Gamer Nation: The Rise of Modern Gaming and the Compulsion to Play Again
ISBN 10: 1633883795
ISBN 13: 978-1633883796
A tech-industry insider takes a critical look at the effect games are having on our short- and long-term happiness and assesses the cultural prospects of a society increasingly obsessed with gaming.The American "game economy" has become an enormous enterprise, devouring roughly one-ninth of America's entire economic output. This overview of arguably the most influential segment of the entertainment industry examines the perspectives of gaming enthusiasts, addicts, designers, arcade owners, psychologists, philosophers, and more. Weighing the positive and negative aspects of games, the author considers their effect not only upon the players but upon culture and society. What trade-offs are being made when people play games for twenty-plus hours a week?The author puts particular emphasis on Candy Crush, whose enormous popularity has left all other games far behind. Since 2013 it has been installed over a billion times and its simplicity has disrupted previous game-design assumptions, proving new games don't have to be sophisticated and graphically immersive.He also offers insights from interviews with experts on the mechanics of manipulation. Sophisticated psychological tools are used to design games that are compelling, irresistible, and possibly addicting. In a few case, obsessive game-playing has been the cause of death.Whether you enjoy games as a harmless pastime or are suspicious of their effects on the quality of your family's life, you'll want to read this wide-ranching exploration of the growing game phenomenon.
“In this delightfully readable book.... Geissinger suggests we take a step back from the virtual, breaking the spell of games, in order to lead a more balanced and happier life.”
—Dr. Julie M. Albright, digital sociologist, University of Southern California, and author, Left to Their Own Devices
About the Author
Eric Geissinger is the author of Virtual Billions: The Genius, the Drug Lord, and the Ivy League Twins behind the Rise of Bitcoin. He has worked as a technical writer for Silicon Valley software companies for seventeen years. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in several literary journals. He lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York with his wife and two daughters.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
From Chapter Nine - Flooding the Colosseum
The facts speak for themselves: Americans are spending more money on games than ever before and far more time watching, playing, and talking about them. The game economy, broadly speaking, is growing four times as fast as the rest of the economy and shows no sign of slowing down—its growth rate is rapidly increasing, not levelling off. At some point a limit will be reached: our economy and our time will achieve maximum gaming saturation. Where is that point, when will that time arrive, and what are the costs of getting to the end of that particular road?
I don’t think it’s as far away as we think. Games have achieved unprecedented economic and coercive power. The origin of their power lies deep in our biological roots—we did not all grow up making music or writing poetry, but we did all grow up creating and playing games. Despite the size and growth of games in our economic and cultural life, little attention has been paid to the dangers they pose for our short- and long-term health as a nation. Taken along with the entertainment sector (writ large) and the four trillion dollar healthcare sector, at least half of our national economy is consumed with entertaining us or keeping us healthy—both worthy goals but requiring a vast quantity of resources. Where is this taking us? Are we destined to become a nation of gamers, and is this a productive and worthy result?
Having Too Much Fun to Work
The growth of gaming is an underreported topic with very few critics paying attention to what’s going on, but there are a couple of important exceptions. Recently, people have woken up to the fact that many able-bodied men of working age are not choosing to work and are instead finding sufficient pleasure and challenge from video games to opt out of the everyday economy: “22 percent of men between the ages of 21 and 30 with less than a bachelor’s degree reported not working in the previous year—up from only 9.5 percent in 2000.”
The problem isn’t so much a lack of desire to work or some newfangled type of modern laziness. The issue is that work is nowhere near as rewarding as many of the games: “‘When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded,’ [one of these young men] said. ‘With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.’” The “reward” in this case is more than financial: it’s emotional and clearly linked to competence and skill.
More disturbing from a social perspective but not for the individual gamers in question is that this group of unemployed but game-playing young men are actually happier than their peers:
"Happiness has gone up for this group, despite employment percentages having fallen, and the percentage living with parents going up. And that’s different than for any other group,” says the University of Chicago’s Erik Hurst, an economist at the Booth School of Business who helped lead the research.
