and researchers at the University of Georgia and San Diego State University found that between 1972 and 2012, Americans became significantly less trusting of each other and less confident in large institutions, including the news media, business, religious organizations, the medical establishment, Congress, and the presidency.

The study found millennials to be the most cynical generation ever.

It’s easy to paint a scenario where young people are repelled by a society they perceive as corrupt and enticed by video games that are ever more alluring. The sad reality, though, is that video games aren’t exactly uplifting the young people drawn to them.

Consider, for example, the proliferation of pornography, which is prevalent online and increasingly showing up in video games.

The American College of Pediatricians warns that online pornography can increase callousness toward women, make men think lightly of rape and infidelity, and steer them away from marriage and having children.

That’s before virtual reality kicks into high gear and some hedonist inspired by “The Matrix” tries to invent pleasure pods.

The allure of these online indulgences is primal and appeals to our most primitive human desires. Think about the palpable sense of power and viciousness one can experience when killing in a virtual landscape. We tend to make light of conscience, but people still have a base level of morality, and we pay a price in terms of our own self-regard when we take pleasure in things we’d otherwise consider vile.

Even games that don’t require such behaviour can be based on being engulfed in horrific scenarios. Sometimes that is what makes them fun.

Part of the allure of video games and online indulgences is that they offer a defined world where people can try, fail, improve, and succeed. The path is clear, exciting, and achievable, as opposed to a real world that looks ever harder to “level-up” in.

In an emotional sense, video games become a surrogate for achievements in the real world. And because many games have a social component, they also satisfy the need for some kind of community.

Game Versus Gamed

I once interviewed a young man who has successfully navigated the new digital economy. He exemplifies what it takes to succeed in the world today: being self-motivated, entrepreneurial, and willing to take a risk.

He built a company selling custom auto parts he has manufactured in Taiwan. He’s also an amateur futurist, watching trends and making predictions.

Like many, he sees today as a time of unparalleled opportunity for those with the skills and character to make it happen. But for those who don’t, it’s not so bad.

He posits that in the near future, a person could spend their days in virtual reality, taking no notice of the squalor they may live in, and sustain themselves on relatively cheap and easy to prepare protein drinks.

In his mind, this was not a dystopic vision.

Welfare housing, or even living on the street, might be a palatable existence if one can strap a smartphone to their face and be anything, anywhere, with anybody.

Most people, though, would likely wonder at the dignity of this kind of life. It may even prompt them to ask, “What does human existence mean if we are reduced to endless digital distraction?”

We’ve made it as easy and shameless as possible to indulge in our most base desires and we’ve done it so well that economists are working to measure its impact on the labor supply.

That should give us pause.

It’s considered old-fashioned and almost offensive today to talk about morals or self-restraint. We live in a time when happiness is its own reward, and if you can get it cheaply without hurting someone, we are generally OK with it.

But this is where the virtual reality fails to deliver.

That’s because it’s more like a drug than meaningful satisfaction, more distraction than real joy. Worse, virtual reality may even damage the character of our society.

Research into the neurological impacts of video games has found that gamers suffer lower levels of compassion and less developed brains.

Meanwhile, neuroscientist Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin has used MRI machines and sensors to do research on practitioners of meditation, including Buddhist monks.

He and others have discovered the tranquility that comes with aspiring to compassion is closely connected to contentment and other positive emotions. According to brain activity, those who embrace suffering as an inevitable part of life and aspire to enlightenment are the happiest people in the world.

While we might deride the young men who spend their days playing video games in their parents’ basement, it’s important we do more than weigh the economic cost of lost workers. We need to consider how our society has failed to convince these people that this world is worth making an effort to be a part of.

Because if we don’t pause to look at the world we are creating, and the alternatives we are offering to those who don’t want it, the basement each generation descends to could be deeper and darker than the one that preceded it.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Matthew Little is a multi-media reporter for The Epoch Times.