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Video games as a counterfeit of meaningful work

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Technology has changed the ways we work, but it’s also transformed the ways we play, creating more time for rest and relaxation, and infusing those hours with new diversions and distractions. Yet while we seem to express plenty of Luddite concern about the impacts of technology on labor demand, there’s far less awareness about its effects on labor supply.

“The more attractive our leisure time, the less we’ll want to work, holding wages fixed,” writes economist Erik Hurst, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, whose research focuses on the impacts of technology on the labor force. “Is it possible that technology has changed the value of leisure? I think the answer is a definite yes.”

According to Hurst, labor-force participation is down among lower-skilled men and women by 7.5 percent, a trend that’s even more pronounced among young men. “In 2015, 22 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months,” writes Hurst.  “…The decline in employment rates for low-skilled men in their 20s was larger than it was for all other sex, age, and skill groups during this same time period.” (For more on this, see Nicholas Eberstadt’s latest book, Men Without Work.)

Hurst’s hypothesis is simple: Technology has played a significant role in reducing the labor supply, keeping many potential workers happily pre-occupied and minimally satisfied in the comfort of their (parents’) homes.

“There are suggestive signs in the data that these young, low-skilled men are making some choice to stay home,” he writes. “…These technological innovations…have made leisure time more enjoyable. This acts like an increase in an individual’s reservation wage. For lower-skilled workers, with low market wages, it is now more attractive to take leisure.”

This applies to consumption-oriented technology in general, but with video games in particular, we see a unique form of entertainment that often looks and feels like the best parts of the very workplace we’re seeking to avoid. Unlike TV or movies or social media, video games move beyond idle diversion, creating illusions of toil and, in turn, earned success.

As Peter Suderman explains, in recent years, video games have evolved into something strikingly similar to what some might call “meaningful work”:

Video games, like work, are basically a series of quests comprised of mundane and repetitive tasks: Receive an assignment, travel to a location, overcome some obstacles, perform some sort of search, pick up an item, and then deliver it in exchange for a reward—and, usually, another quest, which starts the cycle all over again…

Although these games are usually packaged in a veneer of fantasy, they work less like traditional entertainment and more like employment simulators. So it is perhaps not surprising that for many young men, especially those with lower levels of educational attainment, video games are increasingly replacing work. Since 2000, men in their 20s without a bachelor’s degree are working considerably less and spending far more time engaged in leisure activities, which overwhelmingly means playing video games. Over the same time frame, this group of men has also grown more likely to be single, to have no children, and to live with parents or other family members.

Suderman goes on to explore the effects of all this on human happiness, noting that many young gamers actually report higher levels of “happiness” than some of their counterparts. “Even the most open-ended games tend to offer a sense of progress and direction, completion and commitment,” he says. “In other words, they make people happy—or at least happier, serving as a buffer between the player and despair. Video games, you might say, offer a sort of universal basic income for the soul.”

But although video games may indeed provide an initial rush of merriment or serve as a reasonable method for emotional “coping,” the bigger question is whether that’s actually where it stops. At what point does our cultural obsession with technology, and video games in particular, move from innocent leisurely consumption to a culture-wide replacement of meaningful production?

Suderman highlights a range of arguments for why video games may, in some sense, bring just as much “meaning” to life as actual work. But whatever benefits these games may provide in the short term, and whatever emotions their “simulations” may satisfy, we should be careful to make the proper distinctions about the fundamental aim, which impacts all else.

We should remember that as Christians, meaningful work is about much more than simply overcoming obstacles, achieving “organizational success,” or becoming an expert in a particular skill or industry (or fictional fantasy video game). Work, as God designed it, brings meaning not in the doing, but in who the doing is ultimately for. “Work is the form in which we make ourselves useful to others,” writes theologian Lester DeKoster. “Through work that serves others, we also serve God, and he in exchange weaves the work of others into a culture that makes our work easier and more rewarding…This is why work gives meaning to your life and to mine.”

This is the basic difference between work and leisure, and it’s a distinction that’s bound to shape our attitudes and imaginations as we prioritize and steward the hours of the day. “Play may be indulged as recreation, that is, as preparation for doing work better when the worker has been so refreshed,” writes DeKoster (and Gerard Berghoef) elsewhere. “Play is fun and relaxing, because it is always an end in itself. The desire that leads to playing is satisfied in the doing.”

To be clear, leisure can be a very good thing. It plays an important role and can bring its own form of meaning in refreshing the human mind and spirit. But when we confuse it for something else — seeking meaning in the feats and victories themselves — we move closer to embracing the counterfeit as an idol and calling it something else.

“Play may absorb much effort, long planning, and lots of time,” concludes DeKoster. “But so long as the end in view is the satisfaction of the self, such effort cannot be called work. This is true whatever the form of play, whatever its esteem in the community as compared with work. What the self heaps up in time for its own use does not carry over into eternity, and burdens the soul that is thus occupied.”

Given the trends we’re seeing among young, lower-skilled men, those distractions and blind spots are already having an impact on the individual lives of players and workers and the economy as a whole. As we continue to confront our disruptive, rapidly changing world, it points to a lesson worth remembering. In work, we serve others unto the glory of God. In play…we play. And when play is done, we ought to look for more meaning where it actually exists.

Image: Unsplash, CC0 License

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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