The Sinkhole of Video Games

Video games are better than real life.  “I had bonded with Leon, a graphic designer, musician, and Twitter magnate, over our shared viewership of online broadcasts of the Street Fighter tournaments held every Wednesday night at Next Level. It was his first time attending the venue in person and his first time entering the tournament. I wasn’t playing, but I wanted to see how he’d do, in part because I had taken to wondering more about video games lately — the nature of their appeal, their central logic, perhaps what they might illuminate about what had happened the night before. Like so many others, I played video games, often to excess, and had done so eagerly since childhood, to the point where the games we played became, necessarily, reflections of our being.

“To the uninitiated, the figures are nothing if not staggering: 155 million Americans play video games, more than the number who voted in November’s presidential election. And they play them a lot: According to a variety of recent studies, more than 40 percent of Americans play at least three hours a week, 34 million play on average 22 hours each week, 5 million hit 40 hours, and the average young American will now spend as many hours (roughly 10,000) playing by the time he or she turns 21 as that person spent in middle- and high-school classrooms combined. Which means that a niche activity confined a few decades ago to preadolescents and adolescents has become, increasingly, a cultural juggernaut for all races, genders, and ages. How had video games, over that time, ascended within American and world culture to a scale rivaling sports, film, and television? Like those other entertainments, video games offered an escape, of course. But what kind?

“In 1993, the psychologist Peter D. Kramer published Listening to Prozac, asking what we could learn from the sudden mania for antidepressants in America. A few months before the election, an acquaintance had put the same question to me about video games: What do they give gamers that the real world doesn’t?

“The first of the expert witnesses at Next Level I had come to speak with was the co-owner of the establishment. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew his name and face from online research, and I waited for an opportune moment to approach him. Eventually, it came. I haltingly asked if he’d be willing, sometime later that night, to talk about video games: what they were, what they meant, what their future might be — what they said, perhaps, about the larger world.

“Yes,” he replied. “But nothing about politics.”

“In June, Erik Hurst, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, delivered a graduation address and later wrote an essay in which he publicized statistics showing that, compared with the beginning of the millennium, working-class men in their 20s were on average working four hours less per week and playing video games for three hours. As a demographic, they had replaced the lost work time with playtime spent gaming. How had this happened? Technology, through automation, had reduced the employment rate of these men by reducing demand for what Hurst referred to as “lower-skilled” labor. He proposed that by creating more vivid and engrossing gaming experiences, technology also increased the subjective value of leisure relative to labor. He was alarmed by what this meant for those who chose to play video games and were not working; he cited the dire long-term prospects of these less-employed men; pointed to relative levels of financial instability, drug use, and suicide among this cohort; and connected them, speculatively, to “voting patterns for certain candidates in recent periods,” by which one doubts he meant Hillary Clinton.

“But the most striking fact was not the grim futures of this presently unemployed group. It was their happy present — which he neglected to emphasize. The men whose experiences he described were not in any meaningful way despairing. In fact, the opposite. “If we go to surveys that track subjective well-being,” he wrote, “lower-skilled young men in 2014 reported being much happier on average than did lower-skilled men in the early 2000s. This increase in happiness is despite their employment rate falling by 10 percentage points and the increased propensity to be living in their parents’ basement.” The games were obviously a comforting distraction for those playing them. But they were also, it follows, giving players something, or some things, their lives could not.

“The professor is nevertheless concerned. If young men were working less and playing video games, they were losing access to valuable on-the-job skills that would help them stay employed into middle age and beyond. At the commencement, Hurst was not just speaking abstractly — and warning not just of the risk to the struggling working classes. In fact, his argument was most convincing when it returned to his home, and his son, who almost seemed to have inspired the whole inquiry. “He is allowed a couple of hours of video-game time on the weekend, when homework is done,” Hurst wrote. “However, if it were up to him, I have no doubt he would play video games 23 and a half hours per day. He told me so. If we didn’t ration video games, I am not sure he would ever eat. I am positive he wouldn’t shower.”

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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