Some years back, I used up vacation time from my regular construction job for a couple of weeks to catch up on side work and take a little breather. On the breathing side of the plan, I indulged in a free trial period of World of Warcraft, an online multiplayer game. As a tradesman, one aspect of the game that struck me immediately was the amount of effort one could expend learning crafts in the game. Then, on the final night of my free trial, I set out to tour the online landscape and discovered that the initial island was only stop number 1 in a much larger imaginary world.
It may surprise younger generations to hear, but there was a time when the now-limited games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System were huge by comparison with what had come before. Not long ago, video games weren’t much different than pinball games, but less tangible, or like a less-material foosball table. Going through my grandparents’ storage area as a child, I discovered a prior generation of video games that essentially involved putting a plastic sheet over the TV screen to give some story and context to lights that would appear on the screen. The distance from such games to life and productive activity was vast.
For me, World of Warcraft was the stage of convergence between video games and reality at which an existential matter came into focus: Finding meaning in life entails making an adventure of it, and every menial thing one does can be part of the game. If learning how to skin animals and make leather goods for trade can be a fun part of a game, why wouldn’t such work be a fun part of life?
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. The decision may not even be completely conscious, but surveys suggest that young men are happier for it.
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. To determine this, the researchers analyzed changes in how people were allocating their time to leisure, and ran statistical tests that they say show that technological improvements are pushing people to spend much more time playing video games. That, in turn, is changing people’s trade-offs about when to work and when to play.
Sure, they’re happy in the way that addicts are while high. Eventually, though, mom and dad aren’t around to cover the Internet bill. If this trend is evidence that our society is failing in its responsibility to provide productive meaning for its younger members, then over time, larger segments of society will become disinclined to be the suckers who keep everything going for the benefit of these slackers.
We’ve effeminized education, belittled masculinity, made young men forever suspect, and generally infantilized our culture and through our moral laxity have drained it of meaning beyond the short-term rewards of pleasure that one young man in the article cites as motivation to get lost in video games. What do we think is going to happen when we allow that?