Trig­ger Happy

Steven Poole ex­am­ines the cul­tural dis­si­dence of the job­less gamer


From Al­dous Hux­ley’s Brave New World to Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days and be­yond, sci­ence fic­tion has long warned about the dan­ger­ously se­duc­tive na­ture of vir­tual en­ter­tain­ment. If videogames (de­fined broadly) get too good, more and more peo­ple are go­ing to be se­ri­ously tempted to sit in­doors with a head­set and es­cape into clean digital fan­tasies while the phys­i­cal world crum­bles around us all.

This now ap­pears to be ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing, at least ac­cord­ing to a new re­port from the Na­tional Bureau of Eco­nomic Re­search in the US. By 2015, men aged be­tween 21 and 30 were work­ing 203 hours per year less than the same age group had done in 2000. Older men were work­ing 40 hours more — or, on av­er­age, a whole ex­tra week per year. The study au­thors, hav­ing con­trolled for nu­mer­ous pos­si­ble fac­tors and em­ployed time-use data, say that a large pro­por­tion of the dif­fer­ence is prob­a­bly due to “in­no­va­tions in gam­ing/recre­ational com­put­ing” dur­ing that pe­riod, which makes play­ing games just more fun and de­sir­able for young men than work­ing longer hours. Most re­mark­ably, some young male videogame afi­ciona­dos are just not even try­ing to get jobs at all.

If this is re­ally what is go­ing on, then the hard­core games-not-jobs crowd are pow­er­ful cul­tural dis­si­dents, whether they in­tend to be or not. Rather than go­ing on marches, they go on vir­tual raids; they stay home and ma­nip­u­late the con­sole con­troller, re­fus­ing to par­tic­i­pate at all in what is known as the ‘labour mar­ket’. They take to an elec­tron­i­cally en­abled ex­treme the joy­ous ni­hilism of Her­man Melville’s heroic clerk Bartleby, whose con­stant re­frain when asked to do things around the of­fice is: “I would pre­fer not to.”

We are, of course, sup­posed to be alarmed at this. The gam­ing Bartle­bys, it is said, are wast­ing for­ma­tive years in which they should be learn­ing mar­ketable skills. If they fi­nally emerge from their vir­tual hol­i­day in their late 20s or 30s, they will find them­selves al­ready un­em­ploy­able, on the post-hu­man scrapheap. But then so will a lot of us any­way, if what we are told about the in­creas­ing au­to­ma­tion of jobs by com­puter al­go­rithms and ro­bots is true.

And not be­ing able to get a job is only a prob­lem if the only way to survive in mod­ern so­ci­ety is to have a job. It’s no­table that the peo­ple who write about the in­her­ent dig­nity and worth of work tend to be peo­ple who en­joy the priv­i­lege of hav­ing very in­ter­est­ing and ful­fill­ing jobs: they are aca­demics, or opinion colum­nists, and so forth. When I re­call my work­ing in su­per­mar­kets, I am not struck by a very pow­er­ful me­mory of the in­her­ent dig­nity and im­por­tance of do­ing so: I just needed the money.

And what if I hadn’t needed it? Mak­ing a comeback among the Sil­i­con Val­ley elite is the idea of just giv­ing ev­ery­one enough money to live on: a Univer­sal Ba­sic In­come. Be­cause, as they say, so many “jobs will be de­stroyed” by tech­nol­ogy — in fact, man­agers and ex­ec­u­tives, not ro­bots, will choose to de­stroy these jobs — it’s only fair to use the pro­duc­tiv­ity gains to give ev­ery­one a free liv­ing wage just for be­ing a cit­i­zen.

Hav­ing re­searched this idea in some de­tail for my most re­cent book, I am a fan of it, es­pe­cially since the main crit­i­cism levied tends to de­pend on a kind of ex­cep­tion­al­ist moral­ism. “Peo­ple would just stay in all day and watch TV,” the crit­ics moan. But when asked if they them­selves would do that, they say of course not: they would pur­sue cre­ative or so­cial in­ter­ests. So why would the great un­washed masses be any dif­fer­ent?

The truth is that in any sys­tem of so­ci­ety, there are al­ways go­ing to be some Bartle­bys, whether they spend their time as monks cut off from the world (which, in­ter­est­ingly, is sup­posed to be vir­tu­ous) or as World Of

War­craft fa­nat­ics. And un­der a Univer­sal Ba­sic In­come, some pro­por­tion of peo­ple prob­a­bly would just stay in all day and play videogames. But what is wrong with that? Stay­ing in all day and play­ing videogames is surely much bet­ter for so­ci­ety as a whole than, say, work­ing fu­ri­ously as a politi­cian to dis­man­tle healthcare, or start wars in far-off lands. That ne­olib­eral ide­o­logues and au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers work very hard is no good ar­gu­ment in favour of what they do.

So if videogames are be­com­ing bet­ter than the real world, how about in­stead of wring­ing our hands about the ev­er­in­creas­ing at­trac­tions of elec­tronic art, we try to im­prove the real world it­self?

Most re­mark­ably, some young male videogame afi­ciona­dos are just not even try­ing to get jobs at all

Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

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