Is it a problem when games are a second job for the unemployed?

Weekly recap: Economists find out-of-work men playing games more while No Man's Sky marketing comes under scrutiny

This week, the Washington Post reported that a group of economists from the University of Rochester, Princeton, and the University of Chicago have found an unusually large percentage of American men don't have full-time jobs these days, particularly among the younger and less educated. What's more, they're spending a lot more time playing games, and the researchers suggest the gaming is contributing to the unemployment.

We would have covered this in a news story this week, but the findings seem to be preliminary. We reached out to one of the economists involved to ask about the causal relationship between the two (among other things), but he declined to go into much detail, saying the actual paper is still 4-6 weeks from publication and "our sense is the paper will evolve some during that time." Whatever the research actually winds up saying, the Post article raises the spectre of a generation of men who have chosen to live at home and play games rather than work. While there's a (very) near-term upside to that lifestyle in that those men tend to be happier, there are concerning implications for what happens down the line, both to them and to the economy at large.

"When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded. With a job, it's always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward"

We hope to circle back and provide more fleshed out coverage of the research once it's published, but in the meantime, let's focus on the money quote (in every sense of the phrase) from the Post's write-up.

"When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded. With a job, it's always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward."

That's from a 22-year-old gamer with an associates degree, and it should be taken as an emphatic testament to the games industry and how far it has advanced in its ability to foster engagement and change player behavior. The payoff from playing games--a bit of fun and progress on a virtual hamster wheel--is somehow more concrete in his mind than the rewards of a full-time job, traditionally measured in units of currency per hour or year.

While the quote is admittedly ridiculous at first glance, a look at industry-wide trends provides some insight as to how one could come to think that.

As the games-as-a-service approach has spread throughout every corner of the industry, developers have optimized for retention because they've seen the potential for individual games to turn into genre-dominating sustainable businesses. It's no coincidence that subscription MMOs have fallen out of favor as games-as-a-service has taken hold in the industry. When retention matters above all else, you don't turn away people for not paying. You also don't halt their progress; you just slow it down, letting them grind away at the game with diminishing rewards until they're frustrated enough to buy something. Throw in hooks like timers, timed challenges, and bonuses for regularly checking in, and games are explicitly altering their players' behaviors, making themselves part of a daily routine. The game becomes an obligation, something that needs to be tended to at specific times over weeks and months.

Games have always been an escape for people, but now they're as likely to be escaping into a fantasy world as they are escaping into a second job (or in the case of these young men, a first job). For some of these games, the player fantasy is literally a job. In Zynga's Tropic Escape, players escape to the tropics not for rest and relaxation, but to run a resort for visitors and provide for their curiously specific needs. (Why would a guest need two sextants and five orchid perfumes?) The evolution of these techniques has been tremendous for the long tail of a successful game, but as is usually the case when you min-max for one specific trait, there are drawbacks.

To think the effects games can have on people are exclusively beneficial is naïve

I'm not saying video games have made people lazy or seduced them away from the labor force. I'm not even sure the research will wind up saying that when it's published. But as anyone who's ever conducted a job search can likely tell you, getting a job is a full-time job in itself. It's a hard, frustrating process, doubly so if you happen to be doing it in a bad economy, or in a market that's hit upon hard times. Add in that many of these young men would be competing for desirable jobs against candidates with more advanced degrees, and we can probably reconsider that money quote.

When that 22-year-old man sits down with a game, the reward is certain. When he tries to find a job, he can put in limitless work over weeks and weeks without so much as an interview to show for it. Now consider the choice he faces, to subject himself to the continued rejection and frustration of that job search, complete with all the diminished self-esteem and economic anxiety it entails, or to escape into worlds that offer more predictable rewards for his efforts, worlds that unlike so many other forms of escape don't cost him anything to enjoy?

The games he plays are not responsible for his personal choices, but they influence those choices nonetheless. Take that influence, no matter how slight, and reproduce it across the millions and millions of people who play games. Imagine how it might be different for people who grew up with games-as-a-service, who were grinding away for a dozen different virtual currencies on a clock while still trying to understand the very basics of society and their place in it.

To think all this is happening without somehow shaping the world around us is absurd. To think the effects games can have on people are exclusively beneficial is naïve. Rather than dismissing and downplaying any researcher who dares suggest a downside to games, we should be funding them to identify exactly what unwanted longer-term impact we might be having while there's still time to fix it.

No Man's Marketing

Earlier this week, it was confirmed that the UK's Advertising Standards Authority was investigating the marketing of No Man's Sky after receiving a number of complaints. Given the frankly ridiculous amount of outrage directed at the game since its launch, there's a reflex to roll one's eyes at this, the latest manifestation of an angry online mob upset by a game. That said, there's some validity to what the ASA is looking into. The group is focused particularly on screenshots and videos of the game on the Steam store, checking to see if they depict ship behaviors that aren't actually in the game, if the animals are just a bit bigger and more awesome than what players will wind up seeing.

In short, the ASA is going after Hello Games for the industry-standard practice of marketing a game. There's no excuse for deceiving customers, so of course the No Man's Sky marketing materials need to be brought in line with what's actually in the game. But there's also no good reason why No Man's Sky should be held to a higher standard of honesty than the rest of the industry, so let's hope this level of scrutiny is applied across the board going forward.

