The joy of grinding, or, Why young men would rather play video games than get a job

Danny Izquierdo playing a video game in front of a TV

This is Danny Izquierdo, “a 22-year-old who lives with his parents in Silver Spring, Md.”, as the Chicago Tribune reports (their photo, too). Izquierdo, the Tribune writes, is part of a trend: Young men who are opting out of the job market because it’s more emotionally fulfilling to play video games. It’s not that they couldn’t find a job. It’s that they don’t want to. Games are a better mode of living.

Can this trend possibly be true?

University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst says so. He’s been studying the workplace fates of young men who haven’t completed a four-year degree. In the 2000s, their employment rates took a nosedive. What were they doing with all those newly free hours? They weren’t going to back to school. Mostly, all the hours they used to work are now leisure — and fully 75% of that leisure is one activity:

Playing video games.

It’s practically a full-time job for them. And they’re pretty happy about it! As Hurst puts it:

The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12, and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week. This change marks a relatively major shift that makes me question its effect on their attachment to the labor market.

To answer that question, I researched what fraction of these unemployed gamers from 2000 were also idle the previous year. A staggering 22% – almost one quarter – of unemployed young men did not work the previous year either. These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they are quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, like they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games.

So, why exactly would games be more appealing than a job? In one way, the answer is screamingly obvious: A game is designed to be fun, to immerse you in teasingly intriguing goals, and there are few real-world consequences if you screw it up. Of course it’s more pleasant than the sorts of crappy service-sector jobs guys like Izquierdo have been getting.

Ah, but it’s worth looking a little more closely at a point that Izquierdo himself makes in the Chicago Tribune piece. He mentions playing Pokemon Go, Fifa 16 and Rocket League, and then adds:

“When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded,” he said. “With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.”

Ah, now this, I find fascinating. And familiar!

He’s talking about the joy of grinding.

Back in 2008 for Wired, I wrote about this phenomenon. In many modern video games, there’s a mechanic of “leveling up”. You begin the game playing a character that’s relatively weak, but after you complete a few simple quests or tasks or nail a few early victories, you get more powerful: You go from level one to level two. And at level two, hey — suddenly you’re noticeably a bit more powerful! All that work was worth it! So, duly encouraged, you set about playing some more, because you know that pretty soon you’ll hit level three, and sure enough: Boom, another level up, and you’re more powerful yet.

People will spend hours and days and weeks doing this, going around and tackling every tiny sidequest in a game just so they can get a teensy bit closer to the next level. It can get kind of monotonous; that’s why it’s called “grinding”. But the reward — that jolt of satisfaction when your character erupts in a halo and emerges more powerful yet — is so catalytic, you can’t stop.

That’s the joy of grinding. And as I argued in Wired, grinding is in a certain sense the American Dream. If I just do the work, dutifully and over and over again, I’ll be rewarded. 

As I wrote back then, while talking specifically about playing World of Warcraft (WoW) …

… there’s something enormously comforting about grinding. It offers a completely straightforward relationship between work and reward. When you log into WoW, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you just plant your ass in that chair for long enough, you’ll level up. It doesn’t require skill. It just requires putting in the time. Play 10 hours, you’ll do better; play 50, you’ll do better yet; and yet more so with 500 hours.

The thing is, almost no arenas of human endeavor work like this. Many are precisely the opposite, in fact. When you go to your job at the office, there’s little or no linkage between effort and achievement: You slave like a madman all year long, only to watch the glad-handing frat guy hired two months ago get promoted above you. And if you’re a really serious nerd, the logic that governs interpersonal relationships — marriage, kids, your parents — is even more abstruse: Things can actually get worse the more time and effort you put into them.

But grinding? Grinding always works. Always. You get a gold star just for showing up. This is a quietly joyful experience. It feeds our souls, as well as our sense of justice and fair play. We grind because we can’t believe what a totally awesome deal we’re getting handed here, often the first time in our entire suck-ass put-upon lives.

