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.stevenpoole.net