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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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