As young men work less, are video games to blame?

Whether you love them or hate them, video games are without doubt one of the most popular forms of modern entertainment. But have they become so popular that they're interfering with how Americans -- and especially young American men -- work?

Once a niche, video games reached $21 billion in U.S. revenue last year, surpassing music sales and rivaling the radio industry in size, according to a June report from PwC. Demographically, gamers tend to be young men, a group that has recently suffered in the labor market from declining work hours and stagnant wages. 

That spurred a group of economists to take up their own quest: trying to get to the bottom of whether more sophisticated games and faster, cheaper technology are playing a role in how young men work.

Is leveling up in a computer game becoming more important for some young men than getting a promotion at work? Or are young men playing more computer games because leveling up at work isn't an option? 

"When we look in the data, you see for young men this huge shift in time spent toward computer activities," which is primarily due to computer games, said Erik Hurst, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and one of the authors of the paper, published at the National Bureau of Economic Research. "Time changes are usually more gradual, and the heart of the paper is trying to disentangle why this change occurred."

Men between 21 to 30 years old, for instance, played two hours of video games per week on average between 2004 and 2007. But only a few years later, men in the same age group were spending 3.4 hours per week on video games, according to data from the American Time Use Survey. That survey asks Americans to break down how they spend their day on everything from sleeping to emailing.

When Americans change their behaviors, it's usually measured in minutes, not hours, so the spike in video-game playing among young men was "striking," Hurst said. 

Young men are working less, a shift that predated the Great Recession but snowballed with the economic downturn. Men between 21 and 30 years old saw their working hours decline by 12 percent annually from 2000 to 2015, compared with an 8 percent decline for older men. 

That raised the question of whether young men are spending more time on computer games because they have more leisure time, or because their taste for video games has changed due to other activities becoming less appealing in comparison. The researchers' calculations found that even though young men have more leisure time, their computer hours increased much more sharply. 

"That tells me there has been a shift in young men's taste for video games over this period," said Hurst, who wrote the paper with fellow researchers Mark Aguiar, Mark Bils and Kerwin Kofi Charles. Advances have made gaming "much more enjoyable" than in previous decades, he said, especially with the advent of social gaming, such as playing massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. 

Even though gamers are often portrayed as lonely losers, that appears as outdated as a Pac-Man arcade game. Young men's satisfaction has been rising, even though they're more likely to live with their parents and suffer from wage stagnation than in previous eras. 

Several innovations have occurred since 2000, including the rise of social media and social video gaming, that have made unemployment not as solitary as it once was for men. 

"When you weren't working in the 1980s, it had to be a very lonely experience," Hurst said. "But now if you aren't working, you can interact with people online, some people you know and some people you don't know."

Video games are playing a part in the decline in work hours for young men, but it's relatively small, Hurst said. Wage growth -- or the lack of it -- may be the bigger culprit, especially for less-educated men who don't have as many professional opportunities as in earlier generations. 

"There has been a big decline in labor demand during this time period, especially in declining manufacturing sectors in the Midwest," he noted. "Wages have fallen for this group, and that might be the bulk of the story."

At the same time, video games offer an incredibly cheap form of entertainment and social connection. A game might cost from $10 to $60 and offer hundreds if not thousands of hours of playing time, which represents a much cheaper form of leisure than going out to a bar or to the movies. 

Longer term, plenty of questions remain about how young men who spend their hours gaming might fare in the labor market or whether they'll be able to save for retirement. On the other hand, if the job market improves and wages increase, young men might shift their preference to working more hours. 

"We feel like there's a need to pass judgement," Hurst noted. "I don't think I have a judgement on it. Suppose we go to a world where you can make yourself happy with very little cost. Is that a bad thing? I don't know."