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?
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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.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

And some of my nerd friends have been a total FAIL at raising a family. So Maher has a leg to stand on.
Only if manly man have never been a total FAIL at raising a family. Oh wait, they did.

You are just beating your chest and saying my tribe good, Maher tribe bad.
Sure, if Maher attacks my tribe, I'll attack his twice as hard and tell him that it should be an object lesson to keep the peace or else. Let's see how worthwhile his brand of manhood is in direct confrontation.
 

neobolts

Explorer
I had a Victorian era ancestor who raised the same concerns over the growing trend of men playing checkers.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Not to mention much more complex and varied. What you get out of gaming is not only cheap, but of much greater entertainment value than bowling.
In Russia one learns chess in grade school, the whole class silent, as you play, it is considered a way to teach problem solving.

Bowling, lots of beer and special shirts, might be more interesting if you were the Big Lebowski.

I too prefer RPG's for a variety of reasons, world building is my heroin of choice.
 

cmad1977

Adventurer
Yes, but, [MENTION=277]jasper[/MENTION], were they fails because they were nerds?

Lots of people from all walks of life are failures. Trying to blame one group on society's problems never, ever works.

Except Nazis. You can always blame Nazis. :D
Not in America you can’t. I hear they’re very fine people actually.
 

Von Ether

Explorer
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.
Frankly, the REAL differences are perceived cultural tradition, potential business networking and the respect that comes with the amount of money generated in and around these "adult" sports.

Ironically, these sports all went through similar accusations before cementing their place in current culture.

Within the Baby Boomers' lifetime, NASCAR went from cottage industry to institution.

You only have to reach back a few more generations to see the same with the NFL.

Baseball seems to have a different trajectory, replacing networking with Third Place/ community in it's early years.
 
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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
"I, the wise, why am I bound to the ignorant youths?"

From a Summerian poetic essay, translated and discussed in Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1956) from Chapter 15 "Suffering and Submission: The First 'Job'". Available at https://archive.org/details/Kramer1956HistoryBeginsAtSumer

"And so it is that you by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks."

Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.E), "Phaedrus" (c. 360 B.C.E.), 274c-275 b, R(eginald) Hackforth, transl., 1952.


“A pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages…chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements … they require out-door exercises–not this sort of mental gladiatorship.”

Scientific American
July, 1858


“Cinemas and motor cars were blamed for a flagging interest among young people in present-day politics by ex-Provost JK Rutherford… [He] said he had been told by people in different political parties that it was almost impossible to get an audience for political meetings. There were, of course, many distractions such as the cinema…”

Young People and Politics, Kirkintilloch Herald
1938
 

Toriel

Explorer
I remember some years ago, while I was working in a convenience store, we had to offer something to the clients on top of what they were buying. On a very hot summer day, I offered a client a Popsicle and received the following response: I'm too old for Popsicles.

I thought to myself that this man's life must have been very sad and boring. There is no specific time period in your life where you can enjoy Popsicles. You should not prevent yourself from enjoying the little things in life. That's where true happiness comes from. Mr. Maher makes me think of that man. So set in his obsolete ways that he cannot enjoy life.
 
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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I remember some years ago, while I was working in a convenience store, we had to offer something to the clients on top of what they were buying. On a very hot summer day, I offered a client a Popsicle and received the following response: I'm too old for Popsicles.

I thought to myself that this man's life must have been very sad and boring. There is no specific time period in your life where you can enjoy Popsicles. You should not prevent yourself from enjoying the little things in life. That's where true happiness comes from. Mr. Maher makes me think of that man. So set in his obsolete ways that he cannot enjoy life.
In some circles, popsicles are very much adult toys.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I remember some years ago, while I was working in a convenience store, we had to offer something to the clients on top of what they were buying. On a very hot summer day, I offered a client a Popsicle and received the following response: I'm too old for Popsicles.

I thought to myself that this man's life must have been very sad and boring. There is no specific time period in your life where you can enjoy Popsicles. You should not prevent yourself from enjoying the little things in life. That's where true happiness comes from. Mr. Maher makes me think of that man. So set in his obsolete ways that he cannot enjoy life.
My mom will turn 73 in just a few weeks, and is of sound mind & body. Last year, she discovered Outshine frozen fruit bars. They are now a permanent fixture in her freezer.

