Where Have All the Gamers Gone?
  • Where Have All the Gamers Gone?


    The recent spat between TV host Bill Maher and fans of the late Stan Lee over comic books and their place in a "mature" society has raised a broader question: does being a gamer geek mean you don't participate in adulthood?

    Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

    What's Adulthood, Anyway?

    One of Maher's criticisms was that being an adult is now so uncommon that "adulting" is now something to be proud of. What constitutes adulting likely varies significantly, but one of those key indicators that economists like Erik Hurst worry about is participation in the labor market. Hurst's paper focuses on the parallel effects of young men not getting jobs and the rise of game play. The concern is that video games are getting better, more interactive, more imaginative and are therefore outpacing the enticements of the real world:

    On average, lower-skilled men in their 20s increased “leisure time” by about four hours per week between the early 2000s and 2015. All of us face the same time endowment, so if leisure time is increasing, something else is decreasing. The decline in time spent working facilitated the increase in leisure time for lower-skilled men. The way I measure leisure time is pretty broad; it includes participating in hobbies and hanging out with friends, exercising and watching TV, sleeping, playing games, reading, and so on. Of that four-hours-per-week increase in leisure, three of those hours were spent playing video games! The average young, lower-skilled, nonemployed man in 2014 spent about two hours per day on video games. That is the average. Twenty-five percent reported playing at least three hours per day. About 10 percent reported playing for six hours per day. The life of these nonworking, lower-skilled young men looks like what my son wishes his life was like now: not in school, not at work, and lots of video games.

    This is the jab Maher was making about modern U.S. society; that by focusing on comic books, adults aren't "adulting" enough -- getting a job, voting, getting married, etc. Hurst makes the same argument:

    ...I am concerned about how this will play out in the long run. There is some evidence that these young, lower-skilled men who are happy in their 20s become much less happy in their 30s and 40s. They haven’t accumulated on-the-job skills because they spent their 20s idle. Many eventually get married and have kids. When this happens, living in their parents’ basements is no longer a viable option. Playing video games does not put food on their tables. It’s a bad combination: low labor demand plus the accumulated effects of low labor supply makes economic conditions for these aging workers pretty bleak.

    This is not a new argument. Robert D. Putnam positions the decline in participation of "adult" activities as the loss of social capital, the necessary underpinnings for a society to function by the give and take of social networks. His example, in his essay "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" uses the fact that Americans are increasingly bowling without joining a league as evidence that social capital is eroding. Even in 1995, Putnam pointed the finger at video games:

    There is reason to believe that deep-seated technological trends are radically "privatizing" or "individualizing" our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many opportunities for social-capital formation. The most obvious and probably the most powerful instrument of this revolution is television. Time-budget studies in the 1960s showed that the growth in time spent watching television dwarfed all other changes in the way Americans passed their days and nights. Television has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower. In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment. The same logic applies to the replacement of vaudeville by the movies and now of movies by the VCR. The new "virtual reality" helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend. Is technology thus driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests?

    Maher, Hurst, and Putnam are all arguing that because gaming is more appealing and doesn't appear to be similar to the older forms of social connection, it must therefore be isolating. But is it?

    A Counterpoint

    The same concerns about young men entering the workforce have echoes in waxing and waning of Dungeons & Dragons's popularity. Tabletop gaming has largely been a communal activity, and therefore the "bowling alone" phenomenon is an existential threat to a game that relies on other people to play. Those concerns rose to the forefront when the industry contracted -- first, because there were too many disparate settings for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, then because there were too many open game licensed books that were of low quality for 3.5, and then because the 4th Edition of D&D was so different from previous editions while Pathfinder's popularity surged. In all three cases, the concern was that tabletop gaming's social currency had eroded because everyone was not playing the same game together. And yet, here we are in the middle of a golden age of tabletop gaming.