So maybe it’s not just that these men are avoiding work because they’re lazy or immature or short-sighted (though these things may certainly also be true). Maybe it’s partly also that they’re craving work that feels like it’s progressing somewhere — that isn’t just punching the same entropic card every day. Which is what too many of those go-nowhere service jobs are like, frankly; they’re dispiriting even to someone who approaches them with the chirpiness of a Dale Carnegie. If the economy offered better jobs, maybe the competition from games wouldn’t be quite so stiff.

Mind you, another factor here is that today’s games are fine-tuned to provoke compulsive, nonstop playing. Young guys get sucked into playing all day long because — well, that’s sort of what the games are intended to do. It’s in the design spec, a feature and not a bug. I can attest to this compulsive power, because as a lifelong gamer, I wrestle with it all the time!

In fact, I’m currently getting sucked into Trove, a new game that’s a mashup of Minecraft and World of Warcraft. Oooo, it’s grindalicious. I spent three hours grinding last night, and plan to do the same long march tonight. And frankly, these binges of play inevitably interfere with my actual work. Unlike the twentysomethings in that Chicago Times, I actually enjoy my job as a journalist; even so, games are an amazing mental respite, because they’re a relief from the sheer complexity of reporting. When I’m working on a book, the way forward is often foggy; I often struggle with the question of, what should I be doing today? Next hour? Right now?

In contrast, grinding gives you a neat list of tasks to check off. Put your butt in the chair, play for an hour, and you’ll level up. Working on my book is confusing, a tramp through a fen. Trove gives me goals that are militarily clear.

I can't stop playing Trove, help

I can’t stop playing Trove, help

This siren call of games has become a subject of regular conversation between me and my kids, as I try to impart what I’ve learned about the need for moderation. I tell them, more or less, that a lifetime of gaming has taught me that a) video games are a total joy and proof the universe wants us to be happy, but b) their talons wrap tightly around your immortal soul and do not easily let go. It is the samurai work of a lifetime to keep games in harmony with a balanced life. I’ve done it (I hope!) But whoa, it takes self-awareness.

But, back to the young male gamers who are avoiding the workplace. In the short run, they’re happy. But they’re almost certain to develop massive problems down the road, as Hurst points out: “The obvious problem with this lifestyle occurs as they age and haven’t accumulated any skills or experience.”

One more thought about games as a radical alternative to daily life: This reminds me of a passage from Jane McGonigal’s terrific book Reality is Broken. Early on she quotes Herodotus’ tale of an ancient king who used games to conquer the pain of hard times:

When Atys was king of Lydia in Asia Minor some three thousand years ago, a great scarcity threatened his realm. For a while people accepted their lot without complaining, in the hope that times of plenty would return. But when things failed to get better, the Lydians devised a strange remedy for their problem, The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food … and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years, and along the way they invented the dice, knuckle-bones, the ball, and all the games which are common.

(Thanks to Morgan for pointing out the Chicago Tribune story to me!)

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5 thoughts on “The joy of grinding, or, Why young men would rather play video games than get a job

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    1. Clive Post author

      Yes, I think “gamification” of work has been a big bust — mostly because it’s (most often) an attempt to take a truly awful job and make it more tolerable by adding game-like elements. I think the adding of game-like mechanics to non-game activities has worked better in areas that aren’t imposed on, as with employment, from the top down: i.e. game-like competition elements in step-tracking tools, weight-watching, exercise, reading, etc. That stuff works a lot better than gamified work!

      Thanks for the pointer to that Medium essay! It’s fascinating, and I particularly appreciated its shout-out to the book “God in the Machine: Videogames as Spiritual Pursuit”, which somehow I’d never heard before even though it sounds utterly up my alley!

      Reply
      1. John Ascot

        Yes exactly – call centre work can’t be made more palatable that way. I do agree that apps/life trackers have been much better at using game dynamics. And glad you enjoyed the essay – speculative but interesting.

        Reply

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