...beating out the chocolate & nut drumsticks she used to buy. ;)
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Not to mention much more complex and varied. What you get out of gaming is not only cheap, but of much greater entertainment value than bowling.
Let’s leave bowling out of this!

I’ve been bowling since @1975, and gaming since 1977.

Bowling is as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it, just like TTRPGs.

And the mental challenge involved in being good at it is different from what you’d need for good roleplaying, but is still demanding. I mean, we’re talking about the physical exertion of propelling a 14-16lb sphere at down a 60’x3.5’ lane at 16-21mph...with accuracy...at least 12 times per game. If you’re a league bowler, you’ll bowl 3 games in an evening.

Pro bowlers might bowl several more than that in a tournament.

And for the uninitiated, there’s oil on those lanes, which affects how said ball behaves. How a lane is initially oiled will vary from alley to alley, and even day to day. And as balls roll through it, the oil gets redistributed. In other words, you have to be able to “read” the changing conditions.
 
I love it, "oh the good old days when the poor working class would only be poor and work for the betterment of the upper middle and upper class"

Jesus :):):):)ing christ.

And coming from a man who has such a meaningless job too, literally worthless if people don't have free time. -sighs-
No sense of perspective but one hell of a lot of entitlement.
 

Shasarak

Villager
"And so it is that you by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks."

Plato (c. 429-347 B.C.E), "Phaedrus" (c. 360 B.C.E.), 274c-275 b, R(eginald) Hackforth, transl., 1952.
Plato was right that writing helps to offset cognitive load. Now that I have a smart phone I dont even have to remember phone numbers anymore.
 

Dr. Bull

Explorer
This is an interesting line of discussion, but I would like to caution everyone who has read this far in the chain...

Reflecting upon social changes consistently results in over-generalized statements about politics, social-economics, philosophical ideology, etc. From my perspective, I think that it is important to sit back and watch the phenomenon for a year or two. After significant reflection and introspection, I contemplate the ramifications of an event, a quotation, or a work of art.

Honestly, folks... Maher's comment was designed to "suck" our attention. It's controversial. It's provocative. Please don't fall into this TRAP. He's a cool (if misguided) person, but he needs say things that get ratings. ANYONE who is involved with media desires this sort of attention. "Likes" or "Dislikes" are the key to relevance. Everyone in the media wants to be provocative and engaging... It helps maintain "audience relevance".

If you give Maher's statement your focus, Maher's attention/focus will expand and grow. If you ignore his obvious ignorance (about RPGS and people who enjoy RPGS), it will defeat his attempt to demean our hobby.

In other words, don't read the crap. Ignore it. Please don't engage and PLEASE don't take the bait! (We all know what clickbait is, right?)

What happens if you engage in a discussion about this topic? If the media sees that there are over 60 thousand responses, it becomes something to report! If 4 people respond, it is a non-event and the :):):):):):):):) disappears...

- Dr. Bull
 

Dr. Bull

Explorer
Yes

Let’s leave bowling out of this!

I’ve been bowling since @1975, and gaming since 1977.

Bowling is as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it, just like TTRPGs.

And the mental challenge involved in being good at it is different from what you’d need for good roleplaying, but is still demanding. I mean, we’re talking about the physical exertion of propelling a 14-16lb sphere at down a 60’x3.5’ lane at 16-21mph...with accuracy...at least 12 times per game. If you’re a league bowler, you’ll bowl 3 games in an evening.

Pro bowlers might bowl several more than that in a tournament.

And for the uninitiated, there’s oil on those lanes, which affects how said ball behaves. How a lane is initially oiled will vary from alley to alley, and even day to day. And as balls roll through it, the oil gets redistributed. In other words, you have to be able to “read” the changing conditions.
Well said!
 

Maul

Explorer
Bill Maher is a miserable human being and he only has moments of happiness when he can watch others be as miserable as he is. And even then, happiness is painful for that sad sack of crap.
 

Haffrung

Explorer
First, in my experience most people who play tabletop games are healthy adults. They have jobs and families and meaningful engagement with broader society. So there's no reason to believe the popularity of tabletop gaming is a sign of declining capacity to function as adults.