    What changed was that social networks shifted. Whereas before, gamers had to find peers to play with -- a model that pivoted largely on all players of the same age being stuck together for four years in high school and later college -- the Internet expanded gaming's horizons. Barriers broke down as to how to play, thanks to streaming; there are more people than ever to play with, thanks to digital platforms like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. Jane McGonigal argues that gamers are redefining what constitutes a "community" in her book, Reality is Broken:

    Gamers, without a doubt, are reinventing what we think of as our daily community infrastructure. They're experimenting with new ways to create social capital, and they're developing habits that provide more social bonding and connectivity than any bowling league ever could. As a society, we may feel increasingly disconnected from family, friends, and neighbors--but as gamers, we are adopting strategies that reverse the phenomenon. Games are increasingly a crucial social thread woven throughout our everyday lives.

    Are Maher and co. right, are we all "bowling alone"? The answer may be that's just how it looks to outsiders. If the recent success of tabletop gaming is any indication -- a game predicated on community interaction -- our community has merely shifted. Gamers, as McGonigal points out emphatically, "are NOT gaming alone."

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 65 Comments
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      If "bowling alone" is a proxy for declining social networks and the communal trust/social captial these underpin, it's hard to see that on-line gaming via Roll20 or similar is a substitute for that.
    1. Sketchpad's Avatar
      Sketchpad -
      I would have to disagree with Maher, Hurst, and Putnam. As an avid tabletop gamer/comic collector, I adult just fine. I'm married to a fellow gamer (whom I met via the old Wizards Community), have two kids that play games (who are 20-somethings), and spend time every week with a 10 person gaming group who also adult just fine. In addition, I know several people outside my group that are adulting gamers and/or comic readers. The insinuation is a bit insulting. Particularly when one could point to any fandom and make the same accusations. Maybe they should try to play a game or find a comic to read?
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Same song, different day. We heard the exact same arguments with the rise of television. I am pretty sure when the first caveman invented the wheel, the caveman next door boycotted it since the increased mobility would lead to an erosion of cave community.

      The real question of one of isolation. Does gaming lead to an increase in isolation? Clearly table top games do not lead to isolation. They increase social interaction in almost every case. Video games used to be a solitary activity, but that hasn't been the case for many years. Most video gamers I know play with other people. So, that is also a red herring. I think it comes down to people being stuck in a tribal mentality. "My tribe doesn't play games, so playing games must be wrong" being dressed up as pseudo-science.
    1. jdmcdonnell's Avatar
      jdmcdonnell -
      In my humble opinion, anyone who considers sleep and exercise to be "liesure activities" is actually doing a little too much adulting and will someday end up truly regretting the life they have lived.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      An interesting related point is that of "Third Place". It's someplace outside of work and home that you can go to and be recognized and accepted. The bar fromt he show "Cheers!" was a great example, but one that's begun aging out. One of the parts of a Third Place is that it's not related to either home nor work, so you can go there to get away from either.

      Do FLGS fill this role? I don't think universally. They may for some, possibly only on certain nights a week. For others they can game happily without going to a FLGS regularly for any social interaction.

      With games run at homes and online it's a different social dynamic. It's a set group, and a set schedule. And that group probably isn't particularly large - defiitely not as large as a bowling league.

      MMOs in guilds, similar for other games,and really anyone with a regular discord/teamspeak crew they hang with might be getting more of that Third Place need fulfilled then tabletop gamers. They aren't "bowling alone".

      This isn't saying tabletop gaming isn't social - it definitely it. It's just exploring the related topic.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_place
    1. 5ekyu's Avatar
      5ekyu -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      Same song, different day. We heard the exact same arguments with the rise of television. I am pretty sure when the first caveman invented the wheel, the caveman next door boycotted it since the increased mobility would lead to an erosion of cave community.

