Gamers vs. Reality: Who Wins?

Economists have once again pointed a finger at escapist fantasy as the potential downfall of civilization -- with video games the most recent scapegoat -- due to young people supposedly finding their increasingly realistic escapism more appealing than work. And yet tabletop role-playing games are even more engaging than video why haven't they heralded the end of the world as we know it?
[h=3]What the Economists Said[/h]The Economist uses a lot of words phrases like"could" and "it would not be surprising" to reference what's happening in the video game world and, more broadly, society at large:

In 2016 the video-gaming industry racked up sales of about $100bn, making it one of the world’s largest entertainment industries. The games on offer run the gamut from time-wasting smartphone apps to immersive fantasy worlds in which players can get lost for days or weeks. Indeed, the engrossing nature of games is itself cause for concern.

The issue is the acceleration of unemployment rate among men in their 20s without a college education, which dropped from 82% to 72%. These men, who often live at home with their parents, spend each hour less at work in leisure activities, 75% of that time playing video games. The Economist posits:

Over the same period games became far more graphically and narratively complex, more social and, relative to other luxury items, more affordable. It would not be surprising if the satisfaction provided by such games kept some people from pursuing careers as aggressively as they otherwise might (or at all).

It's perhaps “not surprising” that the study The Economist quoted eventually zeroed in on leisure activities like gaming:

What these individuals are not doing is clear enough, says Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago, who has been studying the phenomenon. They are not leaving home; in 2015 more than 50% lived with a parent or close relative. Neither are they getting married. What they are doing, Hurst reckons, is playing video games. As the hours young men spent in work dropped in the 2000s, hours spent in leisure activities rose nearly one-for-one. Of the rise in leisure time, 75% was accounted for by video games. It looks as though some small but meaningful share of the young-adult population is delaying employment or cutting back hours in order to spend more time with their video game of choice.

Video games aren’t the only fantasy world being scapegoated. Cosplayers apparently share the blame as well.
[h=3]Cosplayers: The Downfall of Civilization?[/h]For young people in Japan, economic growth has been stagnant for two decades. Stagnation after the 80s real-estate collapse, combined with labor laws that make it difficult to let older workers go, have trapped young adults in Japan in lower-income careers, which delays them moving out, getting married, and having children. Masahiro Yamada made a familiar argument about why these young people are turning towards fantasy worlds in the Financial Times :

People are escaping to the virtual worlds of games, animation and costume play. Here even the young and poor can feel as though they are a hero.

James Pethokoukis picked up Yamada's thread:

Then again, they do have plenty of time to dress up like wand-wielding sailor girls and cybernetic alchemist soldiers from the colorful world of anime cartoons and manga comics.

Pethokoukis makes the argument that U.S. economic growth, averaging 1% annually since 2006, coupled with a surge in convention attendance and cosplay popularity, puts America on a parallel track to Japan where “young people give up on reality”:

When you're disillusioned with the reality of your early adult life, dressing up like Doctor Who starts looking better and better.

The concern seems to be that gaming is too good as what it does, offering rewards and incentivizing players much better than real life:

The economists who worry about the seductive power of gaming fear that gamers who miss the scheduled step away from virtual play and into a proper adulthood will never “level up” to that truly immersive competitive experience. Instead, they become stuck at a phase of the game which no longer satisfies, yet which they cannot move beyond. The designers of the game of life, such as they are, may have erred in structuring the game in a way that encourages young people to seek an alternate reality…Unsurprisingly, some players are giving up, while others are filling the time not taken up in rewarding, well-compensated work with games painstakingly designed to make them feel good.

It’s not hard to see how this line of thinking leads to tabletop games, board games, card games, and indeed just about every other leisure activity enjoyed by young people as somehow being to blame for society’s ills.
[h=3]Why This is Nonsense[/h]There's a lot of things wrong with the conclusion these articles draw, not the least of which is that correlation does not imply causation. Simply put, the rise of unemployment and gaming does not necessarily mean that fantasy escapism causes unemployment. We already have a narratively complex, more social and more affordable form of gaming with the most realistic graphics ever: tabletop role-playing games. And despite claims to the contrary, tabletop gamers haven't caused a wave of unemployment. Pethokoukis concludes the real problem isn’t the fantasy at all:

It's not to say that all or even most cosplay aficionados are struggling to find work. It's only to say that any rise in people fleeing reality for fantasy suggests problems with our reality.

Rob Bricken put it this way on io9 :

If our economy is driving people to escape from reality, then perhaps television, movies, sports, books, alcohol, drugs, and videogames might be somewhat more recognizable factors than cosplayers. And if that's the case, then I also have to wonder if maybe — just maybe — this desire to escape is true of people of all ages who are...struggling to find jobs and to hold them, who resent their lack of advancement, or more likely their lack of anything resembling job security.

Ryan Avent in The Economist concludes:

A society that dislikes the idea of young men gaming their days away should perhaps invest in more dynamic difficulty adjustment in real life. And a society which regards such adjustments as fundamentally unfair should be more tolerant of those who choose to spend their time in an alternate reality, enjoying the distractions and the succour it provides to those who feel that the outside world is more rigged than the game.

The problem with young people leaving the workforce may have much less to do with escapist fantasy and much more to do with the state of the modern workplace. Jane McGonigal explains in "Reality is Broken" that we need to flip the script. If society feels threatened by gaming, maybe it's time it borrowed some concepts to make reality better:

Game developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme effort and reward hard work. They know how to facilitate cooperation and collaboration at previously unimaginable scales. And they are continuously innovating new ways to motivate players to stick with harder challenges, for longer, and in much bigger groups. These crucial twenty-first-century skills can help all of us find new ways to make a deep and lasting impact on the world around us.

