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Wii’s Company

According to a recent prize-winning study published in Berkeley’s Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, when a college student brings a video game to school, it has a negative effect on even his roommate’s GPA. If the two roomies bring video games, their grades plunge further still, suggesting that the mind rotting effects are cumulative.

The paper’s subjects attended Berea College. The Kentucky school, as opposed to pretty much every other college in America, pairs roommates on a completely random basis, making rotten apples-to-apples comparisons simple.

Researchers did more than simply compare GPAs to roommates’ video-game collections. They also collected precise data on gaming and study habits to add context. Students whose roommates had games reported playing over four hours a week, as opposed to other students, who came in at under one hour. Gamer-paired students reported studying about a half-hour a week less.

It turns out that video game play, and its attendant neglect of academic work, is contagious.

Of course, there are nits to pick. The study only included first-semester freshmen, who are probably less able to resist temptation than their older peers. And Berea College targets its enrollment toward low-income students. They might differ from other students in important ways.

But on the whole, the study probably has it right. I myself managed to shake a video-game addiction by high school (in elementary and middle school, my parents had to enforce a four-hour-a-week limit), only to have some college roommates get me hooked again.

I can’t say for sure whether my grades suffered somewhat, but it wouldn’t shock me.

WHICH BRINGS US to the vexing question of what to do about all this. On the Irascible Professor blog, Franklin and Marshall College professor emeritus Sanford Pinsker noted that one of his colleagues thought this research a clear call to action.

Pinsker disagreed, arguing colleges should do nothing. In his view, students need to take responsibility for their own habits, and schools should let kids make mistakes and learn from them.

His analysis is substantially correct, but it’s important to look at the matter in some other ways.

For starters, take a public choice economist’s position for a moment. Let’s assume two things that are probably true. One, freshmen are capable of deciding what they value and how much. Two, they have sufficiently long time horizons — after all, they’re embarking upon a four-year investment in education — that, by and large, they won’t throw their futures away for immediate gratification.

If these assumptions are true, we can conclude that students value four hours of gaming per week more than they value the half-hour a week of studying and .241 grade points they lose when their roommate shows up with a PlayStation 3.

And why not? In our current higher-education-to-employment pipeline, the crucial facts are whether one has a BA, what subject it’s in, and what college it’s from. Unless a student plans on pursuing graduate school, it doesn’t really matter where he falls on the famous four-point scale. If it’s too embarrassing, he can even leave it off his resume.

One can make a terrific case for changing this system (indeed, Charles Murray has made such a case). In the meantime, since game-owning roommates are providing a higher-valued choice, we ought to encourage Xboxes in dorms.

The average student in this scenario spends four hours weekly voting with his thumbs that he’s better off for it.

BUT ENOUGH WITH the everything-bad-is-good-for-you-if-you-say-it-is view. Let’s take a more mature second look.

In reality, the situation is kind of unfair. Even if students who give in to gaming temptations deserve lower grades, and might even learn from them, that doesn’t change the fact that some students weren’t tempted at all.

The room assignments were random, so by sheer luck, some kids ended up in situations where they got lower grades. Who your roommate is matters.

It would be absurd, as Pinsker says, to undertake some sort of “roommate justice” initiative in which colleges regulate the forms of entertainment in which students may partake. But this research shows without much doubt that Berea’s random-assignment system is unwise, and that colleges everywhere should take care in constructing the surveys that match students to roommates.

On the second point, schools that do use surveys can learn something here. These questionnaires (you can read some by Googling “roommate survey,” though you might want to be sure that “safe search” is on) typically do a good job of matching habits — they almost always ask about sleep schedules, the sharing of belongings, cleanliness, etc.

Some even ask about drinking and sexual behavior, albeit with varying degrees of frankness. At Arizona State a student can give the go-ahead for a roommate to get it on “anywhere in the room.” At Indiana University-Bloomington it’s filed under the more decent euphemism “private time.”

But all colleges should ask. Even if it makes parents and administrators uncomfortable, it’s worthwhile to avoid a situation where both roommates like going to bed by midnight, but only one prefers to be alone and non-vocal.

Few surveys, however, ask many questions about media consumption. They may ask whether one prefers to study with a TV on, but even those who answer “no” might want the tube going often enough that it disrupts a roommate.

Why not ask whether a student will bring a TV and/or video games, how often he plans to enjoy them, and whether he’d prefer a roommate without them? Students who better resist temptation at a distance could opt out of potentially GPA-hurting situations. For students who choose not to, well, it’s their own damn fault.

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