Video games are a fun way to spend the time. I spent many a happy hour as a kid trying to beat Super Mario Brothers, the game that came with the Nintendo console (I finally succeeded, rescuing the princess. Go me.) They are also a very addictive way to spend time, keeping the player in a boosted psychological state where he/she is stimulated, getting constant feedback on his/her actions, and making progress. Such a confluence of stimuli is rare in the real world. This may be playing out in the larger population in some unfortunate ways.
That’s the argument made by Erik Hurst in his convocation address at the University of Chicago last spring, later adapted into this essay. I had heard about this argument but finally got around to reading it after another weekend when I realized my 7-year-old in particular just might play video games constantly if I didn’t intervene. I require certain amounts of homework, and reading, and playing outside, and inside with non-screen activities, and music practice and other such things perceived as un-fun, at least compared with video games. Hurst notes that his 12-year-old son would play video games 23.5 hours a day if left to his own devices. While that might be pushing it, I have seen time logs from fairly intense gamers and yes, it can go deep into the night.
Our pre-teen boys are still under our thumbs, and in truth, Hurst and my kids will likely be fine in the long run even if they do play a lot of video games. As Hurst explains, everyone makes certain decisions about how much time to devote to work and leisure in life, based on the price of each. All of us like leisure, but if you can earn enough money, you tend to be willing to sacrifice an hour of leisure for an hour of work, up to a certain point.
But for some people, the value of an hour of work is a lot lower. It is no secret that people with lower levels of education have had a rough time in the current economy. Technology and globalization and all sorts of other things have reduced the demand for labor among men with less than a college education. Hurst notes that labor force participation for working age men without a college education has fallen from 84 percent in 2000 to under 77 percent in 2015. For lower-skilled men in their 20s, the drop was 82 percent to 72 percent — even more. While that might be fine if there was a corresponding rise in school attendance, Hurst says there was not.
So how are these men managing to survive? According to Hurst, recent data show that 51 percent of lower-skilled men in their 20s have moved in with a relative. Not surprisingly, Hurst notes, the average age of marriage for this group is climbing.
So if they’re not working or raising families, what are they doing more of? Spending time on video games. Hurst calculates that young men in this group have 4 more hours of leisure time per week than they had in 2000. Three hours of this rise were spent on video games.
Video games are a very fun way to spend leisure time. Indeed, they are so pleasant as to make a person value leisure more. So as the price of an hour of labor has fallen, the value of leisure has risen. It’s a recipe for not being very attached to the labor force. Intriguingly, though, it’s also not a recipe for misery, at least in the short run. In general, young men aren’t less happy than they were a few decades ago, despite working less (with work historically being associated with men’s life satisfaction). While it sounds sad to be living in a relative’s basement playing video games, at any given moment, you’re playing video games. Which is fun.
It’s a jarring picture. To be fair, there are always arguments about technology taking people away from the real world. Time magazine recently ran a very depressing cover story about some proportion of young men lacking interest in sex with real women, if you can believe that, because of the availability of pornography. As one commentator explained it, it’s the difference between dining out on filet mignon, and cereal for dinner. Yes, the steak is superior in every single way. But, you know, the Cheerios are already in your pantry. So, kids these days. Eating cereal for dinner! I never like the “kids these days” element of any argument. But there may be something to it too.
In any case, I have been pondering how to deal with the fact that video games will consume as much time as I let them take for some of my kids. What are the rules on video games in your house?