A few days ago, the New York Times published an article titled “Why Some Men Don’t Work: Video Games Have Gotten Really Good.” Posted in the Upshot column, a section of the paper that is highly respected for its statistical analysis and data journalism, the piece highlighted new research that suggested much of the reduction in the work hours of men since the year 2000 was due to an increased amount of time playing video games.
The research had its basic premise in the idea that although all demographic groups saw a reduction in average work hours since the year 2000, younger men saw the greatest reduction of hours work, while they saw the greatest increase in the number of hours playing video games during their leisure time.
The article has several flawed premises, however, with the primary culprit being the fact that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. In the most elementary of statistics courses, students learn that just because two variables are correlated, does not mean that one causes the other. In fact, there’s a whole website highlighting funny correlations that have nothing to do with each other.
In this case, however, leisure time probably is related to the number of hours playing video games. After all, it would make sense that more free time would lead to more gaming time. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that video games cause men to drop out of the workforce. In fact, it could be very much the opposite. It could very well be that because young men have been more commonly underemployed than their older counterparts they have more time for leisure through no fault of their own.
The trends from the labor participation rate are another explanation. Over the last 70 years, labor participation rates for men have been steadily decreasing, while they’ve been increasing steadily for women. This is likely due to new cultural norms and the increasing prevalence of men being the “stay at home” parent. This data point provides yet another example of why men, specifically younger men, might have an increasing amount of leisure time on their hands with which they can play video games.
There’s no definitive proof that any one of these factors could be uniquely responsible for an increase in hours playing video games as opposed to working: however, it is irresponsible and lazy to simply imply that a disproportionate increase in gaming is causing younger men to work fewer hours. With a changing economy, the great recession, globalization, and shifting cultural changes, any number of factors could be playing a role in the number of leisure hours men have. The biggest signal of this is looking at the data for women. Although a majority of gamers are men, a substantial minority, 41% in fact, are women. If such a large percentage of women played video games regularly, then we should have seen similar evidence, albeit on a smaller scale, show up on the data for women as well. Yet, the data shows that women saw a minuscule increase in gaming, indicating that other factors could be responsible for the increase in men.
There are a few other tidbits worth pointing out as well. The article brings up video game addiction, for example. However, though video game addiction may be on the rise, it is not representative of the entire male gaming population. In fact, if just a small percentage of gamers were addicts and dropping work hours as a result, the large number of hours an addict plays could be skewing the data. Essentially, 1% of the population could be playing 70 more hours than everyone else each week, and that would move the data enough to make it seem like all men were playing more games.
To its credit, the article brought up another counterpoint: other countries. Despite the increasing popularity of gaming in countries other than the US, similar labor statistics have not been seen. In Japan, a country where gaming has an even larger prevalence than in the US, the labor participation rate for young men has been unchanged.
The New York Times wrote an article that was both irresponsible and leading. Though the writer did attempt to provide a few counterpoints in the piece, the article’s headline was the primary culprit: one which was dishonest and not fully representative of the data we have available. If there’s anything to get out of the article it’s this: Correlation does not mean causation. Relationships can exist, but when there are so many other possible factors that could be influencing the outcome, such as the macroeconomic global economy, it is far less likely that video games are the reason men are working fewer hours.