In the future, we may all be gamers.

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 You can follow him at Patreon.

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

log in or register to remove this ad


First Post
>> And yet tabletop role-playing games are even more engaging than video why haven't they heralded the end of the world as we know it?

By what measure? And for who?

The feedback cycle in video games is fast, very fast. The pleasure centers of the brain are activated briefly, many times in succession - which is uncommon in nature. For some, this drives addictive behavior. Is it addictive enough to keep them in the basement playing games instead of improving their chances at employment? Conceivable.

In general, tabletop games have a slower pace. The payoff for actions comes later - sometimes days or even weeks later.

I'll let my 9 year old son play tabletop games all he wants, but I strictly limit his computer game playing (to nearly zero). (For what its worth, I do the same for myself. I don't play video games at all except during the rare periods where I'm completely between projects.)



First Post
I'm surprised, after the 2008 crash, that nobody isn't pointing fingers at economists as being the downfall of civilisation.

Lots of people do attach some blame to economists - and it seems clear that many were (and are!) corrupted by free-flowing money.

But, I wouldn't indict economics as a whole, as there are economists doing interesting data-driven work that has little to do with finance.


i thought the downfall was bank loans to stupid people who couldn't afford a 300K mortgage making 40K a year, all while having 2 new cars as well.

Nice article showing the idiocy of some of the articles that get traction to the general public.

Funny that you mention the housing crash as it's currently on the verge of happening in Canada too. I think the latest survey from Manulife showed that over 70% of people couldn't afford a 10% increase in their mortgage payments, which equates to roughly a 1% increase in interest rates.

I think that is a bit more important that a few video games making people late for work.

This is a tricky subject.

There is very likely a chicken-and-egg situation going. The economy is bad and unemployment is high so people turn to videogames, which slows their finding of a job and boosting the economy. But I think the "Great Recession" of the late '00s is far more to blame with that.

While I know politics is verboten on this forum, the decline of the USA as a world power is also a huge factor that deserves *some* mention: it's too big of an elephant. (Elephant the idiom not the political system: the decline is a systemic problem that has been going on for 20-30 years and is far beyond individual parties…) The nation peaked and is on the downward spiral, like the UK following the Second World War. The USSR broke itself trying to win the Cold War through uber communism and the US has seriously hurt itself through hardcore capitalism, but is simply falling apart at a slower rate.
The past couple generations have faced the hard reality that their lives might be worse than their parents: housing and education have become harder to afford, and careers scarcer. It's something the cynical and embittered Generation X faced and now Millennials are facing it as well, knowing they might not only be worse off than their parents… but their grandparents! That's a hard, bitter reality and escapism is a nice alternative.
That drives a lot of the problems mentioned in the articles, like youths staying at home longer and not finding careers. Videogames aren't a factor there… They're a symptom of a much larger problem.

Ditto Japan. That nation has an ageing population. But that grey population is marked by a work ethic that pushes them not to retire and to work all the way to the grave, and experiences greater longevity than their Western counterparts.

All that said, escapism and gaming CAN be a problem. Like marijuana.
Pot is totally not physically addictive. It's not going to mess up your life nearly as badly as alcohol or any other drug, legal or otherwise. But marijuana is dangerous because it makes it okay to be bored. It makes you feel good without having earned the sensation and makes it easier to remain in an otherwise unsatisfying place in your life. A job or relationship or living accommodation. Because, without the easy escape, you might be more motivated to make actual and lasting changes in your life.
But to some degree, it's the unavailability of the dreams. The amount of work required or the impossibility of the task that drives people not to even try. People feel trapped.
Videogames are not the only cause for this. "Living for the weekend" has been around for a while. The Al Bundy situation where you come home to the television. But videogames do ramp that up to 11, with increased positive feedback.
Moderation in all things...

Dating is another story.
Videogames potentially don't impact dating. You come home from work, you play a videogame, you go to bed. Videogames aren't affecting dating, they're affecting TV consumption. A solo activity. It's not affecting weekend activities.

The thing is, it IS tempting to just play videogames on weekends. If you don't already have plans, rather than doing something random and potentially boring (going to a singles bar, coffee shop, bookstore, or other place to meet women) you just play videogames for guaranteed entertainment. Going out to meet women or men becomes more of a social activity, dependant on the schedules of friends.
I played a lot of videogames on weekends, and going out to the club was often a much needed break from videogames. But had I (and my friends) been more active during the day, I'd have stayed on the computer or consoles in the evenings to relax. And when my friends were busy, I never went out to the club solo.

Not leaving the house reduces your availability. That chance of meeting someone.

Meanwhile, spending your free time playing videogames doesn't make you that interesting of a person. You're not being active (and thus traditionally physically attractive) you're not engaging in activities that make for a diverse range of engaging conversations, and you're not practicing social skills. Heavy use of videogames makes you less datable.

While so many other commenters here are lambasting the article for drawing tentative connections between two potentially unrelated phenomena… I'm totally going to do the same.
I do wonder if the above-mentioned reduction of dating and the spike of misogyny are strongly related. There's a strong connection between the videogaming and misogyny, as seen by the GamerGate and the inherent sexism in that movement & its origins.
You have an entire generation of youths who are making themselves less available to date, and thus less active sexually. Pair that with media portrayals of youth as debaucherous affairs and some pretty heavy objectification of women in videogames, and you end up with young men becoming embittered. Because, as always, it's easier to look at an external factor to blame rather than looking inward.

Related Articles

Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

An Advertisement