Elsewhere on this week

Oculus developers and diversity grant recipients respond to Palmer Luckey's funding of a pro-Trump "shitposting" group

Vancouver-based Roadhouse Interactive shuts down, 125 jobs lost

Never Alone developers want to make "world games" into a sustainable business

The sports world is increasingly buying into the eSports world

Cyan Worlds' Rand Miller talks about the difficulty of making and marketing a follow-up to Myst

In other news

This year's PlayStation Experience will take place Dec. 3-4 in Anaheim

Windows 10 boasts more than 400 million monthly active devices

Cloud gaming outfit LiquidSky raised $4 million in seed funding

Tel Aviv-based Tacticsoft raised $1 million in VC funding to make hardcore mobile games

SplitmediaLabs, owner of streaming software XSplit, acquired livestream overlay outfit Strexm

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Purchase of publisher/distributor includes additional earnouts of up to $30m

By Jeffrey Rousseau

CD Projekt sales up but GOG struggles

Third quarter revenues up 38% as Cyberpunk and Witcher help offset digital storefront's ongoing losses

By Brendan Sinclair

Latest comments (10)

Marc Vaughan Head of Handheld Development, Sports Interactive5 years ago
Seriously - I'm somewhat disappointed you re-posted this drivel, its a logical extension that when someone is unemployed they will spend more time undertaking their leisure pursuits.

This isn't something new - in previous generation the skew was more towards whatever would be normal for that generation, most recently 'Television' ... I'd expect that if the study checked other pursuits that their hours watching 'Netflix' also rose etc.

(exactly what else would they be expected to be doing during the 40 hours a week they would otherwise be working? - it can't be seriously expected that they'd spend the entire time job hunting?)
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Shawn Clapper Programmer 5 years ago
I think the 40(+) hour work week is poor to be expected by society. People should spend more time enjoying their lives and less time working. When they do it's like they are doing something wrong. Wrong is spending your finite time on earth in menial tasks you don't enjoy to appease the culture around you.
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Jordan Lund Columnist 5 years ago
Electronic job hunting has greatly simplified the process of searching for a job. It's no longer necessary to be grinding out paper resumes and pounding the pavement to apply for jobs one at a time anymore.

This frees up time for games and other things. Things that are better than sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring. There's nothing to see here.
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Craig Page El Presidente, Awesome Enterprises5 years ago
They could just as easily suggest the opposite, that unemployment is contributing to the gaming.
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 5 years ago
I'd caution against reading too much into this article and getting over-excited. It says what it says and nothing more. It's informing us of a recent study on gaming behaviour and what it found, and that's all. It even emphasises the point:

"I'm not saying video games have made people lazy or seduced them away from the labour force. I'm not even sure the research will wind up saying that when it's published."

Flipping to the study itself and its findings, it's really not that surprising that unemployed men are spending more time gaming (Did the study only look at men or did men give the only noteworthy result?)

As mentioned in the article, job hunting these days - with the advent of mass job posting sites producing thousands of applicants and stories abounding that claim some recruiting agents get so many applications they just randomly throw half the CVs in the bin to thin the herd - is a really thankless RNG experience. You don't just have to try hard and be skilled at the job any more, you must

* see the advert before they hire someone else
* get through the lottery of whether anyone looks at your CV
* hope your name, address (Address-discrmination used to be a big issue in NI - whether you lived in a Catholic or Protestant area. I'm not sure what it's like these days, though) or picture gets past whatever inbuilt biases the recruiter has
* write a brief but distinct and job-relevant cover letter to get your CV read
* write a really compelling CV to get you that interview
* explain your CV in a compelling manner when the person you sent it to, phones up to ask what's on it
* be skilled enough at marketing yourself to get past the HR interview
* have the applied knowledge, experience and determination to get through the team interviews
* be the best out of all the candidates that make it to that stage

and then you still won't get the job because the company has decided they're only going to take a "Unicorn" and are holding out for someone from [insert name of giant financial success story here] (regardless of if the company recruiting has enough in common with Giant Financial Success Story Inc to actually make that a good choice).

And that vacancy will still be being advertised two years later, just to rub it in.

A big part of why I wanted to get into writing for games is that games are completely opposite to that. If you try hard and practice, you can succeed - there is no invisible brick wall that demands you be better than people you've never met at conforming to the ideals of somebody you don't know.

That makes games not just enjoyable, that makes them a relief.

Now add in a few other points that might be included in the final paper but seem at this stage to have been overlooked, namely

Jobs? What jobs?

Sure, it's better now than it was two years ago, but there are by no means enough jobs that a) unemployed people are qualified for or b) that they are qualified for and hear about and c) are in a location said unemployed person can feasibly and affordably get to on a daily basis or can afford to relocate to. Plus there are an awful lot of shyster companies out there doing things like not paying their employees' tax and NI contributions and just nicking the money instead, or who do things like make part-time employees work unpaid overtime in order to keep their jobs. It's not a great job market right now.

There's a more important point I want to bring up, but my houseguests have just arrived so I shall come back later and cover the vital point of depression - just because they say these men seem happier doesn't mean they're not clinically depressed, and staying home gaming is a very, very typical behaviour for people suffering severe depression and anxiety.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bonnie Patterson on 1st October 2016 7:58pm

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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games5 years ago
It's not a job if you are not getting paid to do it.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 5 years ago
I bet they don't miss out on a Game of Thrones episode as well.

Did they not also have the insight to ask if all medium consumption goes up? Weight gain, relationship destruction, fast food consumption, depression and a sedentary life style is also associated with unemployment.
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Michael Brown Video Game Critic & Reviewer 5 years ago
Finding a job is not a full-time job, e-services have made job searching and the entire application process take a fraction of the time it used too. It's fairly easy to apply for 20 jobs in a few hours or more. The unemployed playing games is no different that what generations did before that with television, hell my grandfather and his generation spent their unemployment days down at the pub after the mines closed down. Better to stay home playing games than drink money away all day.
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Clint Hobson UI Programmer, GameLoft5 years ago
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee5 years ago
Finding a job in any times I've been unemployed has very much felt like a full time job.
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