      The real question of one of isolation. Does gaming lead to an increase in isolation? Clearly table top games do not lead to isolation. They increase social interaction in almost every case. Video games used to be a solitary activity, but that hasn't been the case for many years. Most video gamers I know play with other people. So, that is also a red herring. I think it comes down to people being stuck in a tribal mentality. "My tribe doesn't play games, so playing games must be wrong" being dressed up as pseudo-science.
      I have seen references to one of the earliest confirmed written essays being a sumerian rant about "kids these days are too soft" etc.

      My brother and dad and friends have played golf and talked golf together regularly for decades. I have GMed with folks and talked gaming as long or longer. Now some of that for both is more online.

      It's no different. You can substitute bowling, pool, darts etc. Or chess or Go. Or poker. Or bridge.

      The one common denominator and takeawsy - attacks and rants based on badwrongfun are not limited to rpg edition/system wars and they always provoke.
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      I have to wonder why games (board, video, ttrpg, etc) are childish things. But watching sports (also games) is not. Why is playing a round of golf not considering childish? The word "playing" is right there. The difference between a childish activity and an adult activity is for the most part arbitrary. Some people shop for clothes by imagining what they will do while wearing the clothes. How is that different from a four year old playing dress up?

      These attitudes are just a form snobbery. What we sometimes call "your fun is wrong" around here.
    1. ardoughter -
      I have come to the belief that Maher's attack is not on gamers but an attempt to invalidate the opinions of a generation that are starting to get politically active and hold views that Maher does not like.
      Its about politics and the fact that brush Maher is using to tar the millennials with, has no tar, is beside the point, as long as the audience believes him and thus continues to not listen to the points being raised.
    1. D351's Avatar
      D351 -
      Three friends who I know through tabletop gaming helped push my car down the road to my house through snow this past week. The millennials are as alright as the boomers' economic system will allow us to be.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      To be a true adult means:

      - Ability to fend for himself.

      - Capacity of self-control and sacrifice, willpower, sense of responsibility.

      - Moral integrity although the rest of the world thinks that honesty is for naive idealists.

      ---

      I start to wonder about now it is a golden age for geek culture because now there is a generation of nerds who are sharing their hobby to their children, creating a link between both. Maybe the third generation.
    1. Gradine's Avatar
      Gradine -
      I don't get why these people are so upset; kids cant play games without getting off their lawns first.
    1. Bill Winski's Avatar
      Bill Winski -
      Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, NASCAR... The "fanboys", that I know, of these sports are just as bad (and in many cases, even worse) at "adulting" than most of the gamers I know. I won't even bring up the party boys that go out & drink 2, 3, 4 + nights a week...
    1. jmucchiello's Avatar
      jmucchiello -
      Quote Originally Posted by Bill Winski View Post
      Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, NASCAR... The "fanboys", that I know, of these sports are just as bad (and in many cases, even worse) at "adulting" than most of the gamers I know. I won't even bring up the party boys that go out & drink 2, 3, 4 + nights a week...
      But as I said above, those are acceptable adult behavior, aren't they?
    1. Cergorach's Avatar
      Cergorach -
      Articles like this promote 'Adult' behavior as a good thing by pasting a permanent label on 'things'. You can be many things at once that aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. You can be a child (of someone) and a parent, etc. The American 'adulting' mentioned here is something I despise, people that do 'adult' activities are quite often utter morons, not by their choices, but by their actions. 'Adult' doesn't mean much of anything when it comes down to it, it doesn't make you a good parent, a good person, a good worker/employee. Too many folks that pride themselves on being 'adult' don't have much else... There's a reason why I'm an IT freelancer, because there's a big market due to all those 'adults' that sit around, getting their 'presence bonus' and not doing much else, lacking insight, creativity, empathy and quite often skill and persistence. I'm not saying I'm not an 'adult', I can be 'adult' sometimes, just as much as being 'childish', it really depends on the circumstances.

      Priding yourself on being 'adult'... Shees! Go do something that makes you happy instead of sloughing through life being 'adult'!

