The British Army has commissioned research that suggests that 18-35 year olds, or to use the more charged term ‘young people’, are wasting their time on video games and social media.
The would-be reservists are apparently wittering away an average of three and a half hours a day on Call Of Duty and Snapchat. This is suggested to be one of the core reasons why the Army is so short of its 30,000 trained reservists by 2019.
It’s telling to see games and social media lumped together as a single activity rather than two almost entirely separate cultural pastimes. Yes, games do incorporate a social element - friends can chat together as they play. Social networks are also becoming more ‘gamey’, with the number of friends or followers you have morphing into real-life ‘social high-scores’.
Yet I doubt the analysis is that nuanced. What the research is really trying to argue against is the perceived escapism young people find in games and on social media. It's a complaint against a particular type of escapism that is culturally irrelevant to the recruiters who commissioned the study.
Is spending time on social media really a waste of time?
Escapism plays a sizeable part in the motivation to play or connect to friends online. Yet there are far more desires games and social media effectively satisfy. Social media provides social interaction, it’s a tool for communicating with strangers and friends alike. It allows users access to a limitless number of publishers and offers them expression through sharing and creating with a community.
The comradeship found on sites like Tumblr or Buzzfeed, where young people consume and share culture through everything from fashion choices or food-selfies to remixes of the latest cat meme, is substantial if however a little confusing for those not directly involved. These sites present just a small chunk of young people’s complex social lives. Indeed, to consider social media sites as anything but a near-essential aspect of everyone’s modern lives is frankly embarrassingly naive.
Games, on the other hand, meaningfully fulfil desires we all have. In the landmark paper Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics, researchers lay out what makes people want to play. They identify eight key reasons for gaming. Games satisfy sensory desires, our longing for fantasy and narrative. The desire for challenge, fellowship, discovery, expression and finally abnegation or escapism. These are deeply human and valuable reasons for playing. Why does it matter that they’re satisfied virtually?
Maybe the medium is the message. It would take around 60 hours to binge watch Breaking Bad or The Wire. Is reading Harry Potter or Game of Thrones for a couple of hours a night a waste of time? How about my hourly cycle every day? Unless you appeal to a Gradgrindian-like utilitarianism, where all leisure is a waste of time, this is just simply a case of one generation not standing another. It’s blue jeans and swinging Elvis hips all over again.
The irony is that if recruiters could use the cultural language and tools of the young they could appeal to a sizable chunk of the generation. Life as a reservist can tap into nearly all the core reasons people play games or surf the web, particularly the desires for kinship, challenge, discovery and expression.
Even more damning is the fact that social media sites and video games are doing a much better job at appealing to people of all races, genders and sexualities while recruiters struggle to appeal to minorities. Furthermore it’s rather strange to see social media being dismissed when all the forces have a very strong social media presence and the Army itself even has a recently-announced social media unit.
By attempting to understand the importance of games and social media to young people recruiters will find hardworking, dedicated future leaders. Young people don’t need to be made greater through ‘A better you’. They need to be spoken to as the accomplished, rounded individuals their hobbies and social lives already show them to be.