Will “Red Dead Redemption 2” lead young men to work less?

Beats the office.
Beats the office.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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Red Dead Redemption 2 is a blockbuster. With international sales of $725 million, the video game had the biggest opening weekend in history. It has received stellar reviews, with the New York Times calling it “true art.” The game, which takes place on the US frontier at the end of the 19th century, may resurrect the Western in American popular culture.

The game is so good, in fact, that people may choose to play it instead of getting a job.

Young men work less than they used to. In 1997, about 93% of all 25-34 year old men were either employed or looking for a job. In 2017, it was about 89%. For women of the same age, the share in the labor force hardly changed over the same period. What’s more, men who work are doing fewer hours than they used to.

There are a variety of explanations for the decline. Two common ones are that there are fewer appealing jobs for low-skilled workers due to automation, and that the opioid epidemic is pushing people out of work. More surprisingly, some economists suggest that high-quality video games are partly to blame.

In June last year, economists from the University of Chicago, Princeton, and the University of Rochester, published a paper showing a steep rise in the hours young men spent playing video games, from an average of two hours per week in 2004-07 to 3.4 hours 2012-15—a rise far greater than any other group. The economists argue that a shift towards leisure time spent on video games, rather than watching TV or hanging out with friends, is a sign that the quality of video games is improving.

The researchers go on to use a statistical model to claim that better games have made work less appealing for the young men drawn to them. In other words, the pleasure derived from an extra hour playing Red Dead Redemption 2 is greater than the income earned from an hour at work (provided you aren’t starving), and one can spend hundreds of hours playing Red Dead Redemption 2. Overall, the economists find that around 25-50% of the decline in working among young men in the 2000s can be attributed to gaming.

Yet, as my colleague Tim Fernholz points out, not everyone is buying this hypothesis. Former US Treasury Department economist Ernie Tedeschi says that the share of young men in the workforce is better explained by simple factors like the state of the job market and education levels of people looking for jobs. Economist Gray Kimbrough agrees. He argues that if you look at demographically similar men and women, there isn’t much difference in their likelihood of being in the workforce, or much difference in their use of electronics. It’s just that women spend more of their leisure time on things like checking social media and watching TV than video games.

Still, it seems plausible that increasingly immersive video games are having an effect, and games like Red Dead Redemption 2 are amplifying that effect. The question is the magnitude of the effect. So far, it seems quite small, although more engrossing games could change that. Some day, playing video games for as long as possible could be so appealing that people—or, more likely, young men—aim to earn just enough to fund this hobby.