The source of this newfound happiness is video games: 75 percent of the time this group used to spend working is now dedicated to the computer, and the majority of that computer time is spent playing games. It’s not only that more young men are playing video games, the real problem seems to be innovation in what researchers call “gaming/recreational computing.” While it’s typical for leisure time to expand and contract with increasing or decreasing opportunities for leisure activities (and how fun they are), what is happening now is different from in the past. What researchers claim in the 2017 paper “Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men” is that innovations in gaming and recreational computing are the cause of about half the increase in video-game playing since 2004. This is a strong causal claim: it’s not that young men are playing more games because they have more time, it’s that they are playing more games in large part because the games themselves are more rewarding. Increasing sophistication in the video-game market, better targeting of potential customers, more manipulative and addictive game-play—these are just as important as choices individual gamers are making about whether to play or not to play.
This sounds a bit fishy. Is it really possible to create demand and create more gamers who play longer just by enhancing the games being designed and released? This seems like an unlikely claim, but nobody has a problem when comparing it to a corollary from the world of television. The so-called Golden Age of American television, typified by shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad, generated huge numbers of new viewers because of their higher-than-average quality and entertainment value. When thinking of television or movies we have no trouble assuming that better quality products drive increased audience numbers. People are still choosing to watch or not watch the television shows, but it’s possible to distinguish between viewers who watch television regularly (and would have seen the shows anyway) and those who are drawn to television based upon their interest in specific high-quality shows (and who would otherwise not be watching television). The same sort of dynamic takes place in the video-game industry. More entertaining video games don’t just reward current players but bring in new players and increase the time everyone spends playing them.
This sort of thing can be tracked, and that’s exactly what was done. Cheaper gaming options, along with higher-quality video games across the board, contributed to the majority of the increase in time spent playing them. Salaries for young men don’t lag those of their older peers for equivalent work. Demand for labor in the United States remains relatively high and robust. It’s not that these men are having more problems finding work than they ever had before. Yet something is happening: “There is a large and growing segment of this population that appears detached from the labor market: 15 percent of younger men, excluding full-time students, worked zero weeks over the prior year as of 2016. The comparable number in 2000 was only 8 percent.”
The short-term pleasures of gaming are difficult to compare to the negative long-term effects of dropping out of the job market, not pushing for a better job, or failing to search for work as hard as one might. Gaming is an immediately enjoyable but empty pleasure; figuring out how to get a better job is difficult but might have significant and meaningful long-term value. I find it hard to imagine that any mature man will look back on a five-year slice of his twenties during which he was living with his parents and spending the majority of his time playing video games and consider it a positive experience. Yes, it might have been fun at the time, but it also represents a complete dereliction of responsibility. It’s putting off the inevitable. You can’t live with your parents your whole life. You can’t get a less-depressing and higher-paying (or intellectually rewarding) job by not engaging with the real world. You can’t meet real friends, go on trips, or find the love of your life by sitting at home playing video games. Doing so winnows away the possibilities for a dynamic life, stripping them down to the most basic level: the game.
This data shows the power of sophisticated and addictive games taken to the extreme: millions of young men opting out of the economy because the lure of games has become too strong—a force far more powerful than the more nebulous reward of economic benefits, societal expectations, or education beyond a high school or college degree. In one sense these are true rebels, unafraid of the charge that they are living in their parent’s basement wasting their lives . . . their retort would be, simply, that they are doing what makes them happy. This emotional claim is hard to argue against, however damaging it might be to them or our country in the long run, since removing a growing portion of a generation of men from the workforce has huge consequences for our economy’s long-term health. These men are not just missing out on prime earning and learning years, they are turning their back on further education, entrepreneurial opportunities, and the most fundamental unit of any society: family.
