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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?

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.​
[h=3]What's Adulthood, Anyway?[/h]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?
[h=3]A Counterpoint[/h]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.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Rotten DM
Maher stands for a certain (edit out) type of manhood. And he has been watching with perplexity as a different type of manhood has been growing in numbers, alright? So he's raising questions about those "rivals" because he's feeling threatened.
My nerd friends have all been very successful in raising a family, so Maher has no leg to stand on. His boring and uninspired idea of manhood is rightfully in decline.
And some of my nerd friends have been a total FAIL at raising a family. So Maher has a leg to stand on. You are just beating your chest and saying my tribe good, Maher tribe bad.

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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


Gaming's much like anything else don't over do it.

Basically had to get rid of a young one. At the bottom of the heap about one in four or one isn three young males are unemployable. Lack of work ethic and being unreliable are fairly common. Using tourists is often easier. Being able to turn up reliably at 7am is a skill now.

Gaming would be one of the symptoms though a lot of jobs aren't there anymore or are low paid or the well paid Ines are by 40+ who will be there until they retire.

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.

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.


Limit Break Dancing (He/They)
Maher is entitled to his opinion. I don't recall asking him for it, but he's entitled to it I guess.

The folks I play D&D with are colleagues and coworkers (and not that it matters, but we are not 'low skilled' by any means--we are civil engineers and marketing directors.) We have families, we pay our taxes, we vote. We also play D&D every chance we get, and play video games over Steam when we can't. Every now and then a new Marvel movie will be released, and we'll organize a "Guy's Nite" to go watch it (then we watch it again the very next weekend with our families.)

Maher's opinion of a "real adult" might sell with the older, more Conservative crowd, but we ain't buying it.

It's nothing new. There is just a certain strata of people who don't like anything that isn't grounded in a certain perspective of the 'real world'.

Personally, I feel sorry for people who use reality as a crutch because they can't handle fantasy.


Limit Break Dancing (He/They)
Also, this:


...and this:


...and this:

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I do feel nerds need to get out and make babies. I don't like it that my son has no first cousins.

OTOH Maher is still a jerk.

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