But the withdrawal of more and more people from meaningful social engagement is real, and it's a problem. Large numbers of 27 year old men living in their parents' basement detached from meat-space, lacking responsibility and purpose, is not healthy. For them or for society. And it turns out that what these men turn to in large numbers is video gaming and other digital nerd hobbies. They even get social validation for their mastery of Game of Thrones lore or mad skillz at Dark Souls. In that sense, adult nerd culture can be a symptom, rather than a cause, of a social ill.

The virtual communities that have been fostered by social media, including those focused around nerd hobbies, are better than no social engagement at all. No doubt they've helped isolated or alienated people feel part of a social network, which is a good thing. But they are not a genuine substitute for real, meatspace social bonds. The science is out on this. Weakening real-world social bonds correlates to all sorts of undesirable outcomes in physical and mental health.

In descending order of desirability:

1) Real-world social bonds.

2) Digital social bonds.

3) No social bonds.

The question is whether the ease and convenience of engaging with digital 'community' is deterring people from seeking out and strengthening real-world social bonds. It's similar to the concerns around the ease of accessing online porn taking enough of the edge off the sex urge that increasing numbers of men simply don't even try to find a mate in the real world. And like the men cited in the study who find at 36 that they're unemployable, if you don't develop real-world social skills in your 20s, you're going to have a tough time getting into the game in your 30s or 40s.
 

D1Tremere

Villager
In my opinion the real takeaway from this should be the use of the terms "low skilled" and "not working enough." This is an issue that will only become larger until we adjust our ideals as a nation (and perhaps other nations as well) about what it means to be a meaningful person. For a long time social identity in the United States has been tied to job/career. This is an increasingly unsustainable model with massive wealth inequality, every increasing population rates, and industrial capitalist movement to a global and disposable framework. Those traditionally defined as the working class have fewer options in unskilled manufacture and maintenance, and are increasingly driven into service jobs (which are notoriously undervalued by society). Bottom line, people are going to have fewer and fewer jobs that are meaningful and build agency to choose from as time goes on.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
And the mental challenge involved in being good at it is different from what you’d need for good roleplaying, but is still demanding. I mean, we’re talking about the physical exertion of propelling a 14-16lb sphere at down a 60’x3.5’ lane at 16-21mph...with accuracy...at least 12 times per game. If you’re a league bowler, you’ll bowl 3 games in an evening.
Every once in a while, I bowl for company "team building" events - I hurt in all sorts of new places on my body that didn't hurt the day before. :) It's no 10K run or swim meet, mind you, but Respect given for just how physical that game is...
 

Flexor the Mighty!

18/100 Strength!
First, in my experience most people who play tabletop games are healthy adults. They have jobs and families and meaningful engagement with broader society. So there's no reason to believe the popularity of tabletop gaming is a sign of declining capacity to function as adults.

But the withdrawal of more and more people from meaningful social engagement is real, and it's a problem. Large numbers of 27 year old men living in their parents' basement detached from meat-space, lacking responsibility and purpose, is not healthy. For them or for society. And it turns out that what these men turn to in large numbers is video gaming and other digital nerd hobbies. They even get social validation for their mastery of Game of Thrones lore or mad skillz at Dark Souls. In that sense, adult nerd culture can be a symptom, rather than a cause, of a social ill.

The virtual communities that have been fostered by social media, including those focused around nerd hobbies, are better than no social engagement at all. No doubt they've helped isolated or alienated people feel part of a social network, which is a good thing. But they are not a genuine substitute for real, meatspace social bonds. The science is out on this. Weakening real-world social bonds correlates to all sorts of undesirable outcomes in physical and mental health.

In descending order of desirability:

1) Real-world social bonds.

2) Digital social bonds.

3) No social bonds.

The question is whether the ease and convenience of engaging with digital 'community' is deterring people from seeking out and strengthening real-world social bonds. It's similar to the concerns around the ease of accessing online porn taking enough of the edge off the sex urge that increasing numbers of men simply don't even try to find a mate in the real world. And like the men cited in the study who find at 36 that they're unemployable, if you don't develop real-world social skills in your 20s, you're going to have a tough time getting into the game in your 30s or 40s.

Too many avoid the hard and meaningful options and embrace the painless and meaningless. I know I did for a long time, burying myself in frivolous BS and avoiding responsibility. Can't get time back unfortunately.
 

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