Will this slice of the generation ever decide to marry and have children, and if they do how long will it take? Can we conceive of a culture with so much easy-to-access gaming pleasure that the choice to reproduce seems, if not irrational, at least a very open question given that it necessarily cuts into one’s gaming time. One possible result is augmenting the ongoing decline in global birth rates, which are already below replacement value in much of the world (the global leader for sub-replacement birth rate is Singapore, coming in at a shocking 0.85, meaning that every couple produces, on average, 0.85 of a child).
Games Are Different
The power of books comes from what they contain: the ideas and themes, the interplay of plot and character, the making and breaking of arguments. Books linger in the mind long after being read. Games draw their power from immediacy and ongoing interaction. We forget the sensation of reading a book but not the book itself; what is remembered about a video game is the experience of controlling one aspect of a virtual world, of being lost in that world, not the information contained within it.
The immersive power of games, in particular modern video games, powerfully distinguishes them from other artistic genres. It is in part a natural byproduct of time spent interacting with them. Watching a movie can transport the viewer to another universe, but this universe is limited in time and bounded in space: two hours in a darkened movie theater. Video games, particularly interactive online games, are essentially unlimited time sinks; even when a player runs out of content it’s possible, and from a dedicated gamer’s point of view necessary, to start over and play the game in a fresh way, with new virtual companions, in a different order, with different goals.
The games themselves are huge; Grand Theft Auto 5 has over 250 hours of content for the typical player, assuming a single playthrough without restarts and maximizing efficiency in a way not to be found in the behavior of real-world players. The actual time spent playing a game such as Grand Theft Auto 5 can consume months of real-world time; when players self-report their total time spent playing, automatically logged by the game, many totals are well in excess of fifty full days. That’s 50 * 24 = 1,200 hours, or thirty full weeks of work, or twenty-five weekends where the player did nothing except play video games straight from morning until evening and back till morning. One former record holder for time spent playing GTA 5 clocked in at over 218 full days, more than a year of daylight hours consumed by a single game. It’s rare for players to finish an open-game world to their satisfaction—there was still more fun to be had in one obscure corner or other.
This is something new to our human brains. A sufficiently complicated and flexible video game can engage serious players for week, months . . . even years. As such, they are hugely successful entertainment products, and they piggyback on American’s longstanding love of games in various forms, digital or not: professional sports, gambling, college football, and the amateur pickup basketball games being played everywhere across the country.
Games can be engaging to the point of addiction, a fact blindingly obvious to anyone with rudimentary knowledge of “problem gamblers” the world over. Like the repetitive stories of drug addicts, all gamblers tell the same tale, deeply rooted in a universal biological drive. Games belong, unlike farming or quilting or organic chemistry, in a special class of behavior that includes opiate ingestion, binge-drinking alcohol, and frequent, random, and often dangerous sex. These activates have a repetitive pull sufficiently strong to create overwhelming addiction and objectively and subjectively ruin lives. Legal regulations and cultural norms typically constrain addictive substances and behaviors; everyone would think it not only obscene but unethical to give a child chewing tobacco before school, allowing them to “dip” on the bus and face first-grade mathematics with a keener mind. Yet parents routinely purchase games for their children with little thought of possible long-term consequences—there is no other addictive behavior whose dangers have been so blandly overlooked.
America overreacted to marijuana, giving us the “War on Drugs,” yet we allow adults to vote and serve in the army before legally drinking a beer. There are few regulations concerning non-gambling games, which make up the vast majority of the overall gaming economy. Fussy legal definitions regarding what does and does not constitute gambling elide the fact that a slot machine dispensing virtual tokens for virtual games still returns a reward. The draw of the game, and the lure of gambling, does not depend upon cash changing hands. We recognize this with other addictive behaviors—trading a chunk of steak for a bottle of wine does not constrain the addictive allure of alcohol, nor is it considered a legal exchange for underage drinkers. It’s not the money changing hands that’s the problem, it’s the effect of the exchange.
Modern video games have slipped through our legal and cultural filters.