Undercover Economist

Fantasy gaming can be better than reality

“The only thing that can make me happy is computer games!” So declares my five-year-old son, tears streaming down his cheeks, with a vehement desperation that merely encourages me to ration this potent experience. I don’t recall my own parents restricting the time I spent gaming, but then I didn’t have access to computers until I was nearly 10, with the arrival of an Oric-1, with 8 glorious colours and a magnificent 48K of memory.

Maybe I didn’t spend much time on the computer anyway — my ability to play games would have been limited by the fact that my mother, something of a hacker, would be hogging it. Or perhaps I found the games less addictive than my son does, although I seem to remember many hours as a teenager playing the magnificent interstellar odyssey Elite. It cannot be denied that games are getting better: varied, beautiful, narratively engaging, and often social, too, with millions logging into online worlds, forging alliances and waging battles, all in character and alongside friends. Some games are dreadful clickfests, little better than slot machines. But that should not discredit all games any more than Fifty Shades of Grey discredits Finnegans Wake.

I stopped playing computer games in 1999, at the age of 25. Increasingly realistic games on ever-larger screens gave me motion sickness — few disincentives are quite as visceral as nausea. Then, in 2004, I met Edward Castronova. He is an economist who had enjoyed some media attention after calculating the gross domestic product per capita of Norrath, the entirely-imaginary setting of an online game called EverQuest. Mr Castronova pointed out that players who slogged away at the mundane parts of the game could earn real money. In-game achievements — stronger characters, magical abilities — could be sold to other players who wanted a short-cut. The wage was about $3.50 an hour, not a lot for a New Yorker, but serious money if you lived in Dar es Salaam.

The surprising idea that people could earn a living slaying orcs attracted some attention, but Mr Castronova pointed out something else: some gamers were spending serious amounts of time online. They played not for money but for fun, devoting many hours a week to engaging, challenging and persistent online roles. And if games are really such fun, who needs reality? Why work in Starbucks when you could command a starship? Mr Castronova published a book, Exodus to the Virtual World (UK) (US), in 2007, describing people turning their back on the physical world and spending more time in virtual ones. It seemed highly speculative at the time. But data from the US labour market increasingly suggest that Mr Castronova was on to something.

Four economists — Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, Kerwin Kofi Charles and Erik Hurst — have published their latest research paper studying the impact of awesome computer games on the US job market. The basic observation is this: the unemployment rate in America is at its lowest level for 16 years; if it drops a little further it will be at its lowest level since 1969. Yet some people — young men in particular — are completely disengaged from the labour market. (They don’t count as unemployed because they’re not looking for work.) In 2016 — excluding full-time students — 15 per cent of men in their twenties did not work a single week in the entire year. In the year 2000, the last time unemployment was this low, the comparable figure was 8 per cent

So at a time when most of the people looking for jobs find them, why are so many young men not even looking? One explanation is that they think there is no hope, but another explanation is that they would rather be playing a game. Food is cheap; living with your parents is cheap; computer games are cheap. Why work? Distinguishing the two hypotheses is not easy, but Prof Aguiar and his colleagues make a good case that the pull of video games is an important part of the story. Women and older men — who spend less time playing games — are more engaged with the labour market.

This is an alarming trend: if basement-dwelling videogamers are turning their backs on reality, they are missing a vital opportunity to pick up the skills, experience and contacts they will need if they’re ever to earn a proper living. The long-term prognosis is worrying.

Then again, good games do bring happiness. Joblessness is usually a reliable predictor of misery, yet men under 30 are far less likely to be unhappy than in the early 2000s. The proportion saying they’re “very happy” or “pretty happy” has risen from 81 to 89 per cent, almost halving the rate of unhappiness. The reverse is true for men over 30.

Without exception, the longest and firmest friendships in my life are with other gamers. I favour face-to-face games with dice and pencils, but those games still involve me and my friends stepping into a fantasy world. I am worried that so many young men are disconnected from the job market. But perhaps we should stop blaming the games, and see if we can get reality to pull its socks up.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 7 July 2017.

My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – out now in the UK and coming very soon in the US. Grab yourself a copy in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.

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