The Rise of the Gaming Life

Why are young men opting out of work and opting into gaming?

Posted Jan 14, 2017

Gaming is beginning to change our culture in ways that can be measured.

In studies on our use of time, young men without college educations are reporting unprecedented levels of what economists call “under-employment” or “nonparticipation.” These men are not disabled or making use of direct social services. They report not being in school or planning to attend it. We are experiencing very low levels of unemployment and so that cannot be the explanation. The explanation also cannot seem to be the recession. The percentage of young men who have been asked “How many weeks did you work last year?” and answered "zero" has doubled since 2000, when it was just 8% of similarly-situated young men (ages 21-30). Now it is18%. Not only are nearly a fifth of young men living what Aristotle may have called "slack" lives, this trend is growing. 

If it is not unavailability of jobs, what is keeping young men from the work force? 

The White House Council of Economic Advisors, in their report, "The Long-Term Decline of in Prime Age Male Labor Force Participation” writes, "The largest difference in how men in and out of the labor force spend their time is in time spent on leisure activities—socializing, relaxing and leisure, with nonparticipating men spending almost twice as much time on these activities than prime-age men overall, and more than twice as much time watching television.” The Council concludes that “these patterns suggest that men are, on average, not dropping out of the labor force to specialize in home production or to invest in skills to improve their future labor market opportunities." It seems that a large swath of our young men have become rather full time consumers of media, especially video games and on-line gaming.

There are many ways to approach this new phenomenon: economic, sociological, psychological and philosophical. Kory Schaff's reader on philosophical issues in "work" might be the way to begin a philosophical approach. 

But I wonder if we might, at some point, need to determine if gaming counts as "play." 

"Play, as an element of man's leisure, is not a frivolous concern which we are attempting to justify or elevate with profound expressions. It is important in the history of man's evolving civilization as an agent of culture building, as a means of the transmission of cultural norms, mores, and values, and further as an indicator of the parallel social development and civilization which provides the framework in which play occurs." (Religion and Leisure in America, Robert Lee)

Those of us who don't work in related fields may not realize what a long and serious tradition is involved in the study of play. Play has long been studied by theologians. Academic classics like Homo Ludens, written in 1938, point out that even Plato insisted that we have been designed to but play the "noblest games". Given how long ago Plato wrote, we can probably say that "play" has nearly always been considered an important element of human nature. 

Here is some of the description of "play" on which the numerous theorists seem to agree. They point out that unlike in animal society, humans of all ages play. They describe play as occurring in a social setting (the rise of multi-player games meets this criteria). They point out that play is "free." They mean this in the sense that no one can be meaningfully forced to "play." It is necessarily a chosen activity. They argue that play is not instrumentally useful. The aim of play does not extend beyond the playing. 

The phenomenology of play includes that it is considered real within the construction of the play situation. When the play is "on" it is serious; when it is called "off," it is no longer real. Play involves emotions, they explain. It is structured by rules. 

And finally, play is meaningful. As Lee writes, "Play may serve as a possible means of self-expression, mutual enjoyment, release from tension or loneliness, or an attempt to adjust to reality."

Are those of us confounded by the rising popularity of gaming failing to recognize how meaningful it is as an activity?* 

And are the work options available to young non-college degree men lacking the meaningfulness these men are finding in gaming? 

These may prove to be questions worth asking. 

*For a rather first-person account of how good video games engage players, education expert James Paul Gee's "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy" is useful.