Employment rates for young men are dropping sharper than any other group. Is gaming to blame?
In the 1990s technology disruption of the workforce accelerated with the advent of computers and high-speed internet. Increased automation, globalization and digital platforms caused the nature of work to shift forever. But these were not the only technologies that would have an impact on the workforce, and another may surprise you: video games.
Why Work When You Can Game Instead?
Over the last 15 years as video game usage has increased, so too has unemployment for young men in their early 20s 1 1. Aguiar, Bils, Charles, Hurst, 2017: Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men × . Not going to school, and without a bachelor’s degree, these young men have replaced 75% of the time they used to spend working with playing video games.
Most alarming of all, happiness surveys show they aren’t unhappy in life, in fact, they are content. What could be better than playing video games all day? That is until they reach their 30s and that contentment leads to depression as they realize how far behind in life they are, without adequate skills to acquire work and provide for a family.
We see this phenomenon reflected in the Game Quitters community, with 44% of our members unemployed, 21% working part-time or casually, and only 35% in full-time employment. The majority of our community are men aged 18-32, and 60% of them earn less than $500 each month.
Video Game Addiction Hurts the Economy
When you struggle with a video game addiction, merely undertaking necessary and normal every activities is a full-time job. This level of impairment hurts your capacity to obtain employment, or perform if you have managed to get one. A study 2 2. Rumpf et al., 2014 × in Europe found that gaming addicts reported missing 7.5 days of work in the last 12 months, the same amount as those who struggle with social phobia, but higher than those with depression (4.1 days) and cardiovascular conditions (7.2 days) 3 3. Alonso et al., 2011 × .
Steve, a video game addict, regularly finds himself calling in sick to work in order to game: “I downloaded the game and played a lot that night. The next morning, I woke up and said “I’m calling into work.” And I played games all day. Then the next day I said “I’m calling in again.” I spent the morning playing and I was starting to feel irritable and paranoid but the gaming felt so good and I missed it so much and my brain was so happy. But then I was sad, frustrated, and pissy.”
It’s difficult to work if you struggle with a gaming addiction. Gaming is all-encompassing. You get lost in it for hours and hours without even noticing. It becomes your world. And this has an impact on our economy. In South Korea, a study estimated the socioeconomic loss due to excessive internet use to be between 1.5 and 4.5 billion dollars in 2009 4 4. Lee, H. K., Kim, H. S., & Lee, T. J. (2011). Cost-effect analysis on the introduction of online game shut down regulation. Seoul, Republic of Korea: Ministry of Gender Equality & Family × . Imagine what the socioeconomic impact is worldwide when young men are too busy gaming to be working and contributing to society.
Pretending to Work
I struggled with this myself. Addicted to video games, I withdrew from the real world. I dropped out of high school, never graduated, and while all of my friends were off to college, I was at home playing video games up to 16 hours a day. As much as I had fun playing games, I also struggled with depression. Since I wasn’t going to school my parents told me I had to get a job, so I ‘got’ one at a restaurant as a prep cook. Except I didn’t actually get the job, and instead, pretended to have it.
Every morning, after gaming all night, my dad would drop me off at the restaurant for work. As soon as he drove off I would walk across the street and catch the bus back home, sneaking in through my window, and going to sleep. This would go on for a few weeks before naturally they would ask me where the paycheck was, which is when I would make up an excuse and say I quit or I got fired or whatever else I could suggest to deceive them with. Then I would pretend to get a new job, rinse and repeat.
Eventually as much as gaming allowed me to escape from my situation it didn’t actually fix it, and my depression got to a point where I wrote a suicide note. It was this night where I realized I needed to make a change, and that change began with quitting gaming. I started to see a counsellor, and this counsellor helped me get—and keep—a job. This was the turning point in my life.
But it wasn’t easy, and for a month every morning before work I would throw up in the shower. My anxiety to quit gaming, leave the house, and work was that intense. I missed the majority of my shifts the first month of work. I should have been fired quickly, but due to reasons I will never know, I was not. You could say it was divine intervention. Through the support of my family, my counsellor, and a deep commitment to make a change in my life, I was able to persevere and maintain my job. I began to rebuild my life without video games.
So why does this happen? How are these bright young men with all the potential in the world getting caught in a web of gaming and unemployment?
Gaming Changes the Brain
Video games are intentionally designed to keep you hooked using state-of-the-art behavioral psychology. Overexposure to this type of game design and hyper-stimulation can cause structural changes to your brain, including numbed pleasure response—every day activities no longer satisfy you, hyper-reactivity to gaming—gaming is really exciting and everything else is boring, and willpower erosion—even if you wanted to quit you would struggle to have the willpower anyways.
Imaging studies show an impact to brain regions involved in decision-making, behavioral inhibition, and emotional regulation 5 5. Weinstein, 2017 × . Gaming addicts also show increased risk-taking choices, and an impaired ability to control their impulses. Further, gaming addiction is association with dopamine deficiency, which studies have found impacts your desire and willingness to work 6 6. Weinstein, Livny, & Weizman, 2017 × .
Gaming Warps Your Perception of Effort/Reward
When you put effort into a video game, you improve. You see measurable progress with a score flashing across the screen, a leaderboard, and/or a mission completed. Games are explicit in their expectations and consistent in their rewards—many of which you receive through instant gratification. Real life doesn’t work the same way, with actions and outcomes often having no linear relationship. To a gamer this inconsistency can be extremely demotivating, especially when it comes to pursuing employment through the job market.
Ariel, a gamer who was struggling to find employment, shared with me that “in games you know you have to complete a task to make progress toward your goal, on the other hand in the job market it’s a gamble. You could send out literally a hundred resumes and only hear back from one employer for an interview, and they still might not even hire you.”
Why pursue work that requires effort, with no guarantee of a reward, when you could simply game all day instead? Gaming provides more control over your experience and the results you achieve, regardless of whether they are respected in the real world or not.
Jane McGonigal, a video game scholar and game designer, has shared with the New York Times that “games provide a sense of waking in the morning with one goal: I’m trying to improve this skill. There is a routine and daily progress that does a good job at replacing traditional work.” Many modern games are also designed to have no end. You can continue to play them indefinitely, one more mission—and day without a job—at a time.
Gaming Is a Safe Place to Fail
If you apply for a job and don’t get it, you experience rejection and that hurts. On the contrary, if you die in a video game you just press restart and try again. There is no risk. This level of comfort that gaming provides helps to explain why men are leaving the workforce to disappear into video games instead.
Ariel was actively trying to get a job, but turned to games as a crutch to escape feelings of rejection. “I was really, really getting frustrated with submitting resumes and applications to companies and never hearing anything back, so the resentment grew and grew, and I would heal that resentment by playing video games.”
Another member reports that “there was a safety in computer games that I could not replicate with anything else: the safety of the new game or reload button, where if things didn’t go exactly how I wanted them to go I could just redo it, and nothing of the previous failures would remain.”
Life Is the Ultimate Video Game
When it comes to unemployment there are multiple factors you can point to for blame: stagnant wages, a poor job market, globalization, automation, and the Great Recession to name a few. These are all important in their own right and we must be aware of them, but the fact remains, employment rates for young men in their early 20s are dropping swiftly, and they are escaping into video games with their newfound freedom.
To combat this as a society we must do more to recognize video game addiction and offer support services for those who struggle with it. We must break the stigma, as it only further isolates those who desperately need help. This isn’t only a public health crisis, but an economic one.