      Ever hear of that riddle:
      "What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?"
      Humans do and instead of taking the day cycle figuratively, try living it literally... ;-)
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      It's more about the middle class disappearing, and the US being eclipsed by China and India, economically, and one could only assume technologically and culturally. Gaming is cheap entertainment compared to bowling, and normally people do focus their social lives around their social activities.
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      I didn't want to get into this with the previous thread, because it lends more respectability to Maher's opinion than it should be due, but I think the majority of geekdom "adults" just fine. (I perpetually hate that phrase, but more for the reduction of maturity to a simplistic phrase and oversimplifying the language, much in the same vein as the term "feels" getting substituted for pathos and empathy, which were two perfectly good words for that phenomenon of human experience, thank you!)

      In fact, the vast majority of adults I know and game with have children (who are doing well in school themselves), well-maintained mortgages, hold down careers with salaries ranging between adequate and very well-off, who managed their kids' braces/college funds/hobbies as they grew, who cared for parents or loved ones with disabilities, and in some cases run their own businesses. I also know a few man-children in the mix, or have run afoul of the law, or still live at home with no job, but they are vastly outnumbered by the rank and file who, in common parlance, "handle their ." All have a love of gaming or comics or sci-fi at their cores, but they are as varied in life experience as any who are not "geeks."

      Not long after the previous article, I happened across an interview with Kevin Conroy (who voiced Batman in the Animated Series) where he detailed his experiences a couple of weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks. He was in New York and volunteered at an emergency services kitchen because he wanted to help, and was told they had all the diggers and rescuers needed at the time. He tells that it came out that he was the voice of Batman (a fellow cook recognized his voice); he told the person he didn't think it would matter or help that anyone else learn it, but when word was spread, his interaction with the room full of people gave a lot of tired, worn out and hungry people a moment of escape and a bit of reinvigoration. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Conroy

      In the face of that, and in the face of some of Mr. Maher's own negative press on his previous opinions about the 9/11 terrorists, I really don't give a what he thinks. Someone doing a funny voice for a comic book character raised the spirits of a bunch of people (who were most all fans!) involved in a grueling hellish business, and gave them a moment of joy in the face of a wall of pain, and that has my respect. (My apologies if that gets too political, that's as far as I want to go on the subject. Mr. Maher is entitled to his opinions.)
    1. Aiden_Keller_'s Avatar
      Aiden_Keller_ -
      Quote Originally Posted by Bill Winski View Post
      Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, NASCAR... The "fanboys", that I know, of these sports are just as bad (and in many cases, even worse) at "adulting" than most of the gamers I know. I won't even bring up the party boys that go out & drink 2, 3, 4 + nights a week...
      I was going to comment something along those lines....Thank you.
    1. Toriel -
      I find it telling that there is no mention of the diminution of full time jobs on the market, while part-time jobs keep augmenting. If you're not going to give someone a full time job, then they will surely have more leisure time.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sketchpad View Post
      I would have to disagree with Maher, Hurst, and Putnam. As an avid tabletop gamer/comic collector, I adult just fine. I'm married to a fellow gamer (whom I met via the old Wizards Community), have two kids that play games (who are 20-somethings), and spend time every week with a 10 person gaming group who also adult just fine. In addition, I know several people outside my group that are adulting gamers and/or comic readers. The insinuation is a bit insulting. Particularly when one could point to any fandom and make the same accusations. Maybe they should try to play a game or find a comic to read?
      You disagree with Maher, Hurst, and Putnam because even though 22% of men aged between 21 to 30 did not have any work in the last 12 months its Ok because you have a job?
    1. practicalm's Avatar
      practicalm -
      The real issue that all these articles dance around is how everyone is expecting households to have two incomes. This is the cause of the disruption of the social fabric.
      Without someone at home to manage the house, connect to the community (PTA, churches, social groups, and local government), and help keep the family connected to the rest of the community, all of us are poorer.

      It's just harder to keep these connections and commitments with both adults working. If the next generation is rebelling against this then more power to them. Live on single incomes as much as possible. It's a hard thing.
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