On one account, what has gone wrong in the past 80 years is a story of materialistic greed. Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes sketched out a utopian vision of the 21st century economy. He predicted that economic growth would be sufficient to satisfy all our wants, so that people would only need to work three hours a day. He was right about the growth, but wrong about the wants, which continued to expand and show little evidence of slowing: “Instead of quitting early, [people] find new things to need. Many of the new things they’ve found weren’t even around when Keynes was writing—laptops, microwaves, Xboxes, smartphones, smart watches, smart refrigerators, Prada totes, True Religion jeans, battery-powered meat thermometers, those gizmos you stick in the freezer and then into your beer to keep it cold as you drink it”.
This growing acquisitiveness has created an era of extreme global inequality, where we have the capacity to end severe poverty, but refuse to share our income with the global poor. It brings us ever closer to the limits of our natural resources. It leaves us poorly placed to exploit the benefits of automation, and instead leaves us at risk of a dystopian hyper-capitalist social system. Worst of all, it does not even seem to make us happy.
There is a lot to quibble with in this diagnosis, but I think gets at least some things right. If it is correct, what it suggests is that we ought to cheer trends away from materialism, and that people finding enjoyment and fulfilment in leisure, alighting the hedonic treadmill of work, income and material goods ought to be encouraged.
It is in this context that we should could consider Ryan Avent’s excellent recent article about young men who are working less and playing video games more:
As the hours young men spent in work dropped in the 2000s, hours spent in leisure activities rose nearly one-for-one. Of the rise in leisure time, 75% was accounted for by video games. It looks as though some small but meaningful share of the young-adult population is delaying employment or cutting back hours in order to spend more time with their video game of choice.
Many people will greet this development with deep concern. Avent, to his credit, is more equivocal. He recognises the danger that the retreat from employment may not reflect revealed preferences, but a lack of workplace opportunities (or the inability to make use of them). He acknowledges that a youth spent playing video games may store up economic and social problems for later life. However, he also sees that video games can be a positive, or at least, neutral use of leisure time, cautioning against the conservatism of rejecting serious gaming just because it is novel:
it is possible that just as past generations did not simply normalise the ideal of time off but imbued it with virtue – barbecuing in the garden on weekends or piling the family into the car for a holiday – future generations might make hours spent each day on games something of an institution: an appropriate use of time that is the reward for society’s technological wizardry and productive power
The substance of Avent’s piece is great, balanced and comprehensive. I think what was missing was a tone: optimism. There are dangers in this new technology, sure, but also promise, particularly if you think that excessive acquisitiveness has led society astray.
Avent writes that “better games mean people are quicker to swap working hours for gaming hours”, exactly the trade-off that modern proponents of Keynes’ leisure society would want us to make. What’s more, gaming has attributes that suggests it might be more conducive to happiness than many alternatives. Firstly, it is a good that is experienced, and the evidence suggests that buying experiences is more likely to make you happy than buying possessions. Video games are active, in the sense that they involve player participation and engagement, which is associated with higher well-being than more passive activities, like watching TV. In particular, they are cognitively challenging and encourage the development of skill. They induce ‘flow’ or absorption in the activity, which has psychological benefits. Moreover, as Avent notes, they are increasingly social, with online interaction built into most modern games. Video games would also appear to be more ecologically sustainable than other pastimes, particularly travel.
There are lots of ifs and buts. Video games may be more rewarding than watching TV, but how do they compare over the long term to other activities, particularly if Avent is correct that they may be starting to crowd out conventional careers? Are relationships forged by gaming comparable to other forms of sociability? Are the lifestyles Avent describes – earning to game – healthy and sustainable for a substantial proportion of people?
We should make every effort to find out, but in doing so we should be guided as much by hope for a happier and more equitable world as by our fears.