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. Last year four economists published a paper suggesting that high-quality video games—an example of what they call “leisure luxuries”—are contributing to a decline in work among young people, and especially young men. Given the social and economic importance of early adulthood, such a trend could spell big trouble. But are video games causing the young to turn on and drop out?
In making the link between gaming and work, the economists—Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils, Kerwin Charles and Erik Hurst—point to compelling data. From 2000 and 2015, the employment rate for men in their 20s without a college education dropped ten percentage points, from 82% to 72%. Such men often live at their parents’ homes and tend not to marry at the same rate as their peers. They, do, on the other hand, play video games. For each hour less the group spent in work, time spent at leisure activities rose about an hour, and 75% of the increased leisure time was accounted for by gaming. 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).
To draw a firm conclusion, however, would take a clearer understanding of the direction of causation. While games improved since the turn of the century, labour-market options for young people got worse. Hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, have stagnated for young college graduates since the 1990s, while pay for new high-school graduates has declined. The share of young high-school and college graduates not in work or education has risen; in 2014 about 11% of college graduates were apparently idle, compared with 9% in 2004 and 8% in 1994. The share of recent college graduates working in jobs which did not require a college degree rose from just over 30% in the early 2000s to nearly 45% a decade later. And the financial crisis and recession fell harder on young people than on the population as a whole. For people unable to find demanding, full-time work (or any work at all) gaming is often a way to spend some of one’s unwanted downtime, rather than a lure out of work; it is much more a symptom of other economic ills than a cause.