As the New Year rolls in, Americans could be worrying about the fiscal cliff and its impact on financial markets around the world. We could also be worrying about the impending debt ceiling and its impact on the ability of the U.S. government to continue day-to-day operations. We could be worrying about whether the U.S. economy will slide back into recession, as an embattled middle class realizes that no matter how much better things get, they still have a long way to go to get back to the status quo ante of the 1990s, to pick a time period that may someday be compared to the Gay Nineties of a century earlier.
We could be worrying about a lot of things, but instead, we’re too busy playing games on our Wii Us, our Xboxes, our Nintendos, our Kindles and Nooks, and especially, on our iPads. We’ve engrossed ourselves in Angry Birds and Super Mario Brothers, Kid Icarus and Disney Hearts, and Just Dance 4. And let’s never forget Assassin’s Creed. In the U.S., where the problems just never seem to stop, game hardware and software are selling at about a $10 billion a year clip. That’s down from $12 billion in annual sales at the height of the recession two years ago, but that’s only because the current crop of gamers are transitioning out of games and into the real world. The next generation of games, consoles and handhelds are only just emerging, and the population they will serve – young men between the ages of about 10 and 25 – is a shrinking cohort.
Not to worry, when our young swains outgrow their video games, there’s a whole new world waiting to engage them. Not the plight of poverty or climate change, but fantasy sports. Fantasy baseball, football, basketball and hockey are already multibillion dollar a year industries that are growing at a better than 8% annual clip, according to Forbes magazine. One study puts their economic impact at $3- 4 billion annually. We suspect that doesn’t include time lost at work and computer time that could be spent crunching numbers or analyzing the world’s dilemmas. And just so you don’t think that fantasy sports is the province of a bunch of unemployed nerds, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association – yes, there really is such an organization – reports that its members average $94,000 a year in income.
Add to this the billions being spent at casinos and the billions more being spent on traditional entertainment – movies, television, theater and cultural events – and a picture emerges that is both interesting and disturbing at the same time. America and parts of the rest of the world have entered what might be called a “post post-industrial economy” based entirely on play and diversion. It’s a world of perpetual youth, and if you begin to age out, there’s always plastic surgery to at least make you look like you’re still part of the youth-at-play movement. Last year, Americans spent $13 billion on tummy tucks, eyelid lifts, breast and butt augmentations and liposuction – lots of liposuction.
It all gives new meaning to the “gross” in gross national product. There’s a world of woe out there, at home and abroad, and between the destruction brought on by the weather and the calamity brought on by poor economic policy and narrow- minded political decision making, it’s little wonder that Americans more than any other people have retreated into worlds of fantasy. Whether it’s people who play video games or Tea Partyers who live out the fantasy of a post-World War II U.S. that never really existed, Americans have grown increasingly unwilling or unable to face the harsh realities of the real world. As the girls’ chorus in the musical Grease sang, “This is the life of illusion wrapped up in trouble, laced with confusion. What are we doing here?”
Some would argue that all of this fantasy and augmented reality is just part of a trend that has been in the making for generations. As the pace of technology has quickened and as daily life becomes ever more convenient, a new kind of work has had to emerge to fill our increasing leisure time. That’s the market economy explanation. But remember, when Europeans first encountered the natives of North America, who were mainly hunter-gatherers, the Europeans described them as lazy, and as they witnessed their religious ceremonies, as out of touch with the real world. Will that be the way that hard-working Asians see us, and will they act toward us the way we did toward their dissolving societies in the early 1800s? Are their video games our opium